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The Role of Student Protest in Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Bill

Last updated on June 9, 2022

The 2022 legislative session has brought forward a handful of anti-transgender and homophobic bills, including a bill in Florida, nicknamed the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill. This bill is one of many ‘No Promo Homo’ bills that aim to silence conversations around LGBTQ+ history and experiences in schools. The proposed bill would “prohibit classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity” in kindergarten to 3rd-grade classrooms in Florida. President Biden has voiced his opposition to the bill, tweeting “I want every member of the LGBTQ+ community — especially the kids who will be impacted by this hateful bill — to know that you are loved and accepted just as you are” adding that his administration will fight for “the protection and safety” of queer youth. The president is not the only person who has openly opposed the bill. Many politicians, activists, and celebrities have condemned Florida state legislators and the state’s governor, but the most important – and arguably the most passionate – dissent has come from students in Florida and around the nation. Despite this, the bill has been relatively ignored by the majority of major national media outlets until recently. This action, and its perpetrators, aim to oppress and marginalize queer youth in Florida, but also to intimidate members of the LGBTQ+ community across the country. The bill passed both the house and the senate before being signed into law by Governor Ron DeSantis on March 28th.

Florida’s Don’t Say Gay Bill, formally known as HB 1557 states that it is “An act relating to parental rights in education […] prohibiting classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in certain grade levels or in a specified manner” and is “authorizing a parent to bring an action against a school district to obtain a declaratory judgment that a school district procedure or practice violates certain provisions of law.” Later, the bill was adjusted to include that “Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.” The enforcement of the bill follows a new trend in conservative legislation that leaves it up to private citizens to sue violators. 

Opponents of the bill say that while it may not explicitly ban all discussion of LGBTQ+ issues and people, the language is broad and lets parents take legal action against whatever conversations they deem ‘inappropriate’. The message that this bill is sending, which is especially harmful to queer youth, is that there is something wrong with being LGBTQ+. Furthermore, by not even educating children about how gender identity and sexual orientation differ from the cisgender heterosexual norm that is exhibited to them by society, lawmakers are further silencing young people who may be questioning their identities. Advocates of this bill say that it is not harming students, and in the words of Representative Joe Harding who introduced the bill, is meant to provide boundaries for educators regarding what is appropriate in schools. The thousands of students who have protested against HB 1557 would beg to differ.

Student protests have erupted all over the state of Florida, and solidarity protests have been held around the country in response to the Don’t Say Gay Bill. On March 7th, over 500 students participated in a walkout at Winter Park High School in Orange County, Florida. Students walked out of their classrooms at 9 am chanting holding signs and posters whilst chanting “We say gay!” The protest was organized by juniors Will Larkins and Maddie Zornek. In an interview with CNN, Will Larkins stated “We wanted to show our government that this isn’t going to stop. There were walkouts all last week. This is going to continue. If this passes, there will be protests everywhere. We wanted to get the attention of our representatives, our senators because the point is to show them that we are the ones in power. The people are the ones in power and what they’re doing doesn’t represent us, especially marginalized groups.” Larkins is a non-binary 17-year-old who has organized other protests at their high school, which were attended by students from many other schools in the area and also testified against HB 1557 in front of the Florida Senate Appropriations Committee. They have done interviews on CNN and NPR and wrote an Op-Ed for The New York Times. Larkins helped draw national attention to what was happening in Florida and exemplifies the need for student voices to be heard in these times. Following the passing of the Don’t Say Gay bill, they stood up in front of their class to teach them about the Stonewall Riots which was a pivotal moment in LGBTQ+ history. There are so many ways for students to oppose bills such as the one in Florida and whether it be speaking at the state capitol, organizing and participating in protests, or refusing to abide by harmful, oppressive laws, they all make a difference.

Students at Northwest have watched this bill be passed, and the fact that it is happening over 3,000 miles away does not minimize the impact it is having on our community. In an anonymous survey sent out to the entire school, one student said “It’s very disheartening and honestly frightening, especially since I have a personal connection to these laws. I feel like passing these laws sets a dangerous precedent for the future, for queer kids and families.” Another added that they were genuinely shocked, saying, “You would think with pride becoming more popular and Stonewall being over 50 years ago that at least a little bit would have changed– that basic human rights would be easier to come by… I’m gay and my heart goes out to the gay people younger than me who don’t have adequate support, resources, and people to talk to. I feel like the place where teens and pre-teens spend the most time is at school and home. If somebody doesn’t have a great home life school is a place where they can be themselves. But with this bill that won’t be an option for these queer/questioning kids.” Students said that they were scared for themselves, and for the LGBTQ+ youth in Florida who will feel the effects of this bill. 

As this bill takes effect and inspires similar legislation in Georgia, Louisiana, Kansas, Indiana, and 35 other states within the country, student voices will be vital in protecting the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. When bills like HB 1557 come up in state legislatures there is a feeling of helplessness among young people. It is extremely unjust that they cannot vote and yet are the ones who will feel the strongest impacts. The student protest was extremely important for calling attention to Florida’s Don’t Say Gay bill and will continue to be a significant way to stop more bills like it from passing. This is a dark moment for our country, and the looming possibility of Roe v. Wade being overturned by the supreme court is an ominous reminder that we can no longer stay silent. People’s rights are being stripped away and it is more important now than ever to organize against the governments – local and federal – that are threatening our freedom. Let the way students organized in Florida be the inspiration for more school walkouts, online petitions, protests, coalitions, and community funds. There are ways for young people who cannot vote to make our voices heard and fight against hate, and we have an obligation as the future of this country to do so. As they did in the Global Climate Strike, the Gay Liberation Movement, the March for Our Lives, and the Civil Rights Movement, students will use their voices to fight hate and discrimination and they will prevail. We will prevail.

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