While anti-LGBTQ+ legislation is nothing new, it seemed for a minute there that the United States had perhaps turned a corner as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed and same-sex marriage was legalized. However, 2021 saw a record number of new pieces of legislation aimed at discriminating against trans people, and trans youth in particular. Riding on the crest of that wave has been a new round of anti-LGBTQ+ bills that seek to stop simple discussion of LGBTQ+ experiences. These “Don’t Say Gay” bills have been proposed in more than a dozen states, but it is (perhaps unsurprisingly) Florida that first championed one of these bills and saw it signed into law by Governor Ron De Santis.
However, this renewed anti-LGBTQ+ legislative push is not riding forth unheeded, as people like Zander Moricz are fighting back in full force.
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While some parts of Florida might be more progressive and open to LGBTQ+ identities, Moricz’ home county of Sarasota, located some way south of Tampa, is not one of those parts: it voted for Trump in both 2016 and 2020. Growing up as a gay teenager in Sarasota, Zander Moricz was not in a wider community that was ever likely to be supportive of marginalized identities. However, in his time at Pine View High School he was able to find a place to thrive – at least for a while.
As a freshman, Moricz became Pine View’s first openly gay class president. He went on to hold that position through all four years of high school.
With a supportive group of peers, a teacher (Ms. Ballard) he could openly discuss his identity with, and a safe place where he could be a teenager, Moricz rose above and beyond. As a freshman, he became Pine View’s first openly gay class president. He went on to hold that position through all four years of high school.
When he began to get involved in activism for civil rights, it was an uphill battle. Moricz describes Sarasota County as “a place that has fostered polar politics,” noting that the “leaders in Sarasota County have made it acceptable to be hateful.” The environment itself was already against Moricz as a member of a marginalized community, but the support for student activism and activism in favor of progressive civil rights just was not available, as he stated: “this is a place where if you’re going to fight back, you’re going to organize, and you’re going to be an activist, you have to do so within your communities because the support is not going to come from the government or from the school system.” However, Moricz recognized the need to push back, telling INTO: “In Florida specifically, and throughout the United States holistically, there has been a resurgence of oppressive legislation over the last several years.”
By the time that Moricz was entering his senior year at Pine View High School, he had already been involved in plenty of activism, having put himself out there for multiple issues, both queer and otherwise. While much of the organizing was done remotely due to the pandemic, Moricz played a major role in making voices heard in favor of Black Lives Matter in Sarasota County. All of this prepared him for stepping up to the plate against the “Don’t Say Gay” bill (Florida HB 1557) and the attacks that would come at him when he tried to speak up.
When the “Don’t Say Gay” bill was introduced, Zander started fighting. When HB 1557 was discussed in the Florida State Senate, Zander Moricz was there to give testimony against it. As class president, he gave a graduation speech to Pine View, but was told by his principal that if his speech included any discussion of his activism then his mic would be cut, and the ceremony halted. The unsupportive community of Sarasota County and Florida at large had been brought into Zander’s high school, damaging the safe space that he and so many queer teens value, even before the law took full effect.
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In response, Moricz used his position as the executive director of the Social Equity and Education (SEE) Initiative (a position he has held since June 2019) to help send out 10,000 “Say Gay” stickers to high schools to push back against the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in a way that couldn’t be censored. He organized protests holding up blank pieces of paper. Speaking to Into about his incredible response and the support of his peers, Zander said:
“As the Executive Director of the Social Equity and Education (SEE) Initiative, we have been leading the student response to such attacks in our state since 2019. We’ve protested at our school boards, circulated petitions gaining thousands of signatures, served as a support system for school-based equity clubs, orchestrated lecture circuits, walkouts, and rallies, and we’ve become the central force of youth advocacy here in Florida. So, when the “Don’t Say Gay” bill surfaced, we were notified by dozens of people within hours.”
And, finally, Moricz gave his speech. In it, he did not mention his sexuality, his activism, or the legislation. But he also didn’t allow himself to give in to oppression.
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Moricz instead discussed the troubles that he faced as a teenager with curls:
“I spent mornings and nights embarrassed of them, trying to desperately straighten this part of who I am. But the daily damage of trying to fix myself became too much to endure […] There are going to be so many kids with curly hair who need a community like Pine View and they will not have one […] Instead, they’ll try to fix themselves so that they can exist in Florida’s humid climate.”
Moricz has had to fight against roadblocks that have been placed in his way by his community and legislatures just to be who he is. But he has continually risen above them. His speech about his curls sends a clear message of who he is and is emblematic of the impressive way that he expresses himself and holds people’s attention as he fights for what he must.
So as he graduates high school, what is next for the 18-year-old Zander Moricz? In the fall of 2022, he will fittingly head to Harvard. His future plans involve working to take the SEE Initiative beyond Florida to the national level. While Harvard will certainly be time-intensive, Zander is committed to continuing his social activism there and beyond, and to return to Florida to continue the fight saying:
“I intend to come back to [Florida] not out of desire but out of a sense of responsibility. We cannot let the bad people of this state take over the state. It is our state. It is Florida. Florida is a state where everyone in it belongs and we cannot allow marginalized communities to be bullied out of a space that they deserve.”
Zander has stood up for what’s right, and when the world has pushed him over, he’s got right back up again. It’s already clear that Zander Moricz won’t ever be one to stay down, and he is definitely one to watch in the coming years.♦
INTO’s 20 Under 20 series celebrates Gen Z changemakers who are standing up and fighting for a better world. Read the full series here.