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Students, supporters protest ‘don’t say gay’ bill outside Gaither High

TAMPA — As soon as Moses May learned about Florida lawmakers’ efforts to hinder conversations about LGTBQ issues in schools, he knew he had to do something.

“I was really freaked out,” the Gaither High School freshman said. “Quite a few of my friends I know could be harmed.”

Aiming to call more local attention to the nationally followed legislation, now frequently referred to as the “don’t say gay” bill, May organized a Monday morning rally along the busy stretch of N Dale Mabry Highway outside his school. He hoped three or four people might show up to wave signs and show support for LGBTQ rights.

Close to three dozen students and allies turned out. They shared a desire to make sure their voices, and their stories, do not fall victim to lawmaker actions they said were “insane,” “harmful” and worse.

“I feel pretty safe talking to most of my teachers,” said Comet Tartaglione, a senior who is transgender. “If this bill were in place, I would not feel safe any more.”

Tartaglione pointed to the portion of the legislation that would require school personnel to notify a student’s parents if they note any change in services or monitor any shift in the child’s mental, emotional or physical health. To him and others, that’s equivalent to outing them, whether they want it or not.

Related: Florida’s ‘don’t say gay’ bills, explained

Several others at the protest disagreed with a section of the legislation that would bar classroom discussion about gender identity and sexual orientation in “primary grade levels” or in a manner deemed development not to be age- or appropriately-appropriate.

“They’re trying to make gay as if it is a bad thing,” said sophomore Aureanna Hadley, who carried a sign reading “Pan with a plan,” referring to being pangender. “When you tell people not to talk about something, it’s usually because it’s bad.”

The legislation is making its way through the session in the form of Senate Bill 1834 and House Bill 1557.

LGBTQ youth already feel isolated enough, freshman Tyler Conboy said.

“We don’t want to force queer kids back into the closet,” he said, mentioning statistics showing that LGBTQ students are four times more likely than others to attempt suicide. “Why make that rate any higher? … This bill needs to be stopped.”

Conboy said he has been shot at, had milk cartons thrown at him and received death threats because of his identity as an asexual. Society needs to become more accepting and understanding, not less, he said.

“We’re tired of being treated like aliens, or like we’re going to ‘spread the gay,'” Conboy said. “That’s not how it works.”

Even without the laws, some of the students said they had felt marginalized and silenced.

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“I’m queer. It sucks to be closeted,” freshman Richelle McCue said. “At my old school, it was a ‘weird’ thing to be gay or queer in any way…. I had some teachers come up to me and ask me not to say anything. It wasn’t like I was even talking about it.”

McCue’s friend Angel Perez, also a freshman, wondered how the Legislature could silence their speech, questioning whether the bill would violate their First Amendment rights.

“We should be able to express ourselves,” Perez said. “Allow us to be us.”

Lawmakers sponsoring the bill have said they do not intend to limit conversations. They contend their effort is to control district-directed lessons.

But that’s not how the bill reads, noted Todd Parke, a Carrollwood resident who attended the rally to support the students. He learned about it from a flyer at Starbucks.

“We don’t want to wait a year to have an appeals court weigh in on this,” said Parke, who called the proposal repressive and draconian. “The Legislature should know better.”

Retired teacher Jeanne Musgrave, who came to support her grandchild, Tartaglione, said it’s important for schools to provide safe places for all children. That includes the ability to have conversations and to provide advice, she added.

She criticized the bill as “insane,” saying the state has many more important issues to focus on for helping children.

Related: White House denounces Florida GOP over ‘don’t say gay’ bill

Having students push back against this measure and others like it is a key piece of the opposition, several critics said during a Zoom press conference later Monday morning. Speakers representing the advocacy groups Equality Florida, PEN America, GLAAD and PFLAG discussed the bill as one of the most dangerous of its kind, among more than 150 measures in 38 states targeting LGBTQ issues.

“Students can be some of the most effective and persuasive voices about this,” said Suzanne Nossel, chief executive officer of PEN America, a group that advocates for free expression. “They can’t be dissuaded based on who their backers are or what causes they’re affiliated with.”

Students protest Monday at Gaither High in Tampa against the so-called “don't say gay” bills making their way through the Florida Legislature.
Students protest Monday at Gaither High in Tampa against the so-called “don’t say gay” bills making their way through the Florida Legislature. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

If they can’t get to Tallahassee, she said, they can start petitions, send emails, write op-ed columns and share their stories. They can attend virtual lobbying days, too, said Nadine Smith, Equality Florida CEO.

“Some young people are calling the governor’s office and saying ‘gay’ and hanging up,” Smith said, suggesting young people should fight for their rights in any way that inspires them.

At the Gaither High rally, May wore a Pride flag over his shoulders and sang “If you’re queer and you know it hooray.” He said the goal was to make sure voices get heard. He talked about three or four friends who have confided to teachers but would be “seriously hurt” if their parents learned about their sexuality.

“My message would be to Gov. DeSantis and the Florida Legislature,” May said. “You need to stop this bill as soon as possible. It could hurt a lot of lives.”

The House bill has passed one of its two committee stops. The Senate version was favorably reported by the first of three committees that will hear the bill.

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