On March 28 2022, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed HB 1557 into law – better known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. 2021 saw a huge influx in specifically anti-trans bills. Since then, more and more wide-reaching anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been popping up with states like Florida often leading the charge.
The “Don’t Say Gay” bill uses vague language to ban instruction on “sexual orientation and gender identity” from either “school personnel” or “third parties.” This could be interpreted to mean that students would not be able to come out or discuss gender and sexuality with their peers, and it certainly seems that proponents of the law intend to implement it that way. Similarly, while the bill is targeted at grades K-3, language is included that will enable it to be applied far more extensively than that. For many LGBTQ+ individuals, school can be a safe place to come out to accepting adults and friends when it might be dangerous to discuss these issues in home and family life. The “Don’t Say Gay” bill seems geared towards removing this safe space and ostracizing queer youth.
However, these bills are not going unchallenged, and the signing of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill only makes the push against it all the more urgent. A lawsuit has been filed against the bill by a group of plaintiffs which challenges the bill on grounds of it being an unconstitutional breach of First Amendment rights, an attempt to attack and discriminate against the queer community, and for the bill failing due process through its inability to define its own terms. You can read the full complaint filed by the plaintiffs against the “Don’t Say Gay” bill here.
Zander Moricz is the youngest of the plaintiffs named in the complaint against HB 1557. As a high school senior preparing for graduation, he’s getting a firsthand look at the effects of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, even though it is not supposed to go into effect until July 1, 2022. Zander Moricz is the first openly-gay Class President in the history of Pine View School in Sarasota Springs, Florida. Ahead of his graduation, Zander was called to the principal’s office to be informed that if he discussed his role in the case against HB 1557 or any of his activism during his graduation speech, his mic would be cut and the ceremony halted.
Into spoke to Zander Moricz about his experience with the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, the attempts to censor him and his peers, and his activism.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
You were recently informed by your school that you’d be censored if you discussed your activism during your graduation speech. What sort of effect has that had on you and your peers?
I just felt angry and heartbroken, because I have to sit there and endure the idea that who I am and wanting to talk about who I am is controversial or inappropriate. I think that that was just a dehumanizing experience, because there is nothing political about the fact that queer people exist, and there’s nothing political about the fact that we should be able to discuss the existence of the LGBTQ+ community. So to be told that that was the reason that something had to be censored or changed was deeply upsetting. By allowing ourselves to make a community of human beings controversial, we are acknowledging and legitimizing the idea that the rights of a human being are a debatable topic. And they’re not. My rights are not up for debate, who I am is not controversial, and I am not a political talking point.
I just felt angry and heartbroken, because I have to sit there and endure the idea that who I am and wanting to talk about who I am is controversial or inappropriate.
In terms of my peers, the response has been different. There’s been anger as well, and there have been people who understand that this is a direct and obvious violation of the First Amendment. There’s a reason Pine View [High School] has never had a gay class president before, and I think that this is putting it in an unfortunate light. I think that that’s because the Sarasota community—despite how supportive Pine View has been for me—has not been supportive. And I think that it discourages people from being confident in their marginalized identities. That has been on full display here. But I also think that a lot of my peers are worried that the administration’s threat and the way that they will handle my speech has the potential to destroy what should be a very special moment for hundreds of students and their families. And I think that that’s something I’m very cognizant of.
You’re talking in other interviews about Sarasota not having been the greatest community to grow up in and to come out in. Was it a surprise to receive this attack on your rights from the administration?
It was and it wasn’t. It was from the standpoint that I believe my principal is a good person. […] It is the law that makes it so that, as an administrator, he is an oppressor. But it’s not surprising given the context of Florida, my county specifically, and the political nature of the country holistically.
I would say that Sarasota County is a place that has fostered polar politics, predatory politics. Leaders in Sarasota County have made it acceptable to be hateful, and encouraged their supporters to act on their hate so that power dynamics remain the way that they have been established. I think that as a state when you see large scale regression, when you see slates of legislation several years in a row that are about deconstructing and ripping away rights, I’m not surprised. But when I’m sitting there, staring at a man that has always been supportive of me, in the immediate context, it was shocking.
So, this bill hasn’t come into effect yet, but it seems with the way you’re talking about the principal as though you’re already seeing a change in how people are behaving because of it?
The law has not gone into effect, but it is already affecting people. That is the important thing. When I was named as one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, I was asked what I thought would happen. This was my prediction and now I am living it. I told people what would happen and now I am the hypothetical I brought up months ago. I am the hypothetical situation of oppression that I brought up when I was first asked what this bill would do. I’m living it.
“A lot of my peers are worried that the administration’s threat and the way that they will handle my speech has the potential to destroy what should be a very special moment for hundreds of students and their families.”
It is it is surreal because it is down to the details what we said what happened. We said it would not be K through 3 classrooms, and it is not. We said it would not be about classroom instruction and would be about the pure existence of the community in all school related spaces. And that’s what it is. The law has not gone into effect, but the culture of fear that it is instigating and the threats that it is holding over administrators’ and educators’ heads are enough to the point where I am being censored and I am nine grades above what a law that has not gone into effect is supposed to be doing.
I am the youngest public plaintiff in the “Don’t Say Gay” lawsuit. I am my Florida high school’s first openly-gay Class President. I am being silenced, and I need your help. 🧵
— zander moricz (@zandermoricz) May 9, 2022
Typically, graduation speeches are expected to acknowledge your work and your future, both as an individual and as a student body as a whole. What sort of speech did the administration even think you were going to be giving if not talking about something as important as this activism?
So… a draft of my speech had never been sent to anyone, ever. And the discussion about my graduation speech had never been had with anyone up until this point. I think that the administration knew right from the get-go that someone who has been politically active and involved all four years of high school and has been elected as a class president is going to bring up important events in his graduation speech.
But I never intended to bring politics into the issue. They view it differently, but I do not view who I am as a political discussion. Politics would be me telling my class who to vote for and why. A discussion on human rights is discussing why, as members of a Florida public school community, we need to be aware and active around what is happening in Florida public school communities.
You’ve mentioned that when the bill was first coming down, the school tried to prevent you from holding a walkout protest and tore down the posters promoting it. Had the administration responded in this way to any other activism issues in the past?
Sarasota County has never been supportive of student activism. I would say when it comes to administrators and educators on a case-by-case basis, it come down to what students are able to accomplish. But as a county as a whole, Sarasota County has never promoted or supported student activism. They have always taken the side of a niche powerful group of parents that essentially dictate what happens to the rest of us.
“I do not view who I am as a political discussion.”
The leaders of Sarasota County have not put themselves in harm’s way for marginalized communities. It is beneficial to live in Sarasota County, if you’re a part of a specific socio-economic class and do not care about what happens to members of other socio-economic classes. Those are a lot of the people that we have in power, and those people have never been advocates of marginalized communities. So, 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.
You’ve almost become the face of this bill at the high school level. Do you have a community within the school that’s there supporting you?
I feel like I have a community at school, I always have. There are teachers and students that have my back consistently. But it’s really the Social Equity and Education Initiative that has been my essential community throughout this process. The organizers that we have throughout Florida are why we’re able to respond so quickly to something like this and then get 10,000 “Say Gay” stickers across the state sent out in a week.
The organizers here are intelligent, they are powerful, and they’re both of those things with a significant lack of proper resourcing. These people have had my back more than anyone and I just want to send so much love to the organizers at the SEE Initiative because we really are a team.
The bill’s vague language limits any discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity for K-3 and then refers to “age-appropriate” content for after that. That’s an extremely broad purview and could affect non-LGBTQ+ people too. Is there any indication that they have considered how open their language is to different and malicious interpretations?
I was giving testimony before the [Florida State] Senate when our Representatives voted not to pass the Brandes Amendment. The Brandes Amendment was an amendment proposed by a conservative policymaker who wanted to utilize the language of the bill so that it would not target the LGBTQ+ community and instead make it general to all sexual discussion. Instead, the legislature voted to make the bill specifically homophobic, affirming their intentions and proving that this has nothing to do with sexual discussion, but rather queer oppression.
You’re entering a fight that’s been going on for a massively long time. In just the past 12 years or so, we’ve seen the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the Oberfell decision around Marriage Equality, and the SCOTUS decision on employment protections for Title VII. After decades of progress, it feels like we might now be at a pivotal moment, with the “Don’t Say Gay” bill coming at the same time as the leaked Roe v. Wade decision, there’s a risk of taking a big step back if that cascades into not just affecting reproductive rights, but the rights of marginalized communities across the country as well. That’s got to be quite a weight to be stepping into as a high school senior. What is helping to keep you moving forward in this against all of this?
The urgency of everything. I think, because this has been happening for a couple of years, we’ve all become, to a degree, comfortable with the hate that we’re witnessing. But we need to constantly remind ourselves that this is not normal, and that this is an urgent crisis and that we are on a warpath and that is how I’ve had to refocus my thoughts and my energy. Because if I treat this like everyday life, then it becomes everyday life. This is not that.
“The legislature voted to make the bill specifically homophobic, affirming their intentions and proving that this has nothing to do with sexual discussion, but rather queer oppression.”
When you have a Supreme Court justice use the exact same reasoning that justifies gay and interracial marriage as the reasoning that they’re going to take away reproductive rights. When you can see clearly drawn out a path to strip away the human rights of virtually every marginalized community in the country and you’re watching it happen on a state-by-state basis in a national pattern. Then you have to react in an equally aggressive fashion and that is what this is. This is an energized, urgent response because this is not normal. This is an emergency, and everyone needs to start behaving like it because we’re becoming socially and culturally okay with watching a new group of human beings lose their rights every other week, and it’s disgusting, and it is deeply concerning, because there is a threshold where there will be nothing that we can do. And that is why that is what is keeping me pushing because we’re going across a line one way or another in this generation, and it needs to be in the right direction.
You highlight a really important issue there, in that week after week we’ve been seeing this throughout the Trump administration and beyond. And now there are a lot of people who are suffering activism fatigue and burnout. Do you have any message of support, or ideas of what people can do if they are struggling to get up and fight day after day?
It might seem trivial, but the answer is self-care. Practice self-care, go out to eat, order takeout food, watch TV, have face masks, hang out with friends, listen to music. Activists have a mentality that they are giving themselves up for others, and to a degree that is true. But activists are also giving themselves up to enjoy and live within a better society, and there is no point in that if you are falling apart and you are miserable.
So please practice self-care and remind yourself that it is okay to be exhausted. It is okay to feel defeated. But remind yourselves that that is the very point of what they are doing. Every ounce of the opposition is trying to make you feel like you are in a losing battle and like you are alone. Neither of those things are true. So, if you need a minute take the minute. If you need green tea and a face mask have those things, you can afford that. We just cannot afford to have people dropping out of the fight. So take a break. Take a breath. But remind yourself that this idea that we have no chance is something being cultivated by the opposition.
You’re obviously coming to the end of your high school experience with graduation. I think across the world, the American high school experience is almost part of the US brands that get exported overseas. And in recent years we’ve seen the representation in that media get a lot queerer in one way or another. How do you feel about that representation and seeing those portrayals on screen, when you’re going through something like this in high school?
Representation is absolutely essential for all marginalized communities. Because we need to be able to see ourselves exist successfully and happily. And wow, I am grateful to have representation to begin with. But we need to ensure that that representation isn’t doing more harm than good. We need to ensure that the message that we’re delivering is that LGBTQ+ people are a part of life, period. And those lives that they lead can be good, period.
“This is an emergency, and everyone needs to start behaving like it because we’re becoming socially and culturally okay with watching a new group of human beings lose their rights every other week.”
Now I’m not saying we need to paint perfect, beautiful images all the time. And I’m not saying that we cannot depict real life. I think Pose does that gorgeously. I think Schitt’s Creek does it differently. I think Schitt’s Creek does it in a way where you can see life without homophobia. And I think that that is essential. I think that Schitt’s Creek is one of the most important depictions of queer life that exists. I also think Pose is essential because people need to understand the context and struggles of their history and their community. And I think that those are two great examples of good queer representation. But I think that in high school level, the representation has been problematic because I believe that LGBTQ+ students are becoming stigmatized, and they’re being painted in a way that does not accurately reflect the LGBTQ+ people that I know. So, I would say that, yes, encourage, promote, and demand representation in media, but do so at a deeper level and ensure that it’s actually representational.
Do you have a favorite thing that you’re watching at the moment when you need to decompress?
it really is Schitt’s Creek. That show is… It’s the first show that I have ever seen where a gay person lived without homophobia. And that is a message of hope that is invaluable.
I saw that Dan Levy retweeted your thread about all of this as well, so that must be great for you.
Fell to the ground crying. Sent it to every human being I know. I literally watched it the day prior, so it felt as though I had lost my mind. There’s nothing else to say, I lost my mind.
Read this. https://t.co/0RWXa3JRE3
— dan levy (@danjlevy) May 10, 2022
I understand you are going to be moving on to Harvard shortly. Congratulations, for starters. Do you have any future plans? And do you think that your experience with this bill is going to affect those plans going forward?
Yes, and yes. As we watch hateful legislation like the “Don’t Say Gay” law spread across the country, our response has to spread as well. So, what’s next for me is the nationalization of the SEE initiative. We have to think bigger because the opposition is. We are going to be focused on community-based organizing customized to local needs, on a unified national level. We’re working on resourcing young activists because our generation wants to, and is willing to, drive the change, they just need people behind them, giving them the support and resources that they need to do so.
One of the points that I think is so important to recognize is that the people and the politicians that are oppressing marginalized communities are using the marginalized communities’ power to do so. All of the power that these politicians and representatives have is ours. And over the next few years, whether that’s by organizing or by voting, which everyone must vote, we need to begin taking that power back and repurposing it in a way that is helpful and sustainable for marginalized communities and not harmful. Because the only thing that matters is that the power is ours and we have to take accountability for who has it and why. And the answer is elections. So, organize between them, vote during them, that is it.
A lot of people in vulnerable communities can find themselves being forced out of an area by legislation such as this “Don’t Say Gay” bill and might be looking to leave the state. How do you feel about leaving for college? And is Florida a place you would come back to?
It’s a place that, as of now, I intend to come back to 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. This is no one person’s home more than another’s. I cannot ask everyone to put up that fight, I know that it’s not fair to ask people that, but we have to put our foot down and we have to fight for our home, and it sounds so dramatic. But we have to fight for our home because we cannot run away and leave. We have to establish the fact that predatory politicians do not get to bully people out of a state so that they can run that state however they see fit. That’s not how this works. It is our state. It is a place where everyone should be able to live and succeed. And I’m going to come back and do my part in making it that way.♦
If you would like to help Zander Moricz and others to fight back against the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida and work to make larger change or to take a stand yourself, here are some ways you can do just that.
Support Zander Moricz and the Social Equity and Education Initiative: The SEE Initiative is a national movement that works on local levels to empower activists and energize voters so that we can take it back to the United States.