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Critics slam DeSantis campaign for sharing an anti-Trump ad targeting LGBTQ rights

Republican presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a Moms for Liberty summit in Philadelphia on Friday.
Michael M. Santiago
/
Getty Images
Republican presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a Moms for Liberty summit in Philadelphia on Friday.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is facing criticism from within and beyond his party after his presidential campaign shared a video touting his record of opposing LGBTQ rights and attacking former President Donald Trump for his past support.

The more than a minute-long video was made by the Twitter account Proud Elephant and shared by the DeSantis War Room — his campaign's "rapid response" account — on Friday, the last day of June.

"To wrap up 'Pride Month,' let's hear from the politician who did more than any other Republican to celebrate it," the War Room account wrote.

The video opens with a clip of then-candidate Trump pledging to "do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens" in a speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention, just weeks after a gunman killed 49 people at a gay club in Orlando.

That's followed by several interview snippets in which Trump says he would let Caitlyn Jenner use a bathroom of her choice at Trump Tower and that he would allow transgender women to compete in Miss Universe (which he co-owned until 2015).

Meanwhile, upbeat music plays in the background as pictures of — among others — Trump holding a rainbow flag, his campaign website's "LGBTQ for Trump" T-shirts and his 2019 tweet celebrating Pride Month float across the screen. A drag queen called "Lady MAGA" appears on screen, saying "make America great again."

Then the tone of the video changes dramatically. There's a photo of DeSantis, edited to show lasers shooting out of his eyes, accompanied by the word "no." The music shifts to a thumping bass beat as a montage of headlines, memes and movie snippets begins.

It features headlines about DeSantis' policies, like "DeSantis Signs 'Most Extreme Slate of Anti-Trans Laws in Modern History'" and "Pride event in St. Cloud canceled after DeSantis signs 'Protection of Children Act' into law."

There are brief clips of Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman in "American Psycho," Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in "Wolf of Wall Street" and Brad Pitt as Achilles in "Troy." There are flashes of bodybuilders and the chiseled figure known online as "Gigachad," interspersed with clips of DeSantis walking purposefully, signing legislation and riding in a helicopter.

That's overlaid with tape from commentators and newscasters slamming the governor's actions, including describing them as "some of the harshest, most draconian laws that literally threaten trans existence."

The video has been viewed more than 22 million times as of Monday morning, according to Twitter.

And it has sparked plenty of backlash, including from DeSantis' Republican challengers, LGBTQ politicians on both sides of the aisle and the nation's largest conservative LGBTQ group.

NPR has reached out to DeSantis' team for comment.

What critics are saying

The Log Cabin Republicans, an organization that advocates for LGBTQ conservatives, said in a Twitter thread that DeSantis' rhetoric had "ventured into homophobic territory," calling it "divisive and desperate."

Charles Moran, the group's president, told Morning Edition on Monday that the ad does not have a clear point or purpose.

"You've got some strange imagery of Ron DeSantis being between two oiled-up, hunky type of men," he said. "I mean, the ad smacked of both homophobia and homoeroticism at the same time."

Moran said that the Republican Party has "already basically agreed upon" advocating for equal rights for LGBTQ individuals, pointing to polls that show widespread support for marriage equality.

A May Gallup poll shows that the percentage of Republicans approving of same-sex relationships dipped from 56% last year to 41% this year.

"A misguided attack like this shows that they really don't have a focus and don't have anybody on their team who is truly understanding where the movement is," Moran added. "And that's that style of attack is ... going to backfire and is not helpful for his campaign or the GOP in general."

Former Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a Republican and vocal Trump critic, also questioned the helpfulness of the video, adding that "outrage over outrage is the only way these guys know how to campaign."

Similar criticisms have been echoed by a slew of LGBTQ Republicans, including Jenner, who tweeted that DeSantis had "hit a new low."

"You can't win a general, let alone 2028 by going after people that are integral parts of the conservative movement!" she added.

Richard Grenell, Trump's former acting director of national intelligence — and the first openly gay Cabinet member — called the video "undeniably homophobic."

Christina Pushaw, the rapid response director for DeSantis' campaign, responded in a tweet that opposing the federal recognition of Pride Month is not homophobic.

"We wouldn't support a month to celebrate straight people for sexual orientation, either... It's unnecessary, divisive, pandering," she wrote. "In a country as vast and diverse as the USA, identity politics is poison."

(The Clinton administration first recognized Pride Month in 1999. Trump broke with precedent by not recognizing Pride Month until 2019, the third year of his presidency.)

Criticism also came from within the Biden administration. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg — the first openly gay Cabinet member to be approved by the Senate — alluded to DeSantis "trying to prove his manhood," and asked who he is aiming to help.

"I just don't understand the mentality of somebody who gets up in the morning, thinking that he's gonna prove his worth by competing who can make life hardest for a hard-hit community that is already so vulnerable in America," Buttigieg said on CNN.

What other GOP candidates are saying

Trump's team has slammed the video, with campaign spokesperson Steven Cheung telling CNN it showed "a desperate campaign in its last throes of relevancy."

And several of their GOP primary challengers have spoken out against it, too.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told CNN on Sunday that he is not comfortable with the video, nor with "the way both Gov. DeSantis and Donald Trump are moving our debate in this country."

He called their back-and-forth a "teenage food fight," describing it as inappropriate for leaders and distracting from the bigger issues facing the country.

"It certainly doesn't make me feel inspired as an American, on the Fourth of July weekend, to have this type of back-and-forth going on at all, and it's wrong to be doing it, and it's narrowing our country, and making us smaller," Christie added.

Separately, former Texas Rep. Will Hurd told CNN he doesn't believe LGBTQ rights should be a focus of the campaign.

He pointed to what he considers more pressing issues like the economy, artificial intelligence and international relations.

"I wish they would focus their attacks on war criminals like Vladimir Putin, not my friends in the LGBTQ community," Hurd said. "It is 2023. We should be talking about how do we embrace our differences ... we're better together."

Where Trump and DeSantis stand on LGBTQ rights

While the video paints Trump as a staunch ally of the LGTBQ community, his administration notably took several steps to significantly roll back protections for it.

Among them, it banned transgender service members from the military, walked back Obama-era non-discrimination protections and guidance for schools on transgender students, appointed judges with anti-LGBTQ track records and sought to block questions about sexual orientation from the census.

And it appears Trump would go even further if reelected to a second term.

In a speech on Friday, he said he would sign an executive order to cut federal funding for any school "pushing critical race theory, transgender insanity, and other inappropriate racial, sexual, or political content on our children," according to the Associated Press.

He also vowed to sign an executive order instructing federal agencies "to cease the promotion of sex or gender transition at any age," adding that hospitals and health care providers should lose federal funding if they provide gender-affirming care for minors.

Both Trump and DeSantis have spoken out against transgender women participating in women's sports and described gender-affirming care for minors as "mutilation," NBC News reports.

DeSantis — who said while campaigning for governor in 2018 that "getting into bathroom wars, I don't think that's a good use of our time" — has taken a more hardline stance in recent years, signing a slew of bills that roll back protections for gay and transgender individuals.

Last March he signed a bill that critics have branded "Don't Say Gay," which bans public school teachers from holding classroom instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity.

This spring, Florida enacted what the Human Rights Campaign calls "a record six expressly anti-LGBTQ+ bills into law," more than the last seven years combined.

Among them are bills that ban transition-related care for minors, bar trans people from using the public facilities that align with their gender identities and prohibit schools from requiring students or employees to refer to each other with pronouns that don't align with their assigned sex at birth.

Another bill, aimed at keeping children from attending drag shows, was blocked by a federal judge late last month (just days before the Supreme Court, in an unrelated case, ruled that a web designer was entitled to refuse same-sex wedding work).

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.
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