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Saturday, March 2, 2024

Bridget Ziegler’s Gay Ex-Friends Are Sad About Who She’s Become

About a decade before Moms for Liberty co-founder Bridget Ziegler championed Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, she was a Sarasota socialite who partied with a coterie of gay friends.

One of those pals, Nishit Patel, remembers a magical night in the early 2010s when they whooped it up at her parents’ house while the adults were away, swimming in the pool and singing and dancing in her mother’s furs. “That was Bridget,” Patel said of the now-41-year-old conservative education activist. “She was really, really sweet and kind.”

“From the very get-go, we hit it off,” Patel said. “Of course the gay guy is going to gravitate toward the gorgeous blonde.”

But the Bridget in Patel’s memories may be long gone. Fast forward to 2024, and Ziegler has behaved as a public education villain to queer students and families.

Photographs of Marci Toomey, Gabriele Harris, Nishit Patel, Christian Ziegler, and Bridget Ziegler

Left: Marci Toomey, Nishit Patel, Bridget Ziegler, and Christian Ziegler with friends.

Right: Marci Toomey, Gabriele Harris, Christian Ziegler, and Nishit Patel with friends

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Photos courtesy of Gabriele Harris

She and her husband Christian Ziegler—the axed state GOP chair accused of rape—raised their profile in recent years by supporting anti-LGBTQ policies and right-wing rhetoric, inspiring a bumper sticker around town: “Save Sarasota, Deport the Zieglers.” Gov. Ron DeSantis also appointed her to the oversight board he created to punish Disney for its opposition to “Don’t Say Gay,” which restricts classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Patel is just one old friend who told The Daily Beast that he lost touch with the Zieglers after their politics became more extreme. “I think they’re hypocrites, especially Bridget,” Patel said. “That’s what really bothers me about it, because I don’t think they believe the shit they spout, because they definitely don’t live it.”

Now the Zieglers are embroiled in a sex scandal that falls outside of their carefully crafted facade of Republican “family values.”

Bridget’s the one that kind of breaks my heart, you know?

Last fall, the couple’s alleged threesome partner came forward with claims of sexual assault against Christian. While Sarasota cops ultimately didn’t pursue rape charges, they referred a video voyeurism case to the state attorney’s office.

According to a police report, Christian kept a roster of women on his phone, titled “THE LIST,” and his victim was listed under a subhead labeled “Fuck.”

The report also revealed texts between Bridget and Christian from 2021, where they discussed the accuser for a future ménage à trois. Christian called the woman “an alcoholic” and “nice person with some issues,” and Bridget replied that she “prefers confident empowered people.”

“I just don’t want to feel like we ever take advantage of anyone (I know it’s always been consensual) but she seems…. ‘broken’ or like she’s going through some shit- and I don’t know- that’s the vibe I pick up from her- and my nature is more likely to help her versus…ya know,” Bridget messaged her husband.

Christian then suggested they “hunt for someone new.”

The victim told police that she’d canceled plans for a rendezvous with Christian after learning that Bridget couldn’t make it. “Sorry I was mostly in for her,” the woman texted Christian, who she says showed up to her apartment anyway and assaulted her.

When detectives interviewed Bridget, the report states, she “confirmed that she had participated in a threesome with [the victim] and her husband once two years ago.”

Photograph of Bridget Ziegler

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Bridget Ziegler, seated at a Sarasota County School Board meeting in Sarasota, FL on December 12, 2023.

Thomas Simonetti for The Washington Post via Getty

Parents and members of the LGBTQ community have rallied for Bridget’s removal from the school board for months, pointing to the stunning hypocrisy of her promoting policies that harm queer kids while engaging in bisexual activity.

So far, Bridget has refused to resign.

The Zieglers didn’t return messages seeking comment.

Patel and other former confidants say Bridget once had close friends in the gay community. “Bridget’s the one that kind of breaks my heart, you know?” he added. “Because she was and is, I think, a really good person. She’s always been supportive. She’s an ally.”

“So when they [the Zieglers] started taking these extra-hardline social views,” he said, “it just hurt my feelings more than anything.”

Zara Barrie, a lesbian author, podcaster and life coach, frequently attended the same social events as Bridget before she became right-wing royalty. The former acquaintance said she watched Bridget’s rise after relocating to New York and was “gutted to see someone whom I’d known on a personal level become the face of the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill.”

“Not to mention, pose with the Proud Boys and casually wear a shirt with the words ‘Real Women Aren’t Men’ emblazoned across the chest,” Barrie told The Daily Beast. “Her fashion days are clearly a thing of the past—everyone knows transphobia is the antithesis of chic.” (Bridget claimed she was “photobombed” by the far-right extremists.)

When I met her, she was a girl that partied in Miami and worked at Gucci. It wasn’t like, ‘Let’s go burn books and be mean to gay people.’

Barrie said she’s “heartbroken and fearful over the impact Bridget has had on the amazing, young people in Sarasota, who deserve so badly to live and thrive and be celebrated in one the most formative seasons of life.”

“The Bridget I knew was warm and charming; quirky and kind—and never, ever expressed or exuded a modicum of homophobia,” Barrie said. “She was well aware that I was an out lesbian and never appeared uncomfortable around my girlfriend and me, who were attached at the hip in those days.” She added, “In fact, Bridget appeared to boast a slew of lively, close gay friends. After all, she had worked in fashion. In Miami.”

“That being said—witnessing Bridget’s descent into a dangerously ‘conservative’ and wildly homophobic rhetoric felt extremely out of alignment with the sparkly, seemingly open-minded woman I briefly rubbed elbows with in my twenties.”

Photograph of Bridget Ziegler and Gabriele Harris

Bridget Ziegler and Gabriele Harris with friends

Photo courtesy of Gabriele Harris

Patel said he believes the Zieglers “were really good people once upon a time.”

“I don’t know where it changed. I think a lot of it has to do with just Christian wanting power. I think Bridget would have been fine one way or the other.”

Gabriele Harris, another friend of the Zieglers, said that Bridget “was not political in any way” when they met in the years before her 2014 school board run.

“I don’t want to say they don’t truly believe in some of that stuff,” Harris told The Daily Beast. “But I just don’t know how Bridget can go from having two of your best guy friends being gay and now you’re literally helping write the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law in schools. I just don’t know that she really drinks that Kool Aid.”

She was a registered Democrat. A lot of her close friends were in the LGBTQ community. So what she represents now is just far from what she used to be.

“When I met her, she was a girl that partied in Miami and worked at Gucci. It wasn’t like, ‘Let’s go burn books and be mean to gay people,’” Harris said. “We had friends in our friend group that were gay. One of her best friends for a very long time was gay.”

That longtime confidant, who friends say attended Bridget’s baby showers, did not return messages left by The Daily Beast.

Harris said she was close to Christian first, when they belonged to a group of friends living in a downtown Sarasota building they playfully dubbed “Melrose Place.”

As young professionals fresh out of college, they went out to bars and debriefed on their nightlife shenanigans over waffles the next morning at one of their apartments. Once Bridget entered the picture, she and Christian were inseparable, Harris said.

“Christian was always very conservative, and you could always tell that he was going to be involved in politics,” Harris said. “We jokingly called him the governor. When Bridget started getting involved, I think all of us were pretty surprised.”

Marci Toomey, who lived in the same building as Christian, told The Daily Beast: “Melrose Place describes it best. We all went out every night on the weekend and got together in the morning and just talked about the stupid stuff that we did.”

Christian, she said, was a typical “party guy, like a frat boy” and “a lot of fun.” He had considered law school but decided to work for congressman Vern Buchanan, a Florida Republican.

Bridget, Toomey said, “was just a free spirit. I mean, a complete free spirit.”

Photograph of Bridget Ziegler and Nishit Patel

Bridget Ziegler and Nishit Patel with friends

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Photo courtesy of Gabriele Harris

“Everything I’ve read so far about her hits the nail on the head,” Toomey said. “She was a registered Democrat. A lot of her close friends were in the LGBTQ community. So what she represents now is just far from what she used to be.”

In 2012, Bridget appeared in the Sarasota Observer society pages several times, including for a joint birthday party. Then going by Bridget McGrath, the 30-year-old was named as one of “Five of Sarasota’s young socialites.” The report added of her party: “Her cake was a black-and-white damask chocolate cake, and a bramble was her cocktail.”

She’d also attended a “Rock of Ages” 1980s party, “La Fete du Fromage” cheese dinner, a Mardi Gras-themed gala, and a party for the Sarasota Open.

Around that time, Bridget landed a spot on the Gulf Coast Business Review’s “40 Under 40” list as an insurance agent, sharing that she just finished the book The Help but “I honestly do not read enough… I am a movie watcher.” She told the outlet she digested a variety of news including Fox News and CNN to get “an objective view of current events.”

She married Christian Ziegler in September 2013, and then-Gov. Rick Scott appointed her to the Sarasota school board nine months later. Then the mother of an 8-month-old, Bridget didn’t have a college degree, education experience, or a child in public schools.

In spite of our family’s unconditional love and support, our child knows that ‘their kind’ is not welcome in Sarasota, or in Florida…

But she soon earned a reputation supporting anti-LGBTQ policies, including the “outing” of trans students to their parents, and via Fox News appearances, where she called Critical Race Theory “anti-American curriculum” and said “classrooms are not intended to be anyone’s social or political activism centers” during a segment on one California school district’s flag ban. (Opponents of that policy said it was aimed at Pride flags.)

Last year, she showed off a “Real Women Aren’t Men” T-shirt on X/Twitter, commenting under a Moms for Liberty chapter chair’s post mocking trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney. And as head of the school board, she refused to shut down one public commenter’s homophobic rant calling openly gay board member Tom Edwards a “groomer.” After Edwards walked out of the meeting, Christian Ziegler bashed him online as “Tommy Drama.”

In 2022, Bridget and Christian each used their platforms to rail against a flyer for a youth event called QueerCon, geared toward middle and high schoolers. (Under Bridget’s post, one of her relatives wrote, “Hey Auntie B, your spiral into homophobia is weird and gross and pretty hurtful.”)

The mother of three also stood behind DeSantis as he signed the Parental Rights in Education bill, panned by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

Photograph of Christian Ziegler and Donald Trump

Republican Party of Florida then-chairman Christian Ziegler greets Donald Trump at the RPOF Freedom Summit in Kissimmee, Florida.

Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty

Barrie told The Daily Beast she’s worried about the impact Bridget and other right-wingers will have on Sarasota students. “LGBTQ+ teens are already (statistically) at much higher risk for suicide than their peers,” she said. “And I know—from personal experience—that simply knowing you’re supported by the adults in charge can be the one thing that keeps you going.”

“Adults are lifelines for young people,” said Barrie, a founding member of the Stonewall Inn Gives Back Initiative.

“When you’re a kid and already feel unsafe and different and are a target for bullies—seeing the most prominent, high-profile member of the school board—grin whilst clad in transphobic apparel and spearhead a bill that attempts to erase your identity—can be precisely what pushes you over the edge. The stakes are life or death for these kids.”

Sarasota residents confronted Bridget with similar concerns. At December’s school board meeting, one parent of an LGBTQ student said, “In spite of our family’s unconditional love and support, our child knows that ‘their kind’ is not welcome in Sarasota, or in Florida, and Ms. Ziegler, I hold you personally accountable for that.”

In January, one teenager took to the podium and said they pretended to be straight for their safety, and another said they were terrified the board would continue to pursue policies that targeted them “because of who I am.”

Patel said he unfriended Christian in the wake of a July 2012 social media post in which Christian defended a Chick-fil-A executive’s opposition to same-sex marriage. He remembers Christian messaging him, “We’re friends. You’re not allowed to block me.” Patel replied with something like, “We’re friends. You’re not allowed to be a bigot.”

“He’s like, ‘You and I are friends. You know I love you.’ And I’m like, ‘Then don’t take those positions. Don’t say those things,’” Patel recalled.

Our friend group assumption has always been that he’s the puppet master or he’s the wizard behind the curtain…

“I think he’ll say or do anything if he thinks he’ll get clout,” Patel added. “He wants power, money, and women. And if this is the route that’s gonna get him that, he’ll do that.”

Still, when they first met around 2008 or 2009, Patel considered Christian “fun” and a “good friend,” one he imagined would come to his defense if anyone bullied him for being gay or an Indian immigrant. “I don’t think he would anymore,” Patel said.

Back then, Christian was “very cognizant about anything he did in public, or anything that would be recorded.” He’d become upset if someone snapped his photo. “I think he always thought at some point in the future, he would want to get more involved in politics,” Patel said, adding that the revelation in police records that Christian recorded footage of his rape accuser came as a surprise. (Christian and his attorney provided a video to detectives, arguing the encounter was consensual.)

Christian, Patel said, had bragged about facilitating Bridget’s appointment to the school board in 2014. “He wanted to go into politics, and she was his springboard,” Patel said. “I don’t think he would be where he is without her. On a one-on-one basis, she’s very relatable and likable.”

“When you talk to him, he’s nice. He’s friendly. He says all the right things and all that kind of stuff. He knows how to work a room. But you still get that politician scumbag kind of vibe.”

Photograph of Christian Ziegler, Gabriele Harris, and Bridget Ziegler

Christian Ziegler, Gabriele Harris, and Bridget Ziegler

Photo courtesy of Gabriele Harris

Harris said it seemed that Christian pushed Bridget into the world of politics. “Our friend group assumption has always been that he’s the puppet master or he’s the wizard behind the curtain, and she’s the pretty face everybody can vote for,” she said.

She was shocked by the rape allegations against Christian, whom she described as the guy friend who made sure everyone got home okay. She said she couldn’t picture him taking advantage of a woman or being violent.

The friends told The Daily Beast they’ve monitored the news about the Zieglers and the police investigation closely. They were torn between loyalty for who the couple once was and their previously close friendship and the desire to speak out against what they represent now: Division in the Sarasota community.

They said one line in the police report especially stands out: “Bridget said the sexual assault allegation surprises her, but not the extra marital activity.”

At Tuesday’s school board meeting, Bridget broke her silence, albeit obliquely, saying she’s “taken a lot of arrows.”

“I do believe specific to sexual orientation and what have you, has no place in comments up here,” Bridget told the room. “Personal lives, families, all of those. But I also accept the fact that as elected officials we open ourselves up to incredible criticism, but as an individual I absolutely reject that.”

The firestorm over her sex life has already cost her a job with the conservative Leadership Institute, where she was director of school board programs.

Meanwhile, Christian is claiming victim status as he fights the release of information that Sarasota cops obtained from his cellphone. Last month, his lawyer Matthew Sarelson (a member of Donald Trump’s legal team) wrote the Sarasota city attorney claiming that Christian “has become the victim of a crime, as his accuser has filed a false report to law enforcement authorities—a first-degree misdemeanor.”

Harris said she’s waiting to see if Bridget continues to stand by Christian through the scandal or if she one day shares her own story, perhaps in a tell-all.

“I feel bad for them,” Harris said. “They’re in a very unfortunate situation that being in the political arena has emphasized. I don’t think anybody deserves this.”

“They don’t deserve it as a family. I feel bad for their kids.”



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