Growing up transgender in DeSantis’ Florida: How this Broward teen’s life was upended

When Daisy was 10, she stood in front of a microphone in a green dress, her long hair pulled back in a purple headband.

“Living in Broward County has given me the sense of safety,” she said to the Broward County School Board members, who were honoring LGBTQ History Month, “knowing that the school board has my back.”

Daisy, a transgender girl, seemed to be growing up in an era of unprecedented acceptance.

That was 2017, two years before Gov. Ron DeSantis would take office.

In a short time, she crossed a cultural chasm.

Schools in Florida — and even Broward, the most Democrat-leaning county in the state — have been remodeled under DeSantis and the Republican-led Legislature.

In the years Daisy aged into her teens, taking estrogen to affirm her identity as a girl, Florida’s schools became a cultural battleground, with legislative spears lobbed at the books students read, the classes they take, the history they learn, the topics they discuss in classrooms, the bathrooms students like Daisy use, the gender-affirming healthcare they receive, and the team sports they compete in.

Though transgender people are a small fraction of the population - an estimated 0.8 percent, according to the U.S. Census, and 2.3 percent of Broward’s student body — they’re an outsized target, much to the disappointment of LGBTQ advocates.

“These attacks have not come from real issues,” said Nic Zantop, deputy director of Transinclusive Group, a South Florida service and advocacy organization. “These are manufactured issues.”

Daisy’s presence the past two years on a girls’ volleyball team at Monarch High School in Coconut Creek now threatens the jobs of her mother, information management systems employee Jessica Norton; and four others at her school, including Principal James Cecil. They’re under investigation by the school district for potentially violating a state law prohibiting a person born with male anatomy from playing on female sports teams.

When Daisy’s family sued Florida over the law two years ago, it drew little attention — in stark contrast to last week’s events, when her plight exploded across national headlines.

Even the Democrats on the Broward school board — known for embracing LGBTQ causes — remained silent about her last week.

Only her classmates offered support, staging two days of walkouts.

Monarch High School students conduct a walkout on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023 after the principal, James Cecil, and other staff members were removed from their positions pending an investigation. The reassignments occurred because a trans student had been playing volleyball at the school in Coconut Creek, Florida.
Monarch High School students conduct a walkout on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023 after the principal, James Cecil, and other staff members were removed from their positions pending an investigation. The reassignments occurred because a trans student had been playing volleyball at the school in Coconut Creek, Florida.

“It was very heartwarming to see that the generation that follows us understands acceptance, inclusiveness and diversity,” said Michael Rajner, a longtime LGBTQ activist who serves as chair of the Broward County Human Rights Board.

“I can’t tell you how proud these students make me.”

Daisy’s family declined to be interviewed for this story. Jessica Norton identified herself publicly on Monday as the athlete’s mother. The Miami Herald is using a pseudonym for the student to protect her identity.

‘I’m a girl’

When she learned to talk, Daisy gave voice to it.

“Mommy, I’m a girl.”

The Nortons weren’t sure what to think, Jennifer Norton recounted in a social media post in 2017, when she was honored with a diversity award.

“What started out as us thinking we had a gay son turned into something much more,” Norton wrote.

When it came time to find a pre-school, Norton said “we chose the school that made the least comments about the pink sparkly flip flops that I let her wear.”

Daisy adopted a feminine name, and started using it in second grade. That year, she played soccer on the girls’ team.

A doctor diagnosed her with gender dysphoria, an internal dissonance between one’s biological sex and gender identity.

Daisy played girls’ sports for years, the lawsuit says, and her social life revolved around it: basketball, softball, soccer and — fatefully — high school volleyball.

Her family — parents Jessica and Gary, a brother and a sister — embraced her as a girl.

In one family photo posted on social media, her older sister wears a shirt that proclaims, “My sister has a penis. Get over it.”

Another shows family members celebrating Pride Month at Walt Disney World, wearing clothing with rainbows. Norton added the hashtags #ProudMom #ProudDad #TransIsBeautiful.

Norton joined the PTA to make sure her daughter wasn’t bullied. She was looking forward to Monarch High.

Monarch High School in Coconut Creek, Florida, on Tuesday, November 28, 2023.
Monarch High School in Coconut Creek, Florida, on Tuesday, November 28, 2023.

“I recently was hired at the high school she will eventually attend and will be working with the teachers and staff to bring awareness to the school about transgender students and their rights,” she wrote when she was honored as a transgender advocate.

Daisy registered at school as a girl, with a birth certificate to prove it. (Florida allows birth certificates to be amended.) She used the girls’ restrooms, girls’ locker and changing rooms, all without incident, court filings say.

She’d avoided male puberty by taking testosterone blockers starting at age 11 — a gender affirming care that included later putting her on estrogen, the female hormone, for life, her parents’ lawsuit said in court pleadings.

She delighted in dressing up each Halloween in elaborate Katy Perry outfits, and finally came face to face with the pop star at a concert one year.

“She is not a boy,” her lawyers wrote.

In black and white

Daisy might have avoided the turmoil that upended her life if Broward school leaders had paid attention to what she was telling them in court.

Her family sued the school district, governor and state Board of Education, among others, in the summer of 2021, when she was still in middle school. They knew the law was about to take effect, and said Daisy planned to play soccer on the girls’ team in middle school. She also dreamed of playing high school volleyball, her lawyers wrote in lawsuit pleadings.

They thought the new law violated her civil rights.

In March of this year, when Daisy was a freshman, her lawyers put it clearly: “Throughout this litigation, Plaintiff has played on a girls’ team with the threat of enforcement hanging over her head, day in and day out.”

Nevertheless, Daisy’s participation in several years of girls’ sports passed without consequence. Until last week.

Just after a federal judge dismissed the Norton lawsuit — leaving open the possibility for it to be amended — someone tipped off Broward schools Superintendent Peter Licata on Nov. 20 that Daisy had broken the state law. Licata has not identified the tipster.

Coconut Creek, August 21, 2023 - Broward Schools Superintendent Peter Licata, center, talks to Monarch High School’s principal James Cecil, left, as students file into the building for the first day of school in Broward County.
Coconut Creek, August 21, 2023 - Broward Schools Superintendent Peter Licata, center, talks to Monarch High School’s principal James Cecil, left, as students file into the building for the first day of school in Broward County.

The state Department of Education said it ordered the district to “take immediate action.”

Florida Sen. Rosalind Osgood, a Democrat who sat on the Broward school board, blamed the vagueness of the state’s Fairness in Women’s Sports Act for what happened at Monarch.

“Many education laws are made that are not executable and create implementation disasters,” she said.

Zantop said because the laws are nuanced, “in many places, we’ve seen maybe even over-compliance, going beyond what laws require. … I would like to see all our school officials pushing back, sticking up for their students.”

Broward schools spokesman John Sullivan said Licata, selected for the job in July, was unaware of the lawsuit, and it had no bearing on his actions. He hadn’t known Daisy had played girls’ volleyball there until he was notified in November, Sullivan said.

Others at the school district — Norton, for example — did know.

The school district’s investigation, Sullivan said, will uncover “who knew what, when.”

Complicated issue

In the court of public opinion, the quandary of transgender athletes transcends political leanings.

A majority of Americans believe athletes should be required to play on the team that corresponds to their birth gender, according to recent polls by the Pew Research Center and Gallup, Inc.

The federal government’s approach, under Democratic President Joe Biden, would disallow one-size-fits-all bans in public schools like Florida’s. But it would allow male-to-female transgender youth like Daisy to be prohibited from playing on girls’ teams in some circumstances, particularly competitive high school or college teams. Schools would be required to minimize harm to the student.

The proposal is still being studied. Florida opposes it.

Nearly half the states in America filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Norton lawsuit, on the Florida Board of Education’s side. So did a Christian group and a sports advocate who opposes transgender female participation.

The Christian Family Coalition, a non profit that said it lobbied heavily for passage of Florida’s law, argued that “persons born biologically as males have intrinsic and irreversible biological and physical advantages over persons born biologically as females in terms of skeletal mass, muscle mass, and lung capacity.”

Florida education officials argued that even if the transgender athlete in question isn’t a very good player, the fact that a biological female is potentially displaced from a team is enough to warrant the law.

While some sports bodies have adopted compromises like allowing an athlete to play if testosterone levels are sufficiently reduced, Florida enacted a broad ban that doesn’t take into consideration whether the person experienced male puberty. Legislators rejected a bill that would have adopted testosterone-based criteria like that of the International Olympic Committee.

Florida’s law applies to public middle and high schools, colleges and universities.

Though he ruled against the Norton family, U.S. District Judge Roy K. Altman acknowledged that Florida’s broad ban might be unfair to Daisy.

Altman, an appointee of former President Trump, said he tried his best to “honor” her pronouns in his rulings, and “acknowledge[d] that the statute creates a difficult (and perhaps unfair) situation for D.N., who identifies as a girl in all respects and who may be prohibited from playing on the teams of her choice.”

He said she could try out for a boy’s team, or play co-ed sports.

He went on, in his Nov. 6 decision dismissing the case:

“Our job isn’t to decide whether a law is good or bad, smart or silly, fair or unfair. We don’t even get to say whether we like the law—whether, in short, we would’ve voted for it if we had been in the legislature. Our job is to apply the law as it’s been expressed through the will of a democratically-elected legislature and the signature of a democratically-elected governor— unless (of course) the law violates some more fundamental (call it constitutional) law.”

And on that note, Judge Altman said, it doesn’t.

The family has until Jan. 11 to amend its lawsuit.

Not a ‘mistake’

A fifth grade transgender girl followed Daisy to the microphone that day in 2017. She got the giggles and had to compose herself before praising her school and the district for making sure she wasn’t seen as “a mistake.”

She said her school read “I Am Jazz,” by transgender girl Jazz Jennings, a former student in Broward schools, a book that was pulled from the shelves in seven Florida counties in the last two years. It is one of the most commonly banned transgender-themed books in America’s schools, according to PEN, a non profit authors’ advocacy group.

Florida now leads the nation in banning books at school, according to PEN. Nearly a third of the books banned nationwide last school year had characters with LGBTQ identities, according to PEN, and 6 percent had a transgender character.

Daisy said she’d had the support of her teachers when she’d transitioned.

“It was the best time of my life,” she said in the televised meeting, flanked by her parents.

“I got to be who I was born to be. … I know I’m one of the lucky ones.”

Though she was open about her trans status back then, her lawyers argued in recent court filings that she feared being outed in high school, where it wasn’t commonly known.

Her coach, Alex Burgess, said she didn’t stand out physically. He had no idea she was ever considered a boy.

“It’s not like she was some superstar athlete, to that extent. She was just one of my players,” he said Monday. “She was just sweet and innocent. It was just, I don’t know, it’s hard to explain, but I just can only imagine what she’s feeling.”

She’d feared being outed by a person suing under the new state law, her lawyers wrote in filings. Instead, it appeared to be the school district’s launching of an investigation — and transferring her mother and four others to off-campus jobs — that inadvertently exposed her gender history.

On Nov. 28, the day the news broke, Daisy’s mom changed her Facebook profile photo to a meme:

“Life. What a f***ing nightmare.”

Daisy hasn’t returned to school since.

Staff writer Jimena Tavel contributed to this report.