As an undercover Colombian anti-drug agent during Pablo Escobar’s reign, Andrea Montanez has learned a thing or two about hiding her identity.
Of course, this was before she identified as trans or transitioned, which wouldn’t occur until after she sought refuge in Florida 24 years ago. You could say she has feared for her life on multiple fronts, but Montanez has never stopped worrying about her queerness putting her in danger.
When asked who is more capable of evil, the most infamous kingpin in history or Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R), she laughs at the loaded question.
“I think Ron Desantis is more diabolic,” she tells LGBTQ Nation. “You know, [Escobar] is directly bad, and the other one, you never know. To confront Escobar, you know what you have to do. But with this one, it’s so hard figuring out.”
In other words, it’s better to deal with the devil you know than the devil you don’t – especially when he is running for president of the United States. Escobar might have murdered in cold blood, but he owned it, even if the logic was drugs, money, or an eye for an eye. On the other hand, Desantis ascended the ranks as a puppet of blind hate, and Florida elected him their puppeteer.
America might’ve been founded as the land of the free, but the individualized governing power of states has created alternate realities for law and justice. LGBTQ+ communities governed by conservative extremists are living in textbook dystopias. Florida is one of them.
After stepping into her true self, Montanez began to help others harness their courage. She lives in Orlando, working at Hope Community Center, where she focuses on helping queer immigrants.
She says her parents are old (“viejitos”) and don’t understand trans identities. But they no longer argue. She has a good relationship with her sister but is estranged from her brother. For this reason, she understands some people have no physical or emotional sense of home. Part of her work is visiting and educating families with queer children.
Montanez fears the state is losing the battle for equality to ignorance. “I don’t know how people can think being transgender is contagious, that we want everyone to be trans,” she says, “This is not a recruitment team! To be trans, you really have to be so special because at this moment, with all this hate, with all these people against you, thinking it’s bad if you go to the bathroom, it’s bad if you play sports.”
And not to mention, doomsday for trans people is always a lousy piece of legislation away. But the worst-case scenario is already here. Nearly half of LGBTQ+ youth seriously considered attempting suicide last year, according to a survey from the Trevor Project.
Angel Nelson helps queer individuals access pivotal resources as program director for Miracle of Love, the oldest community-based minority HIV/AIDS organization in Central Florida. They tell LGBTQ Nation that they’ve recently been urging trans people to prioritize their needs as the political climate rapidly darkens in the Sunshine State.
“[Queer organizations] have been adamant about trying to get trans individuals connected to resources to get hormones, name changes, and gender marker changes just because we’re all gearing up for what could happen in Florida if Rhonda [Desantis] has his way and essentially strips our rights and privileges.”
As a Black nonbinary trans person, Nelson is triggered by Republican persecution. They say people tend to forget Florida’s tumultuous history of racism. Like Montanez, they know what it’s like to be rejected from both sides of your identity because your skin exists at the intersection.
Nelson says the individual experience of discrimination propels communities to advocate solely for their own causes. However, his duality makes them palpably aware you can’t pick and choose when it comes to morality. Regarding activism, the elephant in the voting booths is that some people will hate your identity – whether it be sexuality, ethnicity, or both – no matter how much science or data you show them.
Perhaps that’s what radical conservative leaders are counting on when they take their stances; it’s what empowered a now criminally-convicted Donald Trump to abandon decorum, crown himself king, and incite a deadly Capitol riot.
Nelson tries to decipher between people with hate in their hearts and uneducated folks who are susceptible to manipulation and widespread Internet misinformation. They say they didn’t meet their first trans person until they were 21 years old, which helped them solve the mystery of who they were.
“I grew up in Brevard County, so I was pretty suburban and sheltered. I came out at 15, but I definitely was more than just a gay male. Like, I just didn’t know how I was going to manifest that and express it at the time,” Nelson says.
They emphasize there’s a stereotype society pushes on the nonbinary realm to be this hybrid of masculine and feminine traits. You cannot tell a person how to present themselves or self-identify. Cis-presenting doesn’t negate someone’s identity.
Many of Nelson’s peers have already left or made plans to leave Florida, but the population who doesn’t have that choice keeps them motivated to stay. As a veteran who served in Iraq, they question if the LGBTQ+ community abandons the state, who will fight for those left behind or born tomorrow?
“The people in power have noticed that millennials and Gen Z’s mindsets are changing from the traditional ideology,” says Nelson, “And by banning books and education, and by limiting their access to resources, I feel like they’re trying to lay the blueprint for forcing their hateful ideology.”
Beyond censorship, one can look at the disconnect between the concerns Republican leaders advocate on their platform and the legislation being implemented. Most infamously, their cries of “What about the children?!” materialized as a strategic facade to gain the support to cage LGBTQ+ adults. And like the overturn of Roe vs. Wade, poor communities will suffer the consequences.
Daniel J. Downer, executive director of the Bros in Combo Initiative, tells LGBTQ Nation the most urgent issue in Florida is the extreme legislation banning best practice medical care for transgender or gender non-conforming/nonbinary youth and adults on Medicaid or uninsured.
Although a judge ruled it unconstitutional, Downer says resources in Central Florida, where he is based, have dwindled. Providers are jumping the gun to avoid harassment or repercussion for aiding queer individuals.
“I had a call yesterday from someone at a local college, and they’re trying to get affirmative care. And literally, in our conversation, while doing the research, I realized that three medical providers I had on the list were no longer providing care to uninsured individuals or on Medicaid,” says Downer.
That fear is not unlike why so many gay Black and Latino Floridians, in particular, have refrained from getting their Mpox vaccine. Their culture makes them believe it’s better to endanger their health to protect themselves from stigma.
But Downer says it’s not as easy as education. Organizations need to create awareness while understanding the nuance of identity. They must understand these communities’ limited power and privilege and their hesitancy to engage. He explains there’s always been some form of implicit or conscious bias on the part of medical providers regarding Black and brown bodies.
“[People of color] have to wake up in the morning wondering about their safety,” says Downer, “If when they go outside the door, someone’s going to hurt them and then blame them for it. And I even think of it from the lens of our undocumented and immigrant siblings. Not only are they being hit with these anti-LGBTQ+ attacks, they’re also being hit with anti-immigrant legislation.”
Downer points to his own privilege as a gay cis-male and how that further emboldens him to show up for trans and nonbinary folks.
Allyship cannot be thrown around without merit; solidarity cannot be used interchangeably with merely personally supporting the letters LGBTQ. Both stem from taking action. Downer suggests researching and physically going to local smaller organizations and asking what they need. They don’t receive the financial support or volunteers typically given to the large metropolitan ones.
Montanez adds there have been moments of celebration amid the gloom, which echoes the history of a community that has always reached for a silver lining. Even when their only reason to smile was each other. Hope Community Center just hosted Pride in Apopka, and Montanez took it upon herself to also invite women and immigrants helped by her organization, along with mariachis.
After all, unity among every oppressed person makes the opposing side seem fewer in numbers. Montanez jokes, “If Escobar couldn’t kill me, neither will Ron Desantis.”
If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat at 988lifeline.org. The Trans Lifeline (1-877-565-8860) is staffed by trans people and will not contact law enforcement. The Trevor Project provides a safe, judgement-free place to talk for youth via chat, text (678-678), or phone (1-866-488-7386). Help is available at all three resources in English and Spanish.