A Queer High-School Senior Tells Us About Life in Florida After "Don't Say Gay" Expansion

Image Source: Courtesy of Will Larkins

Almost exactly a year ago, Will Larkins, a student at Winter Park High School near Orlando, FL, went viral. They shared a video on Twitter in which they educated classmates about the 1969 Stonewall uprisings — just days after Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the Parental Rights in Education bill into law, prohibiting teachers from discussing sexual orientation and gender identity through the third grade. On April 19, at DeSantis's request, the state's Board of Education expanded the so-called "Don't Say Gay" law to all students through 12th grade. The Florida House, meanwhile, has been passing bills that ban gender-affirming care, limit bathroom access for trans individuals, and ban children from drag shows.

Larkins is just two weeks away from graduating high school in Florida and is continuing to advocate for fellow LGBTQ+ students, attending school-board meetings and organizing protests. Days after the news broke about the expanded law, Larkins told POPSUGAR about how they're fighting for fellow queer students, what their classmates think of the Board of Education's latest move, and more. Read what they had to say, all in their own words, below.

I knew that this expansion was going to happen, because I'd known about the Board of Education vote since February. So I've been preparing myself. I know the Board of Education is appointed by our governor, who doesn't like us. But it's still a complete slap in the face to all of us who have been advocating so hard against it, to the students who are actually affected by these laws, who have stakes in the school system.

I have a younger sister who's going into her sophomore year, and I just know how much this is going to take away from a potentially high-quality education for her. Because that's not what they're going to have anymore. They're going to learn so much less than I learned, because teachers will be self-censoring, they won't be able to have open discussions. I'm really afraid for the students in Florida in the next couple of years.

In my day-to-day life, everything is a protest.

Honestly, it makes me sad that I can't stay a little bit longer in high school to help let students in my school know that they're not alone and know that even if the teachers aren't able to freely express their support, there are students who are willing. I show up to school every day wearing a rainbow flag and a trans flag around my neck. So that's just kind of the energy that's unfortunate I can't bring into next year.

I know that the majority of students see censorship of education as an inherently negative thing, because it is. You tell students that sexual orientation and gender identity can't even be mentioned until after 12th grade? It's absurd. Last year, they were telling us that we were crazy when we said that this is just the first step to something larger, when we were saying that this was going to harm so many people. They said, "Oh, it just goes to third grade, you don't want to talk about sexual orientation or gender identity with third-graders, right?" But it was never about that. And now it's to 12th grade, and it's everyone. A lot of students are really scared, because we were raised in a century where we learned about fascism, where we learned about book banning in Nazi Germany, where we learned that censorship of information and education is the first step to a bigger problem. I think our generation sees right through it.

With the abortion ban, too, a lot of people are paying a lot more attention now. The lawmakers could kind of get away with the anti-trans things because we make up such a small minority of the population — not everyone knows a trans person, so it's not a direct effect on everyone. But now that they've done the six-week abortion ban, it's really scary, and a lot of students are picking up on it. So I think that next year, the pushback from students is going to be way bigger than they can even begin to imagine.

I see myself as just carrying on the legacy of the students of Parkland and the people who made so much movement after Pulse in Orlando. But I will say, last year, when I was in the legislature and I was doing so much advocacy, there were only like five other students I was aware of who were fighting for Florida in the way I was. This year, the amount of students doing the same work has increased so much. There are so many more students; every committee I go to is just filled with students. And it'll only be more so like that next year.

In my day-to-day life, everything is a protest. I try to be as visibly queer as possible wherever I go, even if I know it's dangerous, even though I'm used to getting threatened, getting called slurs literally on the street. I wear my Pride flags everywhere, not just school. Going to Target, I put on my Pride flag. I know I get a mixed reaction, people make fun of me, people call me slurs. But then some people tell me I made their day. I walked into a gas station and someone said, "I love your trans flag, thank you," and sometimes I'll be at school and be in the bathroom and someone who's very shy and is looking down at the ground and has their AirPods in will look up at me and say, "I love your flags." I will take the hate to show other students that there are people fighting for them.

The news really is making it seem like the world is ending here in Florida, and it's not. It's bad, it's really bad, but it's not ending. It's like a slingshot: they're pulling us way back, but we're just going to snap back and bounce even further forward.

— As told to Lena Felton