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"Don't Say Gay" bill: Students protest Florida's bigoted legislation

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Photo courtesy of @Jack_Petocz / Twitter
Photo courtesy of @Jack_Petocz / Twitter

For a brief moment in March, it looked like demonstrating students would stop Florida from passing a bill targeting LGBTQ+ youth. They spoke out, walked out, wrote op-ed pieces, and protested at the state capital in Tallahassee. The politicians ignored them. The bill passed. As of March 15, it sits on the governor's desk. DeSantis says he supports the bill.

One lost battle — perhaps. But students organized broad support and it is growing into a larger movement.

Deceit exposed
The legislation officially entitled "Parental Rights in Education" got little public attention at first. But by renaming it the "Don't Say Gay" bill, defenders of queer and trans rights effectively took control of the message, publicized the truth, and exposed a relentless far-right campaign against LGBTQ+ youth.

The bill makes it illegal for teachers K-12 to discuss sexual orientation or gender identity and allows parents to sue teachers and schools. It requires parental notification of students seeking school health services or counseling. It is not about parents' rights, but bigotry and vigilantism, and denial of students' free speech rights.

"Don't Say Gay" is not the only attack on Florida's youth. In 2021, the state passed a ban on Transgender girls and women in public secondary schools and colleges from participating on girls and women sports teams. And in March 2022 a bill passed that bans teaching about race in public schools if it makes any student feel "uncomfortable."

These bills leave LGBTQ+ students, particularly youth of color, more isolated and at-risk.

Going viral for justice
When "Don't Say Gay" went public, the young LGBTQ+ community used social media to spread the message with trending hashtags like #Dontsaygay #SayGay and #DSGwalkout. On Friday, March 4, people streamed out of classrooms in over twenty schools. Twitter was awash with students who proudly captured the action at their school with videos and photos. Some claimed half of their peers walked out that day.

Seventeen-year-old Jack Petocz, an openly Gay junior, was the local organizer at Flagler-Palm Coast High School. He was suspended for handing out pride flags during the walkout. "We must let our politicians know that no matter how hard they try, they cannot suppress our identities or silence our voices," he declared. "Gen Z will not stand idly by as our rights are stripped from us." Public pressure, including an online petition that gathered over 7,500 signatures, got Petocz's suspension lifted within a week.

Outside of Florida, people signed petitions, posted support on social media and did what they could to support the effort. Kronk@LeggNora posted, "Today a group from my school marched in the courtyard with pride flags, chanting 'We don't live in Florida, but we stand with those of you who do.' Keep fighting!!!"

The next stage
The backlash against Florida's senate vote for the bill is building. Public pressure forced CEO Bob Chapek to break Disney's silence on the bill. He has stated Disney will "pause" political donations in Florida. Meanwhile, Disney workers, disgusted by the slow response from corporate headquarters, continue to stage regular walkouts in solidarity with the students.

The Pivot Conference, a major technology and media event slated for Miami, has announced it will move its 2023 conference out of Florida if DeSantis signs the bill into law.

That the right-wing Florida legislature is targeting everyone who challenges the status quo — queer, trans, women, people of color — is no surprise. Such politicians are desperate to reassert patriarchal norms and their attendant racist, sexist, heterosexual bigotries.

But young LGBTQ+ folks have no intention of going back into the closet. They are ready and willing to defend their rights. And they are not alone. The fight in Florida is far from over.

This piece was originally published in Freedom Socialist, Vol. 43, No. 2, April-May 2022. Reprinted with permission. Send comments to [email protected]