More than 100 teens streamed out of Lakewood High School just after noon Thursday, waving rainbow-colored signs and chanting “We want our rights!”
They were skipping class or lunch to take a stand against the so-called “don’t say gay” bill moving through the Florida Legislature. Theirs was part of a coordinated statewide student walkout that started with a tweet from a Flagler County student activist and quickly spread to dozens of schools. Participation appeared to be widespread in Tampa Bay, with walkouts reported at many high schools.
“I feel that we have to take our time out of our day to talk about it,” said Nicole Bundy, a Lakewood junior who helped coordinate her school’s demonstration along 54th Avenue S in St. Petersburg. “It shouldn’t have to be a problem. We shouldn’t have to say it’s OK to be gay.”
But that’s the position the teens said they felt placed in by the legislation (HB 1557), which is awaiting action on the Senate floor. They object to the language that prohibits instruction about gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade, or in other grades if it’s deemed not to be age-appropriate.
They said they understand the proposal, also known as the Parental Rights in Education bill, doesn’t literally ban anyone from saying the word “gay,” and that it contains provisions attempting to give parents more control over what their children learn in school.
But the bill supporters “need to understand the bill is definitely to silence young LGBTQ kids,” said Campbell Paquette, another Lakewood junior who helped put together the walkout there.
Like many others, she worried that the wording about age-appropriateness could lead to adults and children coming to believe it’s not appropriate to discuss issues relating to gender identity and sexual orientation.
At Hillsborough High in Tampa, IB psychology teacher Francis, who uses one name, was among the first to leave the school in a parade that reached the flagpole, then pooled around the front lawn and into the surrounding walkways.
Francis watched and shot video as students waved rainbow flags and a poster or two, at times chanting “gay lives matter” and GSA, which stands for Gender Sexuality Alliance. The walkout, which attracted about 250 students, received no resistance from Hillsborough High administrators, and the students met their expectations. They were orderly and upbeat, and they were back in their classrooms within 20 minutes.
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”It makes me feel very good about this school,” said GSA chapter president Kevin Vondruska, 17. “We have an inclusive environment where people are not afraid to be themselves.”
But Vondruska, who is gay, said he worries about students in less accepting environments. With the passage of HB 1557, he said, “I’m afraid that people might be afraid to come out because they might not have support at home. So if they can’t have that support at school, it can lead to increased rates of suicide. That’s who we’re trying to protect.”
At Gibbs High in St. Petersburg, senior Abbie Garretson put together her school’s walkout, which drew dozens of students to the campus courtyard for speeches and cheers. She said she feared the legislation would force teachers to “walk the line between appropriate and not appropriate, so they won’t talk about it at all.”
As a queer teen with two moms, Garretson said, she doesn’t want young children like herself to grow up feeling that their lives don’t matter or their families are somehow wrong. She found it ironic that students are advocating for more education, including for the people who are backing the bill.
The last time students conducted a widespread walkout from their classes came in 2018, after the school shooting massacre in Parkland. Their goal was to hold a moment of silence for the lost lives, and to advocate for security and peacefulness.
At the time, some schools threatened to discipline students for leaving their classes. This time around, school officials across the Tampa Bay area worked with students to allow the activities, though they sent out instructions on matters such as length and location of the events.
“I support students. That’s my job,” said Lakewood principal Erin Savage, who watched her students from the sidewalk and told them when it was time to go back inside.
Teens at River Ridge High in New Port Richey said they postponed their walkout until Monday, to be sure they had backing from their principal. River Ridge junior Isa Cacciavillani said they wanted to hold a protest to raise awareness about how many people could be negatively affected by the legislation.
“I struggle immensely with being queer in a very ‘anti-gay’ space and have experienced an array of slurs,” Cacciavillani said in an email. “My main goal is to show queer youth that they are not alone like I was during my upbringing.”
Such understanding is much needed, said Nicole Crane, co-president of the Gay-Straight Alliance at Wiregrass Ranch High in Wesley Chapel. Crane said via email the school’s protest was marred by mockery toward the LGBTQ community there.
“It just really showed how queer voices are overlooked and silenced, which is exactly what this ‘don’t say gay’ bill is doing,” said Crane, who called coming out a struggle. “It is also crucial that we prioritize students with safe spaces and these bills compromise this. Some students depend on their days at school and this will only take away the very few spaces they have.”
Walkouts also took place at Blake, Robinson and Hillsborough high schools in Hillsborough County, and at Fivay, Gulf, Mitchell and Wesley Chapel high schools in Pasco County, among others. The organizers said they were enthusiastic about the large turnouts, and hopeful they might make a difference.
“I feel like we can definitely move on from here,” Lakewood junior Bundy said. “This is just the beginning.”
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