Critics say new school policies in Florida ostracize LGBTQ students

In Florida, school boards have implemented policies that critics say are ostracizing LGBTQ students. In some districts, teachers have removed certain books and rainbow flags from classrooms and others are obligated to report openly LGBTQ students to their parents. High school senior Will Larkins and recent graduate Javier Gomez joined William Brangham to discuss what it means for teenagers there.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    In Florida, some local school boards have implemented policies that critics say are ostracizing LGBTQ students as the new school year gets under way.

    Other states are taking similar steps, including most recently in Virginia.

    William Brangham is back now with our look at its impact for some students in Florida.

  • William Brangham:

    Students and teachers are back in school in Florida for the first time since that state's parental rights in education law took effect.

    Known by critics as the don't say gay bill, it bans discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade or any instruction that is not deemed age-appropriate. It also allows parents to sue school districts over any material they feel violates the law.

    In some school districts, teachers have removed certain books and rainbow flags from classrooms, and others are obligated to report openly LGBTQ students to their parents.

    So what has this meant for LGBTQ teenagers in Florida?

    I'm joined by Will Larkins, a senior at Winter Park High School in Orange County, Florida, and Javier Gomez, who graduated from a Miami high school earlier this year and is now at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

    Welcome to you both. Thanks for being here.

  • Will Larkins, LGBTQ+ Student Activist:

    Thank you for having us.

  • Javier Gomez, LGBTQ+ Student Activist:

    Thank you for having us.

  • William Brangham:

    So, Will, to you first.

    Can you just give us a sense of how things have changed in Florida, from your perspective, since this law passed?

  • Will Larkins:

    I have noticed an uptick in anti-LGBTQ hate crimes and general attitude toward people.

    I have always dealt with homophobia at high school. I have always been called slurs and stuff, but it has gotten worse since the school year started. A lot of things have happened. Most recently, my sister and I were followed home after a football game by 15 guys, who called us slurs, told us to kill ourselves.

    It was really scary. They said they were going to beat us up. They chased us. We got lost in the trees.

    The other thing I have noticed really — really that I know for a fact came from this is more of the rhetoric that's coming from the state legislature and our governor, such as the grooming rhetoric, calling queer people pedophiles, has now trickled down to the high school level, and high school bullies are using the same language as our politicians, who are pushing for this bill and other anti-LGBTQ laws.

  • William Brangham:

    Those are horrible experiences. I'm sorry.

    Javier, have you seen similar kinds of things?

  • Javier Gomez:

    I have, actually.

    I mean, from my school, I have noticed that there's been a divide against a lot of students with the anti-gay rhetoric that's been spewed around by so many people. I have noticed the languages that are being used. There's the grooming pedophiles, et cetera.

    And I definitely think that there's been this precedent set by this bill in particular and other states nationwide. And it's been trickling down to, like Will said, the high school level, where a lot of kids are using that language and thinking it's appropriate, and going at queer kids.

    And it's really traumatizing, to a point where it hurts me and it hurts — and I can't imagine the pain that other people are feeling. And I'm not in high school anymore.

  • William Brangham:

    Will, I want to double back on this point, because, as you're both pointing out, people have expressed hatred towards queer people, trans people, gay people from time immemorial.

    Why do you think it's specifically, though, this law that his created this atmosphere that you're both describing?

  • Will Larkins:

    I think it's interesting, because, most recently, for the first time ever, queer people have become mainstream. This is a new thing. This is 2010s onward.

    And we have gotten to a point where we're being generally accepted by society. So now homophobic and anti-queer legislators and lawmakers are put pushing back against it. And when they're pushing back against it, it is dignifying and it is backing up these bullies. It is telling them that you are right in being homophobic, when, before, we were at a point where these people knew that they were wrong.

    But now they're being backed up by Ron DeSantis.

  • William Brangham:

    Just basically sort of given some official sanction, you believe?

  • Will Larkins:

    Absolutely.

    The law itself is terrible, because it sends a message to the queer community that there's something wrong with us, that there's something inherently perverse with being queer or being trans. And that is not true. But it also sends that same message to the bullies who want to hurt us and want to kill us.

  • William Brangham:

    Javier, I'm not trying to condone bigotry or hatred by any stretch here. But there are some people who look at that law and support it and think they genuinely believe that those laws are protecting their children in some way from something that they think is inappropriate.

    To those people, what would you say?

  • Javier Gomez:

    I think parents don't understand their kids.

    And I think it has gotten to a point where they think it's — this parental right to education, this right to knowing what their kids are doing, but I think that parents are not understanding that some kids, that it may not affect their kids, but it has a drastic effect on other kids and other queer youth that are in statewide in Florida.

    There's a lack of just communication among both parties of what is really best for queer youth. And that's going to cause this immense and drastic change to how queer youth see themselves, their mental health, their education.

  • William Brangham:

    Which we know is already a problem.

  • Javier Gomez:

    Absolutely, yes.

  • Will Larkins:

    Queer teens are four times more likely to die by suicide than their straight counterparts, and 52 percent of trans youth last year said they seriously considered suicide.

    So where's that coming from? That is coming from these laws. That is coming from this rhetoric, and that is coming from the bullies who see it on TV, see it on FOX News an, pick it up, and use it to harm people like us.

  • Javier Gomez:

    Yes, of course.

  • William Brangham:

    Can I ask you how you're both — how have you been dealing with this? Do you have family, friends, other allies that are there for you?

  • Will Larkins:

    I will say it's been hard.

    Seeing the way that people talk about me and my community, getting, honestly, hundreds, thousands of messages telling me horrible things, and dealing with it on a day-to-day basis is not easy. But you just have to remember, and I — this is what I do. I just remember, these are people who are misguided.

    And I have been in places where I have felt hate toward other people. And I know how horrible it is to live like that. And so I'm living a life where I'm free, because I will see everyone as a person and I will not see a queer person the street and be upset about it. I was at a rally. I spoke at a rally in early June in Orlando.

    And a woman came up to me looked at me wearing a dress and started crying and started praying and got down on her knees. I — she caused herself so much mental distress because I existed. And I — honestly, it may sound cliche, but I feel bad for these people. I don't live like that. And they do.

  • William Brangham:

    Javier, how are you dealing with this?

  • Javier Gomez:

    It's overwhelming.

    Sometimes, I sit to myself and contemplate and reflect on why I do this. But there's always an answer, a direct answer, to me. And that answer is just to help other little Javiers that — to not go through what I did when I was younger and my trauma, my queer trauma as a child, and how that reflected on to who — the person that I am today.

    I want to be that role model that I never had when I was younger. And I'm dealing with that. I'm dealing with it, but I'm dealing it with pride, because, the more you're proud of yourself, the more happy you are with yourself, the angrier they got, the angrier they perceive.

    But that doesn't matter to me, because I'm living my life authentically.

  • William Brangham:

    Javier Gomez, Will Larkins, thank you both so much for being here.

  • Will Larkins:

    Thank you so much for having.

  • Javier Gomez:

    Thank you. Thank you for having us.

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