Florida state Sen. Shevrin Jones broke down in tears Monday as the controversial “don’t say gay” bill was debated on the Senate floor.
Florida’s first out senator, he shared his personal struggles in coming out in 2018 at age 34. He offered an amendment to the legislation, which could prohibit any instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity through third grade and limit talk at all grade levels to be “age-appropriate.”
Jones’s amendment would have limited any attempts to change a student’s gender identity or orientation, something referenced by Gov. Ron DeSantis as he decried teachers, claiming some have said “Don’t pick your gender yet.” The amendment failed on a 22-16 vote, earning just one Republican vote of support.
But what moved Jones more than the legislative process was the flood of students at the Florida Capitol protesting the bill.
“I don't think y'all understand how much courage it takes to show up every day,” Jones said. “Imagine living your life for 30 years and you coming to your parents and you talk about who you are. And you're lying to them about who you are.”
That’s what Jones did most of his adult life, living in an opposite-sex marriage for years as a closeted gay man. He came out publicly only after a divorce and his final House election. But he braced for the issue coming out as he pursued becoming the first LGBTQ+ member of the Florida Senate.
“I don’t think you understand that even re-running for office, it was difficult because people call you names, people saying things to you,” he said. “And all you want to do is serve.
“I never knew that living my truth would cause church members to leave my dad's church or friends to stop talking to me or families to make jokes about who you are.”
Jones completely lost composure for a moment as he discussed his relationship with his father, former West Park Mayor Eric Jones. His father recently published a book about the death of his son Kaneil, Sen. Jones’s brother. The senator plugged his father’s book as inspirational but said as he read he was gobsmacked by another part, where his father vocalized disappointment in learning his son was gay.
“I never wanted to disappoint my dad,” Jones said. “I even told him to watch this today.”
Sen. Aaron Bean, a Republican, later told him his father should be very proud watching. He then joined with most Republicans in voting down the amendment.
Jones stressed the importance of students being able to openly discuss their gender identity and sexuality in safe environments like schools. Jones, a former teacher, stressed that he does not believe teachers even could change a child’s identity or attractions. But he said the amendment would actually direct the bill toward its stated purpose instead of vaguely hanging the threat of litigation over educators.
He also expressed regrets that he couldn’t express his own truth earlier in life — something he doesn’t want to deny the generation of students marching on the capitol.
“Some thoughts ran through my mind after I lost my brother because I never got a chance to tell him,” Jones said.
“Whatever this bill is supposed to do, let that bill do it. Like the Hippocratic Oath says, please do no harm.”
The Senate expects to vote on the legislation on the floor Tuesday. The House already passed the bill.