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Gay high school student says he’s ‘silenced’ by Florida’s LGBTQ law

Florida high school student Zander Moricz was called into his principal’s office last week. As class president for his entire high school career — and his school’s first openly LGBTQ student to hold the title — it was a pretty common request. But once he walked into the administrator’s office, he said, he immediately knew “this was not a typical meeting.”

His principal — Stephen Covert of Pine View School in Osprey, Fla., about 70 miles south of Tampa — warned Moricz that if his graduation speech referenced his LGBTQ activism, school officials would cut his microphone, would end his speech and stop the ceremony, Moricz alleged.

“He said he ‘just wanted the families to have a good day’ and if I were to discuss who I am and the struggle to be who I am, it would ‘spoil the celebration,'” Moricz said. 18, recalled. “It was incredibly dehumanizing.”

Covert did not respond to questions from NBC News regarding his alleged warning to Moricz. However, he released a statement through his employer, Sarasota County Schools, saying he and other school officials “support each student’s uniqueness on their personal and educational journey.”

In a statement, Sarasota County Schools confirmed Covert and Moricz’s reunion, adding that graduation speeches are regularly reviewed to ensure they are “appropriate to the tone of the ceremony.”

“Out of respect for all who attend the graduation, students are reminded that a graduation should not be a platform for personal political statements, especially those that may disrupt the ceremony,” said declared the district. “If a student deviates from this expectation upon graduation, appropriate action may need to be taken.”

In his manager’s defense, Moricz added that he was “surprised” because Covert’s request “did not reflect his previous actions” during their four years together. Moricz said he “firmly believes” the request was in response to a recently enacted state law, which critics have dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

Officially titled the Parental Rights in Education Act, the legislation prohibits the teaching of sexual orientation or gender identity “in kindergarten through 3rd grade or in a manner that is not appropriate for age or development of students in accordance with state standards”. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed the bill into law in late March.

Proponents of the measure have claimed it gives parents more latitude over what their children learn in school and say LGBTQ issues are “not age appropriate” for young students.

But critics have argued that the law could prevent teachers and students from speaking out about their lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer identities or family members.

Zander Moricz.Courtesy of Zander Moricz

During a statewide student walkout in March, Moricz led Sarasota County’s largest protest against the legislation. In the days leading up to the rally, Moricz said, school officials tore down posters and told him to end the protest. In an email to NBC News, a school official said she had “no idea about the alleged removal of the posters before the student protest.”

Later that month, Moricz and a group of more than a dozen students, parents, educators and advocates filed a federal lawsuit against DeSantis and the state board of education, alleging that the law “would stigmatize, silence and erase LGBTQ people from Florida public schools. ”

“The reason something like the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law seems like nothing but is actually everything is that when you can’t talk or share who you are, there’s a constant subconscious affirmation that you aren’t valid, that you shouldn’t exist,” Moricz said.

Fighting the legislation is personal for Moricz, he added. Thanks to his school’s support system, Moricz said he became confident about his sexuality. Before coming out to his family, Moricz said, he came out to his peers and teachers at school during his freshman year.

“I wouldn’t fight for these things, I wouldn’t champion these causes like I do, if I couldn’t have done it in school first,” he said. “I think the same way school is where you learn so many important things about life, you also learn about yourself, and that feels different for LGBTQ kids.”

Gay high school student says he’s ‘silenced’ by Florida’s LGBTQ law
Zander Moricz.Courtesy of Zander Moricz

But Moricz’s activism comes at a price: Since leading his school’s protest in March, he said, he has been harassed online and received death threats in person and online from from foreigners. He even said that strangers entered his parents’ offices, out of the blue, looking for him.

“I don’t feel safe working as a day-to-day individual in my county,” he said. “Pineview as a student community has been amazing to me. Sarasota as a community was something I had to endure.

While the Parental Rights in Education Act does not take effect until July 1, some teachers and students, like Moricz, said they have already begun to feel its impact.

Since the legislation was introduced in the state House of Representatives in January, LGBTQ teachers in Florida have told NBC News that they fear talking about their families or LGBTQ issues more broadly. Several left the profession in response to the enactment of the law.

Last week, a teacher at a Florida college in Lee County, about 40 miles north of Naples, claimed she was fired in March for discussing sexuality with her students. The Lee County School District said Scott was fired because she “did not follow the state-mandated curriculum.”

And just this week, school officials at Lyman High School in Longwood, Fla., said yearbooks would not be distributed until photos of students protesting the state’s LGBTQ legislation were found. not covered with stickers. The district school board reversed the decision on Tuesday, following an outcry from students and parents.

Despite some pleas from parents and classmates to “not destroy graduation,” Moricz said he plans to include his identity and activism in his graduation speech, which he is expected to deliver at the end of the month.

“The purpose of this threat is for my manager to make me choose between standing up for my First Amendment rights and making sure my friends get the celebration they deserve,” Moricz said. “I will not choose between these two things, and both will be achieved on May 22.”

LGBTQ advocates applauded Moricz’s efforts and denounced Covert’s warning.

“This blatant censorship is unacceptable and entirely predictable,” Jon Harris Maurer, director of public policy at Equality Florida, an advocacy group also named in Moricz’s lawsuit, said in a statement. “It illustrates how the law’s vague and ambiguous language erases students, families, and LGBTQ history from K-12, without limits.”

Moricz will be heading to Harvard University in the fall, where he plans to learn more about public policy. He said he hoped students who remained in Florida public schools would “prove me right in my prediction.”

“Attempting to silence the LGBTQ community will be a hilarious and disastrous flop,” Moricz said.

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