Jack Petocz is Standing Up Against Gay Erasure in Schools

While an older generation of politicians—holed up in government buildings over 200 miles away—were using the levers of democracy to ban speech, Flagler Palm Coast High student Jack Petocz chose to speak out. On March 3rd of this year, he organized the “Say Gay” walkout, a protest to his home state’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. The walkout took place on fields where students like Petocz would normally be playing football, and during school hours, when they would much rather be focusing on their education.

Petocz was not alone in standing up. Over 500 students participated in the Flagler Palm Coast High walkout and over 200 more joined in at the neighboring Matanzas High. In sheer numbers, their voices far outweighed the 69 state representatives who approved the bill the week prior, the 22 state senators who would approve it the week after, and the one governor who would ultimately sign it into law on March 28.

While the “Say Gay” walkout is the most high-profile example of his advocacy, Petocz was an activist long before then. Last December, he became involved with Recall FCSB, a student organization challenging the very school board. The group took on a library ban of George M. Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue, one board member’s crusade to overturn face mask requirements for the SATs, and the school board’s refusal to disavow the hate groups that had interrupted the group’s earlier protests. It was through Recall FCSB that Petocz organized the “Say Gay” walkout.

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Despite the justifiable outrage fueling the walkout, Petocz and his fellow organizers were models for cooperation, coordinating in advance with school administrators. The courtesy was not repaid in kind. Although initially the administrators allotted 15 minutes for the walkout, this was cut by half right in the middle of it. After Petocz had already purchased hundreds of miniature Pride flags, he was informed with almost no notice that Pride flags would be prohibited. He passed them out anyway, and was summarily suspended for two and half days.

Petocz was reinstated after fellow walkout organizer Cameron Driggers started a Change.org petition, which garnered over 7,000 signatures. Although the school stated that the petition had nothing to do with his reinstatement, it is clear that the support for Petocz had grown beyond their control.

For every attempt to make an example of him, the example that Petocz himself has set has earned him national recognition.

Now back in school, and now that his voice had been heard (if ignored), Petocz could have chosen to focus on his studies, his friends, and his fleeting teenage years. But, as is the reality for so many queer kids like him, that would mean living in a world where the word “gay” is restricted speech. So he has decided that his work is not done.

So what’s next for the trailblazing teen?

After a whirlwind few months, Petocz is now a political strategist with Gen-Z for Change, a nonprofit focused on informing and mobilizing the younger generation towards political action. Although it started with Florida, Petocz is taking his advocacy to national heights, fighting for queer kids like himself everywhere.

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But for all of his accomplishments, Petocz is still a high school student. Now looking towards his senior year this coming fall, he was planning to run for senior class president. However, for his role in the walkout—for demonstrating the kind of leadership you would expect to see from a student government hopeful—school administrators have placed a level 3 referral on his record, barring him from taking student office. Petocz is currently fighting back against this latest effort to silence his voice.

But for every attempt to make an example of him, the example that Petocz himself has set has earned him national recognition. On May 16, he accepted the Social Movement of the Year Award at the 2022 Webbys, and on May 24, he received the PEN/Benenson Freedom of Expression Courage Award.

But these awards are not what his activism is about. As he said in his acceptance speech, the goal is to speak out when a government mandates silence. He compelled the audience to “make their voice heard in November, not just by voting in local, state and national elections, but also by supporting young organizers working to guarantee a more progressive and democratic tomorrow.”

In short, he concluded, “If our collective voice couldn’t make a difference, then they wouldn’t be trying so hard to silence it.”♦

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. 

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