A Florida hearing on state rules around health care for trans people provides a troubling suggestion of how Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration has weaponized anti-trans sentiment on social media to warp scientific evidence in favor of right-wing policy goals. His administration has created a dangerous feedback loop that generates further anti-trans news segments in the right-wing media and lends the state’s official imprimatur to dangerous disinformation about LGBTQ people. In failing to cover DeSantis' perversion of the policymaking process, the mainstream media are missing a chance to accurately convey his extreme agenda to the public.
The July 8 hearing on a proposed rule change that would prevent the state’s Medicaid program from covering best-practice health care for trans people received little coverage from mainstream news outlets, but the right-wing media has seized on the testimony of some of the detransitioned people who spoke there, using their stories to attack health care for all trans people. Detransition is a relatively rare phenomenon — recent studies show that while 13% of trans people detransition at some point, more than 80% of those cite external factors like “pressure from family, non-affirming school environments, and increased vulnerability to violence.” One analysis from the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law suggests that 9,000 trans Floridians depend on the state’s Medicaid program for medical care. But right-wing media coverage of the hearing sensationalized the experience of detransitioners to attack health care for all trans people:
The hearing — featuring detransitioners from California, the United Kingdom, Poland, and at least one parent who traveled from Texas — was rife with disinformation about trans people and attempts to shout down testimony from pro-LGBTQ figures with the false “groomer” slur that currently abounds on social media. Some speakers even promoted the hoax that trans acceptance opens the door for young people to identify as “a furry animal.”
The state halted public testimony after a University of Florida endocrinologist spoke against the rule change in order to allow panel member Quentin Van Meter of the American College of Pediatrics to provide a rebuttal — treatment it did not give to anti-trans misinformation from speakers in favor of the rule. The American College of Pediatrics is an extreme anti-LGBTQ splinter group that supports conversion therapy for queer youth and opposes adoption by adult gay or lesbian couples.
No rebuttal was provided by state experts to testimony from Jeanette Cooper of the anti-trans group Partners for Ethical Care, who previously compared gender-affirming care to the Holocaust during a similar hearing in Ohio, arguing that providing hormone therapy is like “walking the child … to the gas chamber.” At the Florida hearing, Cooper called the affirmation model of gender-affirming care “a poisoned bandage” and compared hormone therapy to “a street drug that needs to be injected every day.” Partners for Ethical Care appears to be working with at least one of the detransitioners who traveled across the country to testify in favor of proposals to restrict trans health care.
The proposed rule change — which would make Florida the 11th state to end Medicaid coverage for gender-affirming health care — was based on June 2 report that, according to a team of legal and medical experts, “reflects a faulty understanding of statistics, medical regulation, and scientific research. The report ignores solid scientific evidence and instead repeats discredited claims, cites to sources with no scientific merit, and engages in unfounded speculation based on stereotypes rather than science.” If Florida’s standard were applied to all medical treatments, the experts found, “it would have to deny coverage for widely-used medications like statins (cardioprotective cholesterol-lowering drugs taken by millions of older Americans) and common medical procedures like mammograms and routine surgeries.”
Despite expert consensus, state officials including Florida Department of Health press secretary Jeremy Redfern and DeSantis press secretary Christina Pushaw aggressively used Twitter to promote testimony in favor of the rule change. They spread misinformation about the benefits and risk of gender-affirming health care, attacked reporters, and slandered Florida Democrats with the baseless claim that they support “sterilizing children.” Florida Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo shared multiple videos defending the proposed rule change, stating, “Florida doesn’t support the medicalization of minors with GD because the benefits are unproven, and the risks are extraordinarily high.”
In reality, gender-affirming care for trans people is widely regarded as safe and effective, with low regret rates and a positive impact on mental health. Although Twitter has a policy against promoting medical misinformation related to COVID-19 — a policy that Ladapo is no doubt familiar with given his history of promoting COVID vaccine misinformation — it lacks a broader policy for other health misinformation.
Pushaw tweeted or retweeted over a dozen pieces of content in favor of the rule change from the hearing, including falsely stating that there are no standards of health care for trans patients, sharing a tweet from Partners for Ethical Care claiming that “the ‘affirmation only’ model of addressing distress significantly harms children and adults,” and retweeting the claim that there are “over 30k detransitioners” (there are over 100,000 trans adults in Florida alone). The claim originated with a Twitter user who also promoted the work of Jennifer Bilek, an anti-trans extremist who promotes an antisemitic conspiracy theory that Jewish billionaires and the pharmaceutical industry are attempting to turn people trans.
DeSantis is in the midst of a heated reelection campaign as Florida governor, and there's media chatter about his ambitions to run for president in 2024. If that turns out to be true, DeSantis' current focus on building support by attacking the LGBTQ community and their supporters provides a troubling preview of how he might govern as president. But so far, mainstream media has engaged in lengthy navel-gazing about trans people while largely ignoring the actual policy context that is hurting trans people across the country. By doing this, they've allowed DeSantis and the staffers in his orbit to generate and benefit from a dangerous “Rainbow Scare” that is spreading nationwide with the help of a wave of anti-trans coverage in the right-wing media.
DeSantis has recently progressed from banning transgender athletes from competing with other people of their gender, to banning classroom instruction on LGBTQ people, to a proposal that would ban all transgender adults in the state from receiving even routine gender-affirming care through Medicaid. The media must take note of this extreme threat to the LGBTQ community before it’s too late.