Mary Harris: Quick heads up. There’s a little strong language in this episode. Will Larkins wasn’t very excited to tell me about his first day of school.
Speaker 2: Oh. First day of school. It was. I mean, it was school. I was back at school.
Mary Harris: So instead, I asked him to tell me what he wore. At this, he perked up immediately.
Speaker 2: Okay. I wore the shirt that I’m wearing right now, which is a hot, pink, sparkly, like long sleeved shirt I wore.
Mary Harris: Will is 17, a senior at Winter Park High School near Orlando. Fashion is kind of his thing or one of them.
Speaker 2: And then I wore a piece of necklace, pearls, and then the make up. And then pink glitter on my cheeks.
Mary Harris: Okay. You dressed to impress.
Speaker 2: Address every day. And it’s not to impress anyone by myself.
Mary Harris: It’s funny that Will is more into his clothes than school, because if you have heard of Will, it’s because of something he did in school last year. He was dressed to impress back then too.
Speaker 2: So the Stonewall uprising, essentially people were fed up with the abuse.
Mary Harris: And this is a video of Will in front of his history class in a lovely red cocktail dress. He’s giving a presentation on the Stonewall riots. He had a friend record him so he could posted to Twitter. Later, he went viral.
Speaker 2: And that was the moment that people started throwing objects.
Mary Harris: When Will did this? Florida’s parental rights and education bill had just passed. That’s the bill more commonly known as Don’t say gay. Instantly, Will became the symbol of what might be lost when the law went into effect. Which is why I wanted to catch up with him now, because he’s back in class. He’s still making videos. He’s still dressed to the nines. But his school district is changing over the summer. Some winter park teachers went to this training. Those who worked with younger kids were told not to put pictures of same sex partners on their desks. They were told to avoid wearing clothing with rainbows on it, including lanyards. The district distributed last year. But Will says something interesting happened on their first day back. His teachers seem to be rejecting these new rules.
Speaker 2: Almost every single one of my teachers was wearing those lanyards. More classrooms than last year had safe space stickers on them. Like in a weird way, the don’t say gay bill, at least at my school, has made the environment better in some ways.
Mary Harris: Now you’re talking about it.
Speaker 2: Yeah.
Mary Harris: Today on the show, we’re going to keep taking a hard look at education in Florida, which is going to help me figure out what is don’t say gay doing and to whom. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around.
Mary Harris: In October of last year. It seems to me like you had this experience that kind of changed your whole trajectory. And so I want to start there. You fall in love, or at least really strong like. Can you tell me what happened?
Speaker 2: Oh. Oh, my goodness. So I met this guy, actually, on Instagram, which is which is I don’t know where young, whatever. I met him on Instagram and I replied to one of his stories after we’d been following each other for like a month.
Mary Harris: He was like a mutual.
Speaker 2: Yeah, he was just a mutual. And then suddenly we’re just, like, texting back and forth all night. And he was like, Do you want to hang out tomorrow alone? Yes, I do. So we hung out and it was just it was such a wonderful experience for me because I hadn’t really ever gone on a date where I was like, Oh, like, I like this person. Like, I’d never really experienced that before. And we went on a couple of dates and then we went to Universal together for Halloween horror nights. And then on the way home from Universal, she messed up my pronouns because he was telling his dad because he’s closeted. He was telling us that she was going on dates with the girl.
Speaker 2: Hmm. And he messed up the pronouns and said, here, instead of she. And the dad was like, Oh, if I find out you’re a fucking faggot, I’m gonna beat you to death. And I had just had such a wonderful day, and I was like, Oh, my God, I have a boyfriend. Like, I’ve never had a boyfriend before. Like, I’m so excited. And he called me the next day, like, in the morning before school. And he is like, Hey, so this happened. My dad has literally tried to kill me before. Like, I can’t safely do this. And I knew his dad was homophobic because when we went on a date in downtown Orlando and he was like looking over his shoulder the whole time, he was like, I don’t know. My dad drives by and I was like, That’s so scary to look like that. So he just was like, out of safety. We have to to break it off. And, you know.
Mary Harris: It sounds like you got really upset, I mean, as anyone would.
Speaker 2: It was definitely like heartbreak. I mean, like as a gay person, like being young, like until then, my only experiences with anything like that was like single dates or hookups. But I never experienced, like, liking someone and having that being mutual before.
Mary Harris: You went to a teacher afterwards. What? What did you tell them? Why did you go to that person?
Speaker 2: Well, I went into first period that day, and I was literally crying. I was like just distraught. She kept me after class and. She was like telling me stories about how she had gone through similar things with closeted girls and gave me a piece of advice that I really carried. After that, she was like, You are so out and so kind of who you are. And it’s unfortunate that not everyone is in a circumstance where they’re able to. But you do not have time for that. You should not waste your time with that because it’ll only end up hurting you. And I’ve only gone for guys that are completely out since then.
Mary Harris: Did you know that this teacher was gay when you went to her?
Speaker 2: I kind of like, thought maybe like I got a vibe and like, that’s why I went to her of all my teachers, because, like, I got a vibe and I was right. But yeah, she did tell me later that I was the only student she had ever come out to.
Mary Harris: Having a gay teacher to talk to was especially important to well, last year had only just started at Winter Park High School. Being gay meant he was getting bullied, which put him in a really dark place. He said he was nearly suicidal at times. Around Halloween, everything seemed to come to a head. It started when he got kicked out of a school party, a group of guys surrounded wilh shouting homophobic slurs. One even threatened him with physical violence.
Speaker 2: And then the next day I went to school and I had a group of guys surround me, like in the bathroom and like threaten me. And when I went trick or treating with my little sister and my friends, we had a group of guys threaten us and call us. So this was like three days in a row of kind of really awful experiences. And so it really did feel to me at that time as a 16 year old, I felt that the world hated me.
Mary Harris: Yeah. I mean, you founded a queer student union in the wake of all this. After going to this new school, having these experiences. Why did you want to do that?
Speaker 2: So a friend of mine who had been at the same Halloween party and had also gotten kicked out for being queer, got into a fight with his mom because she refused to accept that she was trans. And that ended up with her telling him she is no longer welcome in her home. So she came and stayed with me for three weeks until eventually his mom, actually, through conversating with my dad, sort of started to become an ally. She’s actually great now, so that’s really nice.
Mary Harris: Huh.
Speaker 2: So I really did realize in that moment my position of privilege, even, you know, in the queer community, because unfortunately I am in the minority here having accepting parents and not just accepting parents of parents who are willing to fight for me. I could go to the school and be like, Hey, I experienced this homophobia and you need to do something about it. And if they wouldn’t, my parents would call them. But other kids who are experiencing homophobia would go to the administration, get outed. So they just wouldn’t. And they would sit there and they would take it. So when I realized that I had that privilege, the two of us decided to found the Christian Union to stand up for those who couldn’t safely stand up for themselves.
Mary Harris: It’s so interesting to me that you were. You were thinking about how to build political power for other folks in your school at the same time that legislators in Florida were moving forward with a bill that would come to be known as Don’t say gay, which would try to restrict what can be talked about in schools when it comes to sexuality. How did you even hear about that, bill? Did it? Was it part of the origin story of the Queer Student Union or did it just happen that these two things happened at the same time?
Speaker 2: It just happened that the two things happened at the same time. So actually how I found out about it was after founding the Queer Student Union and holding some meetings. A friend of mine, Maddie Zorn EC she came to me and started educating me on what was going on in politics.
Speaker 3: The controversial House Bill 1557 or the so called Don’t Say Gay bill was debated on the House floor tonight ahead of a vote on Thursday.
Speaker 4: If the bill passes, parents will be allowed to sue a school if there is any discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grade levels.
Speaker 2: CBC So one of the first meetings was teaching everyone who attended the meeting to call their legislators and tell them to vote no on House Bill 1557. So as a class, I had probably 35 students there calling every single legislator on different committee is asking them to vote no on this bill.
Mary Harris: And eventually Will hopped on a bus and made the four hour trip to Tallahassee to testify in person.
Speaker 2: I’ve known that I was gay and non-binary before I even knew that the queer community existed since before kindergarten. A lot of you.
Mary Harris: In a room full of grown ups, 17 year old will had this undeniable urgency.
Speaker 2: I’ve heard different members of the legislature say something along the lines of Parents know what’s best for their kids when it comes to the queer community. That is not true. If parents know what’s best for their kids, why did my best friend get kicked out of his house and have to live with me?
Mary Harris: What I really appreciated about your testimony is that you refocused. The perception of harm like the the bill as passed it’s known as the parental rights and education bill really focuses on parents. And what you did with your testimony is you talked about how. At your Queer Student Union. Every single person had experienced homophobia, transphobia had felt threatened. And so what you are trying to do in your testimony was say, I know you’re so concerned about these parents, but please let me introduce you to their kids.
Speaker 2: I mean, I think that’s ultimately the problem with this whole situation. Right. It was framed as a parental rights issue. But there’s an idea that parents rights should come before the rights of their children and that somehow children are property of their parents. And I see that as it’s it’s awful because. Even my parents, as great as they are, definitely fucked up in a lot of ways. I mean, like my parents for a while even struggled to accept the way I wanted to dress, for example, like you can’t go to school, like, in a skirt. And so even though they’ve always been supportive, there’s still a lot they could do better at. And I knew that I’m my own person and children should be treated as such as their own person. And parents rights shouldn’t take away students rights and children’s rights.
Mary Harris: Did any senators respond to what you had to say?
Speaker 2: They literally like, didn’t even look at me. The Chair, Senator Stargell, not only did not look at me, but made it a point to be very obnoxiously disinterested, having a conversation with the person next to her and like looking at her phone, it was really upsetting. I was like, Your job is to listen to your constituents, to the people that you represent and pass laws that represent them. And you can’t even look me in the eyes. You can’t even listen to me.
Mary Harris: At this point. State senators were supposed to vote on House Bill 1557 in just a few days. Kids all over the state were organizing protests, but will mostly felt a little defeated.
Speaker 2: I got back from Tallahassee after I testified, and everyone teachers, students, even administrators, were asking me what the plan was. So we went to the principal and we said, hey, we’re going to organize this walkout. It’s going to happen. Whether or not you like it, either you can make sure your students are safe and protected or or not.
Mary Harris: Well, the principal couldn’t officially endorse the protest, but he did send an email to faculty, let them know what would be happening. And that weekend, we all got to work.
Speaker 2: And then Saturday and Sunday, I advertised all over social media. I got to post it on the student government sites. A lot of teachers were posting it on the canvas and sending it out in emails like it got everywhere. I made like a bunch of signs and bought pride flags and got all prepared and like, I totally thought 50 people were going to walk out at best 9 a.m. hit and 500 people walked out. I went to the. I was standing in front of the same school that had treated me so badly that I almost killed myself. And they were all chanting, We say gay. I mean, it was it was very empowering. It really gave me a sense of how powerful anybody can be if they want to be.
Mary Harris: But the very next day, the don’t say gay bill did pass the Senate in Florida. Did that feel like a gut punch?
Speaker 2: No, we expected it to. I mean, like I knew like I knew it was going to happen. It passed through the House like that so easily.
Speaker 4: Parental rights in education, also known as the Don’t say gay bill, is headed to the governor’s desk. After two days of fierce debate and discussion, the state Senate gave a final vote just this morning.
Speaker 2: It happened in my fifth period. I was watching it on my school computer with my teacher. And it was it was upsetting, but but I was prepared. The state Senate passing the bill 22 to 17 today. The governor already signaling he supports it.
Mary Harris: When we come back. Don’t say gay is the law now and Will’s life has changed. Because of that walkout he organized and his testimony. The Stonewall lesson and an op ed he wrote in The New York Times will become a little famous. He gets stopped in Florida all the time. He was also recently recognized in New York and Paris. But not all of this recognition is exciting. In August, Will attended an Orlando rally for trans health care.
Speaker 2: Yeah. So I went up to speak and there was like a group of, like, cowboys, like, all masked up. Like like they look like a SWAT team with, like, signs that said vile things. And I, like, said a couple of words. And then he screamed, Go back to Harvard. I spoke at Harvard, which I can’t even imagine how they thought that was an insult.
Mary Harris: Well, you’d also have to be really in the will Larkins deep cuts to know that you spoke at Harvard.
Speaker 2: Yeah, it’s like that wasn’t like a viral thing. Like, speaking at Harvard was like that didn’t make the news, and they knew that. That’s weird. That’s scary. I am concerned about my safety. One time I was at a protest. This was the beginning of summer, and there was a group of Nazis with Confederate flags and swastikas. And while I was walking by, one of them told me, like, Oh, you’re Will Larkins. I read your article.
Mary Harris: Hmm. What did you make of that?
Speaker 2: I mean, I assumed, like, horrible people know. Like, I know that I get hate comments. I’ve gotten thousands of hate messages. I don’t care. Like, I know these people, know who I am and hate me. It’s weird seeing it in real life and it’s very disconcerting because, like, they definitely, like, have guns and I’m just like, oh, like this person said that they could shoot me right now. Like, what’s stopping them?
Mary Harris: Yeah.
Mary Harris: One thing that’s really strange about Florida is that at the same time, all these rules are coming online about what can be said in school and how the curriculum works and everything else. There’s a massive teacher shortage. Is that impacting you day to day?
Speaker 2: Yeah. Yeah. Literally last year, two of my teachers quit. One of them cited the Don’t say Gable as a reason for quitting.
Mary Harris: Really?
Speaker 2: And the other one just couldn’t afford to be a teacher anymore. We had a sub for the entire second semester in my English class and there is a bus driver shortage because the Florida state legislature cut our funding so much they can’t afford to hire bus drivers. So kids are literally waking up at like five in the morning to catch a 545 bus because they have only enough bus drivers that they have to do two rounds of bringing kids to school and then bringing kids home.
Mary Harris: What’s interesting to me about your story is that I’m not sure how much of it happens without you reaching out to that teacher last October who helped you out and kind of said. You know, your special things are going to get better. And it just it makes me wonder, like, given Florida’s current laws, if you were being bullied now, would you even go to a teacher for help?
Speaker 2: I mean, I would go to a teacher like I would go to a teacher, but would the teacher allow me to, you know, by talking about queerness at any grade level, a teacher is putting themselves in the position of being not only fired, but sued. And not only are they putting themselves in a position where they could be fired or sued, but putting the school district in a position where the school district could be sued and the school district has to pay for it. And the school district has no money. They can’t afford to have lawsuits from bigoted parents.
Speaker 2: So I really do believe that it’s possible if I had gone to the teacher and the don’t say gay bill was a law, she would have been like, I’m here for you. Like you can talk to me, but not be able to talk about her acceptance of queerness, which was the lifesaving part of that conversation. And she would be putting her job and her life in jeopardy over that. And it’s not like she’s making a ton of money as a teacher, you know, like, oh, it’s so bad.
Mary Harris: Are you still in touch with her?
Speaker 2: Yeah. I have her on Snapchat. Oh.
Mary Harris: What does she think about your whirlwind year?
Speaker 2: She texted me, like, every once in a while being like, Well, I saw you on the news, and I’m just so proud of you, because in the beginning of the school year, she was like. Kind of annoyed by the fact that I just wouldn’t follow any of the rules. So she said to me, it always like it’s really, really nice to see that you have grown from a troublemaker into a leader, you know, from just like kind of breaking the rules to break the rules to like.
Mary Harris: Breaking the rules of purpose.
Speaker 2: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Exactly.
Mary Harris: Well, Larkins, I’m really, really grateful for your time. Thanks for coming on the show.
Speaker 2: Thank you. I appreciate you guys.
Mary Harris: Will Larkins is a senior at Winter Park High School in Florida. He’s also the co-founder of the Queer Student Union. Tomorrow on the show, a conversation with a Florida school board member who has the seal of approval from Republican Governor Ron DeSantis. She’s excited for what happens now.
Speaker 4: But I think we’re going to see a huge tidal wave change that is going to restore education to its intended purpose, which is education and not the indoctrination that we continue to see.
Mary Harris: And that’s the show. If you are a fan of what next, the best way to show your support is to join Slate. Plus, going over to Slate.com, slash, what next? Plus and sign up. What next is produced by Elena Schwartz, Mary Wilson, Carmel Delshad and Madeline Ducharme.
Mary Harris: Madeline was a huge help on all of these Florida shows. We are getting a ton of help from Anna Phillips and Jared Downing. We are led by Alicia montgomery and Joanne Levine. And I’m Mary Harris. You can track me down on Twitter, say hello. I’m at Mary’s desk. I’ll be back in this feed tomorrow. Catch you then.