Students across Florida staged school walkouts in response to legislation — dubbed the "Don't Say Gay" bill — that would prohibit discussing sexual orientation and gender identity in the state’s primary schools.
Proponents of the measure, which is officially titled the Parents Education Rights bill, have contended that it would give parents more discretion over what their children can learn in school, and they say LGBTQ issues are "not age-appropriate" for the age group.
Students waving rainbow picket signs and shouting “We say gay!” in walkouts across the state — in Tampa, Orlando, Tallahassee and other cities — rejected the assertions.
"The language and the supporters of the bill and the rhetoric around the bill really shows what this bill is, and it's an attempt to hurt queer people like me," said Flagler Palm Coast High School senior Jack Petocz, who organized the statewide protests on social media and led his school's protest in Palm Coast.
After the rally, Petocz said he was called into his principal's office and suspended "indefinitely." Petocz said he was punished for distributing 200 pride flags for the rally after having been advised not to do so by the principal.
"I believe this attempt to threaten me and remove me from campus is riddled with homophobia and bigotry," said Petocz, who is gay. "You’re silencing a queer student standing up for what he believes in, in his rights, and you’re disciplining him for challenging you on the allowance of pride flags in a gay rally? It’s ridiculous. It truly is.
"And I think that they were just they were upset that I was organizing this to begin with, and they just used this as a crutch to go ahead and remove me from campus," he added.
Flagler Palm Coast High School did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The protests are in reaction to weeks of national outrage over the measure, which has grabbed the attention of international newspapers, Hollywood actors and the White House. The measure’s opponents contend that the bill would be detrimental to the mental health of the state’s LGBTQ children and teachers, preventing them from openly talking about themselves and their families.
Rep. Joe Harding, the Republican who introduced the bill in January, has repeatedly said the bill would not prohibit students from talking about their LGBTQ families or bar classroom discussions about LGBTQ history, including events like the 2016 attack on the Pulse nightclub, a gay club in Orlando.
Instead, Harding has said the bill would prevent the "instruction" of LGBTQ topics, without giving examples of what that would entail.
But Sky Smith, who attended a student walkout at Bayside High School in Palm Bay and identifies as a nonbinary lesbian, said that is exactly what schools should be doing.
"When I was younger, I honestly did not see much representation in school about the LGBTQ community, and I only really started learning about it when I went on the internet," Smith said. "So I feel like it should be taught in schools because it will help other people just like me know that it's OK to be gay.
"When it's not spoken about, children might see it as something that's forbidden or not allowed or looked down upon," Smith added.
Some have argued that the legislation’s text also makes it unclear what age groups the bill could apply to. The bill says discussions about “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.”
Eliza River Stone, who identifies as LGBTQ and attended one of the protests, said her high school in St. Petersburg, Gibbs High School, is draped with rainbow flags, Gay Straight Alliance club posters "everywhere" and other LGBTQ-affirming symbols.
"My school is so supportive. I don't think I've ever felt more at home than at any other school that I've been to, and I couldn't imagine that stuff getting revoked," Stone said, referring to her school's LGBTQ-affirming symbols.
"LGBTQ people are, like, human, as well. They shouldn't be cut off from anybody to learn about," she added.
After it passed in the state House last week, the legislation passed through the Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday. It will now go to a full floor vote in the Senate, where it is also expected to pass.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who is running for re-election and is widely considered to be a potential 2024 presidential candidate, has signaled his support for the legislation and is expected to sign it into law.
Bryan Griffin, DeSantis’ deputy press secretary, said in an email: "All Floridians are free to exercise their First Amendment rights and peacefully express their opinions about any issue. This particular bill is about parents, and Governor DeSantis supports parents’ rights. Parents should know what their kids are learning, and parents should know if and what services their children are receiving at schools."
Petocz said that throughout his time away from school on suspension, he plans to continue advocating against the bill.
"Regardless if it passes, this message and the precedent remains the same: Students are in opposition to this bill in numbers like never before," he said.