When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed the Parental Rights in Education bill — or, as critics call it, the “Don’t Say Gay” bill — into law last week, Will Larkins was crushed.
Teen LGBTQ rights advocates have been at the forefront of the fight against the controversial law, which prohibits educators from teaching students in kindergarten through third grade about sexual orientation and gender identity. For older students, discussion about gay and transgender issues has to be “age appropriate or developmentally appropriate.”
Larkins, president and co-founder of his school’s Queer Student Union, testified against the bill in the Florida Senate on Feb. 28 and led a walkout of more than 500 high school students on March 7 in protest of the policy.
And on Sunday, Larkins shared a now-viral video on Twitter, in which he is seen educating fellow students about the 1969 Stonewall uprising. As of Monday evening, the tweet had garnered more than 20,000 likes.
Larkins was motivated to make a PowerPoint presentation on the Stonewall riots — a series of uprisings in New York City in response to a police raid of a gay bar — when he realized the topic wasn’t being covered in the class curriculum, he said. (Winter Park High School did not respond to a request for comment.)
Because Larkins’s class had recently been learning about pivotal historical events from the late 1960s and early 1970s in America, he said he asked his teacher: “Are we going to learn about Stonewall?”
His teacher’s response, Larkins said, was, “What’s Stonewall?”
So, in his spare time, Larkins put together a 10-minute presentation on the subject, which he subsequently shared with his teacher. He was then given permission to present it to the class on March 31, Larkins said.
During class, Larkins shared insight on the riots, which were orchestrated by members of the LGBTQ community, and explained how they served as a critical juncture in the gay rights movement.
“We don’t learn queer history at all,” he said. “It felt like something important that needed to happen, especially with the legislation in Florida.”
Shortly after Larkins tweeted the video, which was recorded by one of his classmates, a slew of strangers on social media cheered on his efforts.
“Thankful for you taking the time to educate your peers - this is how we build power,” one Twitter user wrote.
“I’m so sorry our schools are failing you, and so thankful you are #SayingGayAnyway and educating your peers,” a local parent commented.
Despite the outpouring of support, the video has also garnered criticism, including from people condemning Larkins’s decision to wear a dress during his presentation. Others pointed out that the law does not directly apply to his age group — an argument Larkins rebuts, given that the bill bans school personnel from instructing on sexual orientation or gender identity “in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”
Because of the ambiguity of the language used in the legislation, parents of students at any age can sue over perceived violations. Larkins’s fear, he said, is that teachers — even at high school grade levels — will refrain from openly discussing sexuality and gender identity in the classroom to avoid any potential conflicts with parents.
DeSantis and other proponents of the bill have said that the measure is reasonable and that parents, not teachers, should be discussing sexual orientation and gender identity with their children. “We will make sure that parents can send their kids to school to get an education, not an indoctrination,” DeSantis said before signing the bill on March 28.
Republicans have also emphasized that the legislation prevents “planned lessons” but does not ban discussions between students or prevent teachers from answering specific questions from a student.
Echo Izzo, 19, a senior at the school, said they felt deeply disturbed that Stonewall had not initially been included in the class’s lesson plan.
“It is really sad and really frustrating,” Izzo said. “I feel like a lot of people are not educated enough on these issues.”
When Izzo saw Larkins’s presentation on social media, “I was so glad that it was actually being talked about,” they said.
Larkins said that as a queer person, had the law been signed when he was a child, “I don’t think I would have felt safe growing up.” He added that he has experienced bullying, harassment and homophobic attacks throughout his life: “It is horrible, and I have struggled a lot.”
What has helped him feel less alone is being educated on the culture and history of the LGBTQ community. But now he sees “a whole generation of kids in Florida growing up without that opportunity,” Larkins said, pointing out that more young Americans than ever are identifying as LGBTQ. The law “is going to harm people like me.”
Larkins said he feels “lucky” that he has “supportive” parents: “I’m able to speak out about it. Not everyone can.”
That’s why he is committed to continuing to educate the whole student population — and beyond — on what it’s like to be an out LGBTQ student in Florida, he said. In doing so, Larkins added, “I’ve been able to create a voice for myself and it’s shown others that their voice matters just as much.”
For him, the massive crowd at the walkout he organized, coupled with the overwhelming response to his history lesson, reinforced that his advocacy work is worthwhile: “New and uneducated allies became advocates, and I feel safer at school than ever before,” he said.
Mikayla Pena, 16, a student at Winter Park High School who participated in the March 7 walkout, said Larkins’s activism has encouraged her to get involved.
“It’s important to always stand up for what you believe in,” she said, adding that she feels the newly signed law is “completely wrong.”
Pena says Larkins and other student advocates at the school have “really opened a lot of people’s eyes.”
Miguel Blas, 16, who is involved in the Queer Student Union, agreed.
“When the bill first came out, I had a lot of confusion and a lot of fear regarding how us gay teenagers are going to have to start acting at school,” he said. “I have definitely learned a lot from Will, and he pushed me to get into this sort of activism.”
Larkins said this is just the beginning of his advocacy work; he has recently turned his attention to encouraging voter registration for the November midterm elections.
“We’re not going to stop fighting,” he said. “As horrible as this all is, it’s inspired young people to get involved.”