Pride month comes at a precarious time for LGBTQ+ youth in Florida this year. Just one day after Pride month comes to a close, on July 1, the homophobic and transphobic so-called “Don’t Say Gay Bill” will officially take effect. The controversial legislation, which is officially called the Parental Rights in Education bill, bans teaching or any discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity for students in kindergarten to third grade, and it also prohibits lessons in other grades up to 12th grade unless they are “age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate.” According to a statewide poll conducted by the Public Opinion Research Lab at the University of North Florida, a minority of respondents, or 40%, support the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
In addition to the “Don’t Say Gay Bill,” the Florida Department of Health advised health care professionals against social gender transition and certain gender-affirming treatments, including hormone therapy in April 2022. Despite the legislations, some queer and trans youth in the state say they are celebrating Pride month as a form of protest, while others say they are faced with trepidation for potential consequences from family or outside forces. Tensions are especially high in Florida this year, and LGBTQ+ teens say they are doing what they can to persevere in the midst of state-mandated hate.
“Pride month is a massive beacon of hope,” said Will Larkins, a rising senior at Winter Park High School in Winter Park, Florida. “It’s such an important time for young people because for me growing up, seeing Pride month and seeing the historic protests and how people begged for liberation, that has always solidified for me that no matter how terrible my situation feels right now, there is a welcoming, beautiful community waiting for me once I’m able to get out of whatever unfortunate situation I find myself in.”
Larkins is the president and co-founder of their school’s Queer Student Union and one of the organizers of their school’s “Say Gay Anyway” walkout in March 2022 of more than 500 students. Larkins also testified about their experience as a nonbinary student on the Florida Senate floor on Feb. 28. Before the school year ended, Larkins gave an in-class presentation on the Stonewall riots, which was a tipping point for queer liberation and is the reason Pride is celebrated every year—to commemorate the historic uprising. Larkins’ tweet about their presentation went viral, upsetting their teacher, even though she had initially approved the presentation. According to Larkins, their teacher was upset out of fear that other parents may complain about the content. The teacher filed a formal complaint with the administration, which resulted in an investigation and a meeting with the principal. As a form of disciplinary action, Larkins was eventually removed from the teacher’s classroom and switched to another teacher’s class.
This year, Larkins is celebrating Pride month in their own way. While many of their peers recently attended the nearby Six-Year Pulse Remembrance Ceremony in Orlando, Florida, Larkins is using the month to rest and recover after a year of organizing and protesting in their school and community.
“I think Pride is super important, but after the year that it’s been, personally, for myself, my celebration is not thinking about it,” Larkins said. “I’ve been protesting on a different level the entire year, and it’s been exhausting. I will celebrate who I am, and I will protest year round for the right to be who I am, but I’m going to be free and pretend like I don’t need to watch my back and like there isn’t systemic oppression against me, and I’m just going to try and relax.”
A social studies teacher who has been teaching for nine years and is the Gay Straight Alliance sponsor at a high school in Florida says the legislation has deeply impacted LGBTQ+ youth. According to the social studies teacher, who requested to remain anonymous, the fear and uncertainty surrounding the legislation has even forced some of her students back into hiding and is preventing others from wanting to be visibly LGBTQ+.
“Their number one fear is being outed to their parents because sometimes they’re very visible in school, but they’re not at home,” she said. “That’s why these kids are going back in [the closet] because any slight thing identifies them.”
This year, any Pride celebrations at the school were especially quiet because of the legislation and added grief after a GSA student member died by suicide in April. According to what the student’s friends told the teacher, the student had recently come out to his family, who was not accepting.
“When our student died, it was a full-time job keeping these kids alive for the next week, and not having copycats,” she said. “I had to check in one-on-one with them and ask, ‘How do you feel, what’s going on today? Do you know of anybody else I should be talking to?’ And then that kid giving me two or three other names, then running to those two or three other kids. It was constant that whole week.”
The teacher was finally able to bring in therapists from a local community center who volunteered to serve the students. At their last meeting of the year, the teacher gave each student Pride flag pins to celebrate privately, and they decided “to be able to survive as a club” and to shield students from being outed to their parents or conservative faculty, they will change the name of their club from GSA to being related to human rights. The group watched a movie, ate popcorn, and relaxed in the midst of grief and hardship.
“We’re going to become like a speakeasy,” she said. “This club is going to be a human rights club, but it’s a place where you come in, and you’re visible within my classroom, and that’s the extent because everybody’s nervous, even I’m nervous.”
The stakes are especially high this year for the LGBTQ+ community nationwide. Just last week, 31 members of the white supremacist group were arrested in Idaho with conspiracy to riot at a nearby Pride event. In West Palm Beach, Florida, a 17-year-old was charged with allegedly making online threats to commit a mass shooting at the youth-friendly Pride on the Block event on June 5.
According to Maxx Fenning, President of PRISM Florida, an organization that works to expand access to LGBTQ+-inclusive education and sexual health resources for youth in South Florida, people are only more emboldened now with the rhetoric that politicians are popularizing against the LGBTQ+ community this year.
“We’ve been held hostage by this ridiculously conservative legislature now for decades,” the social studies teacher said.
While “rainbow washing” is pervasive, Fenning said that LGBTQ+ youth in Florida are seeing more than ever that Pride is a protest.
“Pride has increasingly shifted to this marketing tool,” Fenning said. “But now is the moment, especially for young people, that Pride is more than that, that Pride is once again our moment. Even though we’re here year round, this is our moment to really show up and show out and fight for who we are.”