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DeSantis Revives Vicious Attacks on LGBTQ Families as His Campaign Flounders

Nearly two-thirds of LGBTQ adults now say they face discrimination in their daily lives as anti-LGBTQ violence spikes.

Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis walks across the stage during a commercial break in the NewsNation Republican presidential primary debate at the University of Alabama Moody Music Hall on December 6, 2023, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

In a fundraising email to supporters on Thursday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis bashed President Joe Biden for saluting the gay Pride flag and falsely accused “radical liberal parents” of child abuse in his latest attempt to revive a floundering presidential campaign by trafficking in anti-LGBTQ stigma and conspiracy theories. A donation to his campaign, DeSantis suggested, would help him “save” queer and trans kids from their own families.

The email came after the fourth Republican primary debate on Wednesday, where DeSantis attempted to wield his record of attacking the rights of LGBTQ youth and families in Florida as a weapon against opponents. This prompted whiny-voiced entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy to blurt out an insult against transgender people that is too vile to repeat.

Former President Donald Trump, far and away the frontrunner in the race, once again did not participate. Trump leads DeSantis by an average of nearly 40 points in the polls, and Ramaswamy’s support remains stuck in the single digits.

The latest attacks from Republican attention-seekers come as an alarming new national survey finds that 65 percent of LGBTQ adults reported experiencing discrimination over the past year compared to 40 percent of straight adults of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. In 2021, during the COVID-19 pandemic, one-third of LGBTQ adults reported discrimination that affected their financial well-being.

The past year also saw a spike in extreme and deadly anti-LGBTQ violence emerging from the right. The civil rights group GLAAD reported a 300 percent increase in anti-LGBTQ incidents during Pride month in June, when LGBTQ parades and celebrations were held across the country.

Along with Black, Native American and Alaska Native, Asian and Hispanic adults, LGBTQ adults of all backgrounds disproportionately suffer from health problems stemming from the stress and anxiety caused by public attacks and unfair treatment, according to the Kaiser Health Foundation.

Among LGBTQ youth, the Trevor Project reports that more than 41 percent seriously considered suicide in the past year, and 56 percent of LGBTQ youth who wanted mental health care were unable to access it. Mental health surveys in previous years found similar rates of mental distress, particularly among trans and nonbinary youth.

DeSantis and other state-level Republicans pushed a record-breaking deluge of discriminatory anti-LGBTQ legislation and policies over the past two years. These policies echo anti-queer conspiracy theories and social media trolls who gained hateful followings by attacking the very existence of trans and nonbinary youth while smearing LGBTQ people generally as predators.

DeSantis built his campaign around these so-called culture wars, taking special aim at Disney World, library books with LGBTQ characters, Black history lessons and the basic human rights of young people (and their parents) who seek gender-affirming health services. It’s not working very well if the polls are any evidence, but DeSantis appears to be doubling down as rival Nikki Haley gains momentum.

Like DeSantis’s poll numbers, the voices of “anti-woke” crusaders on the right have been on the wane for months as anti-LGBTQ groups such as Moms for Liberty face protests and deeply embarrassing scandals that suggest intense hypocrisy among the so-called “parents’ rights” activists who allied with DeSantis in Florida and beyond.

According to David Weigel at Semafor, Trump has strategically responded to whatever leverage DeSantis has gained with his hateful campaign by suggesting to supporters — and many of the same voters DeSantis covets — that “woke” is not a real term or issue to begin with. The failure of “anti-woke” messaging to usher in a “red wave” during the 2022 midterms, along with a string of losses in recent school board races, have also dampened enthusiasm.

However, anti-LGBTQ groups and pundits obsessed with attacking drag queen story hours and the small minority of transgender and nonbinary youth prescribed gender-affirming hormone medications have successful curtailed or banned such health services in multiple states and remain powerful players in the GOP coalition.

If and when DeSantis drops out of the race, he must return to Florida to face the LGBTQ voters he attacked and smeared to fuel his presidential run, including the students and parents who organized widespread protests and school walkouts over the past two years. If DeSantis’s campaign is unable to turn things around and pull off major upsets in early primary states, his political fate may prove that attacking queer and trans people was never the shiny propaganda tool he thought it was.

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