Photography Josh Aronson

10 Florida activists fighting for a brighter, queerer future

From creating safe spaces at their schools to filing high-profile lawsuits, young people are rallying against the homophobic 'Don't Say Gay' law.

by E.R. Pulgar ; photos by Josh Aronson
|
11 May 2022, 3:52pm

Photography Josh Aronson

Throughout the first months of the year, troves of youth activists filled the chambers of Florida’s state legislature in revolt. Heading up to Tallahassee from as far south as Miami, queer folks and allies started mobilizing to protest as soon as they caught wind of HB 1557. The contentious piece of legislation, known nationwide as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by dissenters, was signed into law on March 28, 2022 by Governor Ron DeSantis and will take effect July 1st. 

The bill bars “any discussion of sexual orientation or identity in kindergarten through third grade in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards”, pointing to “grooming” young people with these ideas as its core thesis. The legislation and the language it massages to make its point has been rightfully flagged as homophobic by conservatives and progressives alike, as well as the President.

The legislation becoming law in a state whose queer population suffered through the Pulse Nightclub shooting (one of several tragedies affecting the Floridian LGBTQ+ community, repeatedly snubbed by DeSantis) is not unexpected, although it’s cruel considering the history. The truly chilling statistic here is that the law comes at a time when 45% of young queer people in the US have seriously considered taking their own lives over the past year. With “Don’t Say Gay” being signed into law and similarly homophobic pieces of legislation passing or being proposed in other states, it’s clear that politicians currently in power cannot be relied upon to protect queer youth when they’re actively undermining their safety in the academic spaces that mold them.

florida youth activist zander moricz photographed in nature by josh aronson
florida youth activist will larkins photographed in nature by josh aronson

However, the fight is far from over. From creating safe spaces at their schools to filing high-profile lawsuits in the hopes of overturning the bill in court, young queer activists in Florida and beyond are fighting to keep their peers and community safe from this backwards legislation.

“While this bill has brought widespread awareness to the terrifying sociopolitical regression of our state, this bill was not the beginning of this trend,” says Zander Moricz, a 17-year-old activist from Sarasota. “In Florida specifically, and throughout the United States, there has been a resurgence of oppressive legislation over the last several years. To me, activism has never been optional, but rather an essential part of living in a society that is historically and presently unequal.”

The interviews in this piece are accompanied by moving portraits by Josh Aronson, a Canadian photographer turned Miami local who’s made a name for himself documenting the city’s creative scene. “I did think about where we were shooting, and tried to respond to the idea that right-wing politicians often spew, about queerness being 'nurtured', not nature,” Josh says of the photos. “To counter that, I photographed everybody in and around nature, composing them in ways that intertwined them with their surroundings, trying to suggest that queerness is as natural as the Florida parks, forests and land where we were photographing.”

We spoke to young activists across the state of Florida who are employing grassroots methods of resistance in their schools, communities and beyond. Here they share words of care for other queer folks affected by the law and those struggling with anti-LGBTQ+ legislation across the country.

florida youth activist liana friedman photographed by josh aronson

Liana Friedman, 17, Weston

How are you involved in activism in Florida?
I’m part of the YES Institute, an organization in South Miami that works to prevent suicide and ensure the healthy development of all youth, and I’m the president of my school’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA). I try to get as involved as I can both in and outside of my community.

What brought you into the activist space so young?
When I was younger, I felt very helpless at the fact of the world being such a hateful place. When I was 13, I saw youth activists and I realized I was able to make a difference. 

Where were you when the bill was passed? How did you feel?
I was in school when I found out the bill was signed by DeSantis. I felt devastated and scared for the future, but I will continue to work hard to combat motions of hatred and regression while spreading a message of love.

What concrete steps are you taking to counter the bill now that it is a law?
I worked very hard to plan and execute a massive walkout at my high school. There were hundreds of kids that showed their active opposition to the “Don’t Say Gay” Bill. We were able to get major media news coverage and display our message that students oppose this extremely harmful bill. 

What words of advice/care do you have for other queer youth in Florida who will be attending school as the bill activates?
I encourage queer youth at any age to put effort into activism, find safe spaces where they can express themselves, and work towards a bigger cause. I encourage parents of young elementary school students who are affected by this bill to reinforce that it is okay and beautiful to embrace and be whoever you are.

florida youth activist will larkins photographed in nature by josh aronson

Will Larkins, 17, Winter Park

How are you involved in activism in Florida? 
I co-founded my school’s Queer Student Union with the goal to protect and empower LGBTQ+ students at Winter Park High School and all across the state. When HB 1557 was filed, I decided to use my platform to speak out within my school. I started going up to Tallahassee to testify in opposition of anti-diversity and anti-education legislation. 

[Will also penned an op-ed for The New York Times that you can read here].

What brought you into the activist space? 
I’m an activist out of survival. I have always dealt with harassment and homophobia because of how I express myself and I know that these attacks by the Florida legislature will make it worse for me and every other young LGBTQ+ person in the state and across the US. I have to speak out.

Where were you when the bill was passed? How did you feel? 
It was the day after I led my school's walkout; I got a text that the debate was coming to a close. The worst part was hearing the blatantly homophobic rhetoric coming from the legislature. It’s not a good feeling to not feel represented by those meant to fight for you.

What concrete steps are you taking to counter the bill now that it is a law?
I’ll continue to elevate the voices of those affected by this law. Two weeks ago, I registered 180 of my classmates to vote and will continue to advocate for people to vote out lawmakers that don’t represent us. 

What words of advice/care do you have for other queer youth in Florida who will be attending school as the bill activates?
You are not alone, you were never alone and you will never be alone. Look at the state of the queer community now versus 20 years ago. Progress was made and it will not stop.

What words do you have for Florida lawmakers?
I know you know that you are hurting us. I know you know the statistics on mental health and suicide. My generation will vote you out.

florida youth activist nathalie saladrigas photographed in nature by josh aronson

Nathalie Saladrigas, 19, Miami

How are you involved in activism in Florida?
My first involvement with activism was through Power U, a grassroots organization supported by Black and brown students that strives for liberation of oppressed people. In college, I founded Queer Collective, the first queer club on my campus, to offer a space for other queer-identifying folks to work towards liberation.  

What brought you into the activist space so young?
I am a brown queer woman who has experienced the ways a white dominated system has gone against my interests. For this reason, I think it's important to fight back the best way we can; for me, my power was in activism and speaking up. I also credit my high school teacher, Ms. Fernandini, who educated me on the history of oppression. 

Where were you when the bill was passed? How did you feel?
I remember listening to Senator [Shevrin “Shev”] Jones’ testimony and crying while sitting in Spanish class. Weeks after, when the bill was signed into law, I felt disappointed and discouraged, but understood that the fight was not over. 

What concrete steps are you taking to counter the bill now that it is a law?
When the discussion surrounding the bill began, Queer Collective phone-banked every Monday in February alongside SAVE LGBT, canvassed and protested twice. We are now focused on destigmatizing low-income housing and addressing how it directly affects the queer community. I have joined organizations that focus on promoting voting on campuses. The best we can do now is educate and promote voting.

What words of advice/care do you have for other queer youth in Florida who will be attending school as the bill activates?
See hope in the work many organizations and activists are doing to liberate our oppressed communities. Surround yourself with people who respect you and know that although people don't understand your love, your love is beautiful. 

What words do you have for Florida lawmakers?
I hope they see how many people came up and rose against injustice, and I hope they know we will never stop speaking up and fighting for what's right. We will continue to fight for human rights whether they like it or not and one day, we will replace them.

florida youth activist maxx fenning photographed in nature by josh aronson

Maxx Fenning, 19, Boca Raton

How are you involved in activism in Florida?
I'm the founder and President of PRISM, an LGBTQ+ nonprofit that works to expand access to inclusive education and sexual health resources for young people in South Florida. I also have been extremely active in the fight against the “Don't Say Gay” bill, testifying at the Florida Senate and speaking directly with legislators.

What brought you into the activist space so young?
During my sophomore year of high school, I decided to go to a GSA meeting on a whim. They just happened to be holding elections. I ran for Vice-President, won and was catapulted into the work I do now.

Where were you when the bill was passed? How did you feel?
When it officially passed in the Senate, I had just gotten home from a gruelling seven-hour bus ride from the very Capitol building where it happened. To be frank, it was exactly what I’d expected would happen. What I did not expect was the way that DeSantis would rile up his base and incite some of the vilest homophobia I've seen in years in the aftermath, nor the way it would incite continuous attacks and harassment against the LGBTQ+ community nationwide. That has been even worse than the bill itself.

What words of advice/care do you have for other queer youth in Florida who will be attending school as the bill activates?
Know that even without seeing your community in a textbook or classroom discussion, we are all around you. There is support at every corner, and this fight has only made us more emboldened to protect our community's most vulnerable.

What words do you have for Florida lawmakers?
Children do not exist for you to use as political pawns at the expense of their safety and education. Also — and this one is specifically for Dennis Baxley and Joe Harding — 🖕 .

florida youth activist cj walden photographed in nature by josh aronson

CJ Walden, 17, Boca Raton 

How are you involved in activism in Florida?
In my sophomore year, I joined my school’s GSA to be a part of a safe space. I met Maxx, who wanted to create a new club on campus. We were denied countless times, so Maxx went bigger and founded PRISM FL. In July of 2020, I became the Vice-President of our Board of Directors and have since led the organization. 

What brought you into the activist space so young?
While I grew up in a single-parent household, I grew up with all the support I wanted/needed. I know that many are not as fortunate to receive the love and support that they need, so when I was given the chance to help the entirety of my LGBTQ+ community, I jumped right in! 

Where were you when the bill was passed? How did you feel?
I went up to Tallahassee with Maxx and Javier and dozens of youth activists from across the state to protest at the last Senate Committee Hearing. HB 1557 passed and we returned to South Florida in defeat. I was at home when I learned that the bill became law, and I was truly baffled. I learned firsthand that many politicians do not care about the people they serve, and instead make bills surrounded by personal bias.

What concrete steps are you taking to counter the bill now that it is a law?
PRISM put out a series of myth-busters to spread factual and accurate information to the public, which is crucial in this horrific time.

What words of advice/care do you have for other queer youth in Florida who will be attending school as the bill activates?
Unless overturned, the bill will become law for the 2022-2023 school year. I advise everyone to stand firmly together to support each other. We cannot allow youth to be discriminated against. As a community, we must fight back against homophobia.

florida youth activist zander moricz photographed in nature by josh aronson

Zander Moricz, 18, Sarasota

How are you involved in activism in Florida?
I am the Executive Director of the Social Equity and Education (SEE) Initiative, serve as Central-Eastern Director of Communications for Diversify Our Narrative (DON), the President of the Board at Florida Model United Nations (FLOMUN) — where I created the FLOMUN Accessibility and Inclusivity Program — and am the first openly-gay class president of my school.

What brought you into the activist space so young?
I’m motivated by the potential I see in politics. What could be a system that hears the needs of people has become a system that obeys greed and power. As an organizer, my role is to parent politicians who create messes if we don’t keep a close eye on them… until I become a politician who acts on behalf of the people.

Where were you when the bill was passed? How did you feel?
I felt prepared. I had spent weeks with Roberta Kaplan’s law team planning for this outcome, and am now the youngest public plaintiff in the lawsuit against Governor DeSantis and the state of Florida over this bill. I was put in touch with Kaplan after a rally that I hosted in conjunction with Equality Florida and Project Pride SRQ. We have since prepared a complaint that would prove the unconstitutionality of this hateful legislation. 

What concrete steps are you taking to counter the bill now that it is a law?
In the short-term, I am fighting this law in the courts. Kaplan has done this before. In the Supreme Court case United States v. Windsor, she secured marriage equality for the LGBTQ+ community. Long-term, we must recognize that this bill is part of a strategic, nationwide attempt to erase the queer population. Instead of scrambling to react when it is too late, the SEE Initiative is creating a nationwide, preemptive response through advocate hubs called SEE Centers. Gen Z has the guts to fight their politicians, they just need a support system.

What words of advice/care do you have for other queer youth in Florida who will be attending school as the bill activates?
You are still valid and there is still hate. This bill makes you forget the first part by suffocating you with the second. If you’re betting on a group of people to be quiet, blend in or lose confidence in themselves, bet on anyone but the queer community.

florida youth activist nadya lopez photographed in nature by josh aronson

Nadya Lopez, 17, Miami

How are you involved in activism in Florida?
I’m part of the Alliance For LGBTQ+ Youth of South Florida, specifically the Changemakers Class of ‘22 to support our fellow queer youth. 

What brought you into the activist space so young?
The unfair treatment I experienced in my high school for being trans. Nothing was fair, and I had to fight extra hard to obtain the minimum. I made it my obligation to speak for my people and educate people.

Where were you when the bill was passed? How did you feel?
I was in my fifth period class alongside my fellow classmates. It hurt me, though I wasn’t shocked, knowing that Florida is filled with conservatives. A group of students and I walked out of our classes to show our frustration. I was able to co-lead the walkout and spoke on the bill.

What concrete steps are you taking to counter the bill now that it is a law?
I’m working alongside my fellow change-makers to set up town halls to protest the bill and to send out our message to local leaders and politicians, so they can know how we truly feel and how it is affecting our youth. 

What words of advice/care do you have for other queer youth in Florida who will be attending school as the bill activates?
Never stop letting yourself shine through all the darkness we are faced with everyday for simply choosing to live our truth. It is so important, as queer youth, we understand that we are unbelievably strong. We intimidate the ones who don’t understand us. Choose love, always. 

What words do you have for Florida lawmakers?
This bill is removing my people’s right to be able to live their authentic selves freely. It hurts to see how little respect and care we are given in this state. We are human just like you. We bleed the same blood. Stop toying with us.

florida youth activist justin rampal photographed in nature by josh aronson

Justin Rampal, 16, Pembroke Pines

How are you involved in activism in Florida?
I just try to stand up for what I believe in and fight for people's opportunities and rights.

[Justin co-organized the “Don’t Say Gay” walkout at Charles W. Flanagan High School].

What brought you into the activist space so young? 
I would have to say that it’s my courage and strong beliefs. I prefer to say something rather than sit on the sidelines. Also, watching people even younger than me doing big protests really inspires me to fight. 

Where were you when the bill was passed? How did you feel?
When I first heard about the bill it was brought up by a good friend of mine. I felt disgusted because lawmakers are trying to silence people in the LGBTQ+ community.

What concrete steps are you taking to counter the bill now that it is a law?
I would love to work [more closely] with other activists and have bigger and louder protests — to get the attention that is needed. 

What words of advice/care do you have for other queer youth in Florida who will be attending school as the bill activates?
Some advice I have for younger/future activists is never let anyone shut you up or silence you because your word, your voice, your stance matters. Don’t let anyone tell you any different. Also don’t try to be someone you are not because the real you has the biggest voice.

florida youth activist javier gomez photographed in nature by josh aronson

Javier Gomez, 18, Miami

How are you involved in activism in Florida?  
I was invited by Safe Schools South Florida and AIDS Healthcare Foundation to lobby against the bill in Tallahassee. I was interviewed for local and national news channels, recounting my experience as a gay man and GSA President, and spoke with Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona at a roundtable on what it means to be LGBTQ+ in such a regressive state. I’ve worked closely with pro-equality candidates, such as Janelle Perez, to turn Florida blue in the 2022 midterm elections. 

What brought you into the activist space so young? 
By understanding the implications of what it meant to be queer in a heteronormative society, the unethical malice present in politics and that the world was not going to change if youth like me didn’t step up and voice their concerns. Being a bystander causes destructive consequences to a healthy, equal democracy. 

Where were you when the bill was passed? How did you feel?
I was taking a Macroeconomics final exam when I received the news. My phone started blowing up and my heart dropped. The thought that our work was for nothing weighed on my mind. I felt paralyzed with fear.

What concrete steps are you taking to counter the bill now that it is a law?
I’m educating others on the importance of the midterm elections. I’m planning on working with my school to register students to vote and provide resources to those who are not politically educated nor have the capabilities to easily vote. The need for a high voter outcome is greater than ever and that starts with youth. I am also actively supporting Equality Florida’s proposed lawsuit against the bill’s constitutionality.

What words of advice/care do you have for other queer youth in Florida who will be attending school as the bill activates?
I know that it may seem that you’re alone, but I promise that you have a safety net always protecting you. LGBTQ+ pioneers fought for us so we can live a better life than them. It is now our turn to fight for their place in our history books, conversations and instructions. Allow yourself to breathe, relax and reflect. 

What words do you have for Florida lawmakers?
You will NOT silence us. The LGBTQ+ community is not going anywhere —we are here, we are queer, get used to it.

florida youth activist jack petocz photographed in nature by josh aronson

Jack Petocz, 17, Bunnell

How are you involved in activism in Florida?
I’m very involved within the Florida political sphere and have emerged as an advocate, particularly for the LGBTQ+ community. I have concentrated upon local politics, running a youth activist organization in opposition to bigotry on our school board.

What brought you into the activist space so young?
I believe that Gen Z grew up during an inherently tumultuous time that made us more politically-aware and ready to fight for change. I began to take tangible action during the pandemic, when certain members of my school board were amplifying disinformation and were endangering my community.

What concrete steps are you taking to counter the bill now that it is a law?
I was the main organizer of the “Don't Say Gay” walkouts that occurred across the state in March, and nationwide, to send a clear message of opposition to these discriminatory bills. In addition, I have done significant outreach and advocacy on social media. Now, I am focused on organizing a coalition of young voters to remove Ron DeSantis in November. 

What words of advice/care do you have for other queer youth in Florida who will be attending school as the bill activates?
Keep fighting and being your authentic selves — no one can silence or erase us. In addition, register to vote and organize for the midterm elections. 

What words do you have for Florida lawmakers?
To those fighting these bills in Tallahassee, I would like to sincerely thank them for being our voice in the legislature. However, for those who endorse and promote this bigoted legislation, be weary of the power of Gen Z. We will not stand idle as our rights and history is stripped from us, our voices will be heard, in numbers like never before. 

Follow i-D on Instagram and TikTok for more activism. 

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Politics
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Florida
queer
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