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What’s next for Florida’s high school activists after bill restricting LGBTQ topics in elementary schools

Demonstrators protest inside the Florida Capitol on March 7 in Tallahassee. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

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When 18-year-old Nya Vidal protested at Florida’s Capitol in Tallahassee for the first time last week, she did not receive a warm welcome.

Vidal was there to oppose legislation to restrict how elementary school teachers talk about LGBTQ issues with their students.

While getting off the elevator, a man walked behind her group and said, “Oh, I forgot that we were doing this crap today,” Vidal said.

“I was just like, ‘Okay, someone actually has the audacity to say that around a bunch of children,' ” she added.

But Vidal was also inspired to see so many young people come together. Vidal’s group was just one of several Gen Z-led protests against the measure, including several walkouts at schools throughout the state.

“For me, it was really empowering to be around other students,” said Vidal, a senior at Gainesville High School. “I feel like students have a much more powerful voice than they think they do, and it saddens me that they’re not encouraged to use it as much.”

And though the legislature passed the bill last week and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has signaled he will sign it into law, student activists say they plan to use this experience to energize their generation to be more politically active.

“It’s important to push all of the kids my age all across the state to register to vote and know what their rights are and remember that they have the power over electing their next governor,” Vidal said.

The law, officially called the Parental Rights in Education bill, prohibits classroom discussion in kindergarten through third grade about sexual orientation or gender identity. It also allows parents to sue school systems they say violate the rule. DeSantis and other proponents say the law is about “parental rights” and limiting discussion in classrooms to topics they consider to be age appropriate.

“We are going to make sure parents are able to send their kid to kindergarten without having some of this stuff injected into some of their school curriculum,” DeSantis, who accused the media of misinterpreting the bill, told reporters last week.

While high schools were not named in the bill, teen activists like Vidal, who is bisexual, fear the law could have a chilling effect on discussion of LGBTQ topics across grade levels.

“I feel like people in general who support it come to the consensus that it's strictly for parent rights, but at the same time, they don't think about all the other issues that arise,” Vidal said.

Vidal worries about her current events class and whether teachers may feel pressure to limit classroom discussion about LGBTQ topics.

Jack Petocz, who is a junior at Flagler Palm Coast High School and organized a walkout at his school, also worries about the impact it will have on student’s mental health.

“It's going to restrict our ability to openly converse with teachers and staff about our identities and the struggles we face,” said Petocz, who is gay.

Gen Z now represents the generational group with the largest proportion of LGBTQ people, according to a February poll released by Gallup. The poll found that 21 percent of Gen Zers who have reached adulthood, or those born between 1997 and 2003, identify as LGBTQ. That is compared to 10.5 percent of millennials, and 4.2 percent of Gen X.

“I think Gen Z overall is so engaged like never before in politics, like no other generation, because these issues directly affect us,” Petocz said.

That activism stretches beyond the legislature’s recent measure. After a gunman killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Fla., in 2018, students organized a nationwide protest movement that included a “March for Our Lives” in Washington that attracted hundreds of thousands of attendees.

“When we see these attempts to hurt marginalized communities, whether it’s people of color, whether it’s the queer community," he added. "I think everyone stands in solidarity.”