Today, March 3, 2022, was a monumental day in Florida. Students in almost every county in the state participated in a Walk Out to protest HB 1557, also known as the “Don’t Say Gay Bill.” The Parental Rights in Education bill “prohibits classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in certain grade levels.” At this time, the bill is directed to grades kindergarten through 3rd grade or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards. The ambiguity of the language in this bill leaves many with a sinking feeling.
Today, I interviewed students and teachers at three different middle and high schools in Gainesville, FL, where the students organized rallies. As a result, they came to school wearing Pride clothing, rainbow capes, hats, buttons and pins with Gay Pride slogans, and even face and arm paint with LGBTQ colors and flags.
Many schools announced a designated space outdoors for the students to rally safely in outdoor areas such as football fields and basketball courts. Several students carried hand-made signs in support of gay rights, like:
“Gay Rights are Human Rights”
“I Love Boobs,” which got a lot of cheers!
A few students at one school passed around two Gay Pride flags in the morning, collecting signatures of students in support of ending this bill. The flag was passed from student to student during the outdoor Walk Out to raise high.
Rainbow masks were worn. LGBTQIA pins and stickers were added to face masks. One student wore an asexual sticker on her mask, proudly announcing the A in LGBTQIA. When a fellow student said, they liked the sticker, the student beamed with pride.
One local high school sent out an email to all students and parents outlining safety procedures for the scheduled Walk Out on 3/3/22 at noon, not endorsing or encouraging students to attend but acknowledging they know this may be happening. Many local schools stated there would be no disciplinary action against students involved in a peaceful protest on school grounds.
This was not the case for every school in Florida. According to NBC News, “high school senior Jack Petocz, who organized the statewide protests, said he was suspended from his school “indefinitely.”
"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. 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,” Jack Petocz said.
Today, many students left school feeling empowered by participating in something they believe in. Ellie West, a local high school student, shared, “We are going to stop this bill and take it down. That is why we all attended the Walk Out today.” This was the first time she had ever attended a protest, and she felt elated by the energy around her. West shared that one of her friends said, “We could be oppressed, but we are really, really gay.”
“It was cool to see everyone’s different identities. I got to meet cool allies and those in the LGBTQ community that I didn’t know about before today. I think everyone felt seen.” Ellie West
“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.” NBC News
The tide has been changing for LGBTQIA folks over the last five years, and it is long overdue. Unfortunately, this bill is a step backward and can have serious adverse effects on the mental health of kids and teenagers as they discover their gender and sexual identities. Confiding in a friendly teacher about bullying or feelings of shame has been a common occurrence over the years. If HB 1557 takes away this option, it may leave many young people without guidance from an adult who cares. When they do not feel safe enough to discuss these situations at home, they turn to their peers and trusted adults at school.
I spoke with a licensed clinical child and adolescent psychologist, Dr. Nicole Agresto Psy.D, of Bay Area Psychology (St. Petersburg, Florida), to get her thoughts on HB 1557:
“All LGBTQIA students and faculty will be impacted by this bill regardless of age or grade. One of the most harmful things that can happen to anyone is a rejection of who they are. Rejection leads to feelings of isolation, confusion, anxiety, and depression, all of which can severely impact mental health and self-esteem. LGBTQIA students need more support and acceptance, not a daily reminder that they aren’t welcomed. “
“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.”NBC News
“Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people, with LGBTQ youth being four times more likely to seriously consider suicide, to make a plan for suicide, and to attempt suicide versus their peers.” The Trevor Project
“The Trevor Project estimates that at least one LGBTQ youth between the ages of 13-24 attempts suicide every 45 seconds in the U.S.”
For many, today was the first time these students showed their true colors in front of a large crowd, and I believe the powerful effects of these events will be the start of a gratifying coming out for them.
“Our youth have a right to learn about and share their stories about LGBTQIA issues. Silencing youth and teachers will add to the shame many of them feel, and this shame can continue to fester and grow, leading to lifelong mental health issues.”Anastacia Elizabeth Walden
Anastacia Elizabeth Walden
Writer, Editor, Author, and CEO @ Walden Writes For Women