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Education

A Sarasota student fears the so-called 'Don't Say Gay' law will harm LGBTQ kids' school experience

Young man holds hands around his mouth as he yells. A group of young people stand around him, including some wearing masks.
Courtesy Zander Moricz
/
Twitter
High school senior Zander Moricz, seen here leading a walk-out at Pine View School in Sarasota County in early March 2022, is among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the state and its Parental Rights in Education Law.

Equality Florida, families, and other parties recently filed a lawsuit against the state, saying the Parental Rights in Education law violates constitutional rights.

Thousands of students, Florida’s LGBTQ residents and advocates, as well as other concerned parties have rallied against what critics call the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

H.B. 1557, "Parental Rights in Education," was passed by the Florida Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis last month.

It removes discussion of gender identity or sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade, or the mention of it "in a manner that is not age appropriate" in grades beyond that.

As a result, some critics worry it may cause harm to LGBTQ students across all grades.

Equality Florida, families and other parties recently filed a lawsuit against the state, saying the bill violates constitutional rights. One of the lawsuit’s plaintiffs is Zander Moricz, a senior at Pine View School in Sarasota County.

Over the past few months, he has become a fixture of the movement against the bill, speaking out against the legislation and helping to mobilize his peers.

Moricz spoke to WUSF about his experience as an LGBTQ student, and how this legislation might have affected it.

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"My school community was an absolutely essential part of my coming out process. I have felt so supported by my peers and by my teachers. There are several of my teachers who have LGBTQ flags in their classrooms. And my Model UN President, before I became president, was gay.

And these conversations and these support structures, and all of these people coming together and supporting me, were the reason that I felt comfortable to come out in a broader sense to my community, and now to the state and the country.

This bill would have absolutely ruined that experience for me, and it would have made it incredibly difficult to, first of all, understand who I was. And then second of all, be comfortable with who I was.

If I wasn't able to discuss with my teachers or my peers, the fact that I thought I was gay, or the fact that I knew other people were gay and wanted to hear about their experiences, that was incredibly important to me.

And if I didn't have that, I probably would not have come out. And if there weren't symbols of support and of love on the walls and in these classrooms, I would not even know that this was a place where I could even begin to question myself or begin having these questions and conversations."

Why did you feel it was important to fight the bill?

"It was immediately essential for me to respond because this system and education system was crucial to me becoming who I am. And I know that it's crucial to others becoming who they are. So if it's shaped into something that's oppressive, and it’s shaped into something that teaches people to hate themselves, and to hate others, what that's going to do is in the same way that it shaped me to be comfortable and love who I am, it's going to shape others to be uncomfortable and hate who they are.

And it's going to shape others to look at LGBTQ students and say, 'Oh, I've grown up my entire life knowing that you're wrong, and that you're not even okay to be discussed in a public setting. So I don't like you, I hate you.’ You're raising ignorance in these classrooms with this bill."

What has been the reaction been like from students at your school and other students that you've spoken to?

"The response has been one of genuine terror. And that sounds dramatic, but kids are scared, kids are worried. I have gotten hundreds of messages from kids at my school and kids from across the state, who are wondering if they need to be changing the clothes that they wear to school, or the way that they talk. And if they need to switch schools, and if they can still talk to their teachers.

It's been really scary, because my peers are worried. And I think a lot of the LGBTQ kids coming up in the grades beneath me are really concerned about where this is going to leave them and what actions they need to take.

And so I've done as much as I can trying to affirm to people that they are okay, and that we will all be okay. And I'm trying to teach people in the grades below me how to do the organizing and activist work that I have, so that when I am gone, there still is presence here in Florida. But in terms of response from my peers, and from my teachers, it's one of fear."

What do you think are some tangible impacts that it could have on LGBTQ students going through primary school to high school in Florida?

“In the LGBTQ community, you do have a mental health crisis because of students feeling stigmatized by their general communities, and by their peers, and sometimes by their families.

And so when you add the government to that list, and when you take away the only space that is supposed to be guaranteed for all children, what you're going to have is that mental health crisis grow exponentially worse, because where people would turn initially is now an even more dangerous place potentially."