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Gen Z won’t stay quiet on Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill

<i>Octavio Jones/Reuters</i><br/>High school students in Tampa
Octavio Jones/Reuters
High school students in Tampa

By Scottie Andrew, CNN

Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill overcame its final legislative hurdle on Tuesday, when the state Senate voted to pass the measure. Now, it’s headed to the desk of Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has indicated his support for the bill.

Even as it is poised to become law, young people in the state won’t let the legislation pass silently.

Members of Generation Z (defined as people born between 1997 and 2012) have for weeks led major demonstrations and school walkouts in protest of the bill, which would make it more difficult for teachers to discuss sexual and gender identity in primary public school classrooms. The legislation would also require administrators to alert parents of students who initiated conversations about the aforementioned topics.

Teens have traveled to Tallahassee, Florida’s capital, to meet with lawmakers and plead their cases against the legislation, formally called the “Parents Rights in Education Bill.” They were aware of the odds that the bill could pass, which now seems all but guaranteed. The current generation of students fighting for the generation following them, though, remains undeterred.

“We wanted to show our government that this isn’t going to stop,” said Will Larkins, a Florida teen who organized a massive walkout at his central Florida high school. “The people are the ones in powers [sic] and what they’re doing doesn’t represent us, especially marginalized groups.”

They’re planning mass protests

Students across the state have walked out of their classrooms in protest of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill this month.

Larkins on Monday led a walkout of more than 500 students at Winter Park High School, many of whom chanted, “We say gay!” as they vacated their desks at 9 a.m.

A protest of a similar size took place in Palm Coast, but the consequences for one student were severe: High school senior Jack Petocz, who organized walkouts statewide and led his own at Flagler Palm Coast High School, said he was suspended “indefinitely” after he distributed Pride flags at the demonstration.

“I am proud of who I am and I am proud of all of those protesting these regressive bills,” said Petocz, who’s a political strategy associate for nonprofit Gen-Z for Change, in a statement posted on Twitter. “We must let our politicians know that no matter how hard they try, they cannot suppress our identities or silence our voices. Gen Z will not stand idly by as our rights are stripped from us.”

They’re leveraging social media

Petocz’s suspension and subsequent statement quickly made national news — which drew more eyes toward his cause. He’s also made TikToks with tens of thousands of likes and comments from the Gen-Z for Change account, from which he and his fellow student colleagues educate users and get the word out about walkouts.

Stars such as Ariana Grande have reposted videos from student-led rallies against the “Don’t Say Gay” bill to show their support.

And after Walt Disney Company CEO Bob Chapek refused to condemn the legislation, current and former employees — including Disney Channel stars — criticized the company and called on it to reconsider its political donations. (In a company email, Chapek said the company has donated to both Republican and Democratic legislators in the state, and that the company supports its employees who are LGBTQ but doesn’t think that corporate statements “change outcomes or minds.”)

Joshua Rush, who played Disney Channel’s first out gay character on the series “Andi Mack” and came out as bisexual in 2019, said that while he was “heartened” to hear Chapek say the company will evaluate its donations, “the facts are clear: queer kids in America are under attack by a far-right agenda funded partly through corporate donations.

“Disney’s involvement in that machine is unacceptable,” he tweeted this week, in response to former co-star Lilan Bowden’s tweet asking Disney to “take action against this hateful bill.”

They’re traveling to Florida’s capital

Teens have traveled to Tallahassee with LGBTQ organizations including Equality Florida and Safe Schools South Florida to meet with legislators. Javi Gomez, a senior at Miami’s iPrep Academy, testified against the “Don’t Say Gay” measure in Tallahassee last month. He told CNN in February that he was nervous to speak to lawmakers and scared, too, that the bill might pass, but that “this battle is only beginning.”

Dozens of students were bussed into Tallahassee on Monday, the day before the Senate’s vote on the bill. Standing on the steps of the Capitol or inside, under its rotunda, many of them held signs in support of trans and queer students or chanted.

In earlier appearances before Congress, high school student CJ Walden told the Miami Herald, he felt as though lawmakers were ignoring him and his fellow student speakers who’d asked them to reconsider the “Don’t Say Gay” bills, but he won’t stop speaking out.

“We will not be quiet,” he told the Herald. “We will always exist. Even if the law goes into effect.”

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CNN’s Amir Vera and Caroll Alvarado contributed to this report.

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