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After a lawmaker made an anti-trans statement in committee others warn words are powerful

Demonstrators gather on the steps of the Florida Historic Capitol Museum in front of the Florida State Capitol on Monday, March 7, 2022, in Tallahassee.
Wilfredo Lee / The Associated Press
The Miami Herald
Demonstrators gather on the steps of the Florida Historic Capitol Museum in front of the Florida State Capitol on Monday, March 7, 2022, in Tallahassee.

After Rep. Webster Barnaby (R- Deltona) called transgender and LGBTQ audience members in a House committee “demons and imps,” he’s faced pushback from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who say Barnaby’s religious beliefs don’t reflect their own.

Barnaby called himself a proud conservative Christian when he made his statement. He was addressing a group of transgender and LGBTQ people who were arguing against a bill that puts rules in place about which restroom a person can use. Following Barnaby’s testimony, some lawmakers in the committee pushed back.

“You’re not an evil being," said Rep. Chase Tramont (R-Port Orange) to audience members "I believe that you’re fearfully and wonderfully made, and I want you to live your life well.”

READ MORE: Florida lawmaker likens transgender people to 'mutants'

Tramont is a pastor. Like Barnaby, his response was also rooted in Christianity. Later in the same meeting, Barnaby offered an apology. But the moment raised concerns for Sen. Shevrin Jones (D-Miami Gardens).

“That type of vitriol is coming because that is the type of climate that we are creating in this country," Jones said. "That is the type of climate that we are creating in this state to where we are basically giving people a hall pass."

Jones spoke about Barnaby’s comments the following day on the Senate floor as another bill opponents said is aimed at the LGBTQ community came up for a vote. He called Barnaby’s statement “dangerous.”

“Because I told you all last week that when we pick these microphones up both in the House and the Senate we carry a load and people listen to us because we have a platform and we have to be careful how we use that platform and what we spew on this platform to ensure that people don’t feel that they aren’t supposed to be here—especially when we go about using our faith," Jones said.

But is what Barnaby said Christian? Does it come from his faith? Nicole Kelley, an associate professor in Florida State University's religion department said the answer is both yes and no.

When hateful speech is religious does it get a pass?

Kelley said there’s a long history of Christian people calling groups that are different demons.

“That language of demons and imps and so on is common in the history of Christianity," Kelley said Now, is it Christian in the sense that the text that Christians today regard as authoritative would dictate that view? No.”

Kelley said some believe transgender people deviate from the idea of binary gender that’s reflected in the Genesis narrative in the Bible when God made two distinct sexes. If that’s their belief, said Kelley, they could view transgender people as sinners, or even demons.

“There are other Christians who would think about trans people in light of something like the Genisis creation narrative as being an example of the diversity of God’s creation, that everybody is made in the image of God somehow. So you might commonly hear people say God doesn’t make mistakes," Kelley said.

That was the point made by Republican Rep. Chase Tramont, in his response to Barnaby’s statement.

But Kelley said asking whether Barnaby’s words come from sincerely held religious beliefs or simply a place of hatred isn’t the right question.

“My question in return is what’s the difference? It’s hateful rhetoric that is legitimated by reference to a text that he and many other people find authoritative and divine rite, but that’s just a truth claim. That’s something that we have responsibility to interrogate and to think about its effects on people," Kelley said.

In this case, Kelley said, the effect is to dehumanize an already marginalized group making them an even easier target moving forward.
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