Days after Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed what opponents have called the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” billl into law, Will Larkins – a 17-year-old junior at Florida’s Winter Park High School and co-founder of his school’s Queer Student Union – asked his history teacher whether upcoming lessons on 1960s and 1970s history would include the Stonewall riots, the New York City LGBT+ uprisings that marked a turning point in civil rights history.
“I knew the answer was going to be ‘no’ – but I didn’t expect the answer to be, ‘What is Stonewall?’” Larkins tells The Independent.
With his teacher’s permission, Larkins assembled a presentation, and a video of the lesson from his fourth period history class went overwhelmingly viral.
After widespread press coverage of the viral clip, including a profile in Washington Post, the online harassment followed. Larkins says he was moved to a different class, another disciplinary action in a school year full of them.
“As unfortunate as some of the comments were … so many people have been messaging me – ‘I had no idea Stonewall existed’, ‘I’m gay and I didn’t know Stonewall happened.’ And now they do,” he says. “So because of this controversy… I was able to get this messaging out to a wider audience.”
Larkins – who helped lead school walkouts to protest the state’s “Parental Rights in Education Act” and testified against it during committee hearings at the state capitol – is among a generation of young students leading opposition to a campaign that has inspired at least a dozen similar bills across the US.
Florida’s legislation – which was signed into law on 28 March – broadly prohibits classroom instruction “on sexual orientation or gender identity” in kindergarten through third grade or “in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards” in other grades.
On 7 March, more than 500 students from the school walked out of classes that morning to protest the Florida bill, an effort organized by Larkins and a fellow student.
The law also states that parents may “bring an action against a school district to obtain a declaratory judgment” and a court may award damages and attorney’s fees for perceived violations, which opponents argue will open teachers and schools to spurious lawsuits that chill classroom speech among LGBT+ students and teachers.
“Florida is becoming a hostile and dangerous place for the queer community. And it already was,” Larkins tells The Independent. “It’s already not the best state to be gay in, and now it’s getting worse.”
In a recent op-ed for The New York Times, Larkins argued that “under threat of lawsuits, districts, schools and teachers may be hesitant to talk at all with students about gender identity and sexuality, even if the conversation is ‘age-appropriate’” regardless of their grade levels.
“When I look back to elementary school, I wonder how different my childhood would have been had my classmates and I knew that I wasn’t some tragic anomaly, a strange fluke that needed to be fixed,” he wrote. “People in support of the bill always ask, ‘Why do these subjects need to be taught in schools?’ To them I would say that if we understand ourselves, and those around us understand us, so many lives will be saved.”
Larkins co-founded the school’s Queer Student Union “as a way to protect and empower queer kids at Winter Park.”
“I was struggling a lot, mental health-wise, after a lot of homophobic events – I was kind of wallowing, going through it, then I came to the realization, ‘This sucks, but I can stand up for myself,’” Larkins says. “If this is happening to me, this is happening to everyone.”
The group had initially planned to draft a presentation for teaching LGBT+ history in the school’s classrooms, or hold an assembly. Larkins says the group’s focus shifted to the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” measure, but “it’s definitely the first thing we’re going to do in the next school year.”
Larkins says he asked state Senator Dennis Baxley, a co-sponsor of the bill, whether the legislation applies to campus-based Gay-Straight Alliance and Queer Student Union groups. He said it would not.
“But obviously as things go, with the very vague wording and no specifications on that stuff, it will definitely be taken school district by school district,” Larkins says.
A group of Florida LGBT+ advocacy groups and civil rights attorneys have filed a lawsuit to block the Florida law.
In Florida and across the US, conservative activists are also vying for candidacy on local school boards – Larkins says one member called him a “transvestite” – as right-wing groups funnel support into “parental rights” agendas at the local level.
Anti-gay rhetoric in support of similar “Don’t Say Gay” legislation and bills restricting transgender healthcare has also provoked a new wave of abuse, online and among young people, reviving old smears of “grooming” and accusations of pedophilia. A Gay-Straight Alliance poster at a nearby school was recently ripped down and replaced with violent anti-gay slurs, Larkins says.
“Kids in my class have said that since 7th grade – I’m 12 years old and they’re like, ‘You’re a pedophile.’ Just because I’m queer,” Larkins says. “I’ve dealt with that same stereotype of being [LGBT+] inherently means you’re predatory.”
Larkins says he has seen a “massive rise” in similarly hateful remarks.
“I’ve always [received] homophobic comments and messages, but now they’re filled with that stereotype attached to it. And it’s increased by a lot, and it’s scary,” Larkins says.
The Independent has requested comment from Winter Park High School.
“I feel like I could live my life centered around advocacy and activism for the rest of high school,” Larkins says. “One of the main things that kept me really depressed was not having a goal. I felt like I was waiting on high school, waiting for my life to start, and now I have something to do, and it’s helpful and it helps people, which is beautiful.”