“There’s something very dystopian about someone telling you that you discussing your human rights would result in a ceremony becoming unenjoyable or problematic,” Zander Moricz, the first openly gay class president at his Sarasota county, Florida high school tells Rolling Stone.
Moricz says he was recently called into the principal’s office at Pine View School in Osprey. For a student council leader like himself, chats with the administration were typical, but this time, “the vibe was way off,” he says. After all, the meeting came at a very pointed time for Florida schools and gay student leaders like Moricz.
In March, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the controversial “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which would prohibit teachers from speaking about LGBTQ issues with students of a certain age group. Moricz — an advocate for LGBTQ rights throughout his years in high school — had recently led a walkout protesting the bill. Since the protest, he has also become the youngest public plaintiff in a federal lawsuit against DeSantis in an effort to strike down the bill. Oh, and graduation is around the corner. Moricz is set to be the commencement speaker.
“He spent about two minutes giving me a vague, incoherent description of how he as a human being supported me, but as an administrator couldn’t,” Moricz, who leads the Social Equity and Education campaign in Florida, which works to provide safe spaces for LGBTQ youth, says of his conversation with Dr. Stephen Covert, the school’s principal. “And that eventually ended with him saying that I could not talk about my advocacy or involvement in the lawsuit at graduation. He said it would be polarizing and not appropriate for a group setting . . . It was really ridiculous.”
In a written response to Rolling Stone, principal Covert said, “We honor and celebrate the incredible diversity in thought, belief, and background in our school, and champion the uniqueness of every single student on their personal and educational journey.”
Moricz says he sat at the meeting in silence without really knowing what to do or say. He had spent his time in high school advocating for gay rights. And now, months before DeSantis’ bill is even in place, he was already being censored.
So earlier this week, Moricz logged on to Twitter to share a thread about exactly what had happened, along with a call to action: He invited students in Florida to sign up to receive some of the 10,000 “Say Gay” stickers his organization would be sharing to “remind underclassmen that we’re done with high school, not the fight.”
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
“The goal of this was simply for people who knew high schoolers in Florida to see this so that I had enough kids to send the stickers to. What happened was obviously a very different result,” Moricz says. “It was huge. And it was shocking. And it was really crazy to see the power that social media can have.”
His initial tweet ended up getting more than 37,000 shares, including from celebrities such as Dan Levy, Wilson Cruz, and Lisa Ann Walter. Along with the tweet thread going viral, Moricz is nearing his goal of raising $50,000 for the Social Equity and Education Initiative on GoFundMe.
“The second you turn 18 in the state of Florida, you are accountable for what your politicians are doing. We’re going to continue to take accountability even after we’ve crossed that graduation stage,” Moricz says. “And we are going to continue to speak out and be visible, because this law does not get to erase an entire community simply because some politicians wrote it that way. It is up to every single person in every single school to decide what this law actually means. And if we continue to fight, and we continue to push back, then we determine the extent of its impact.”
Along with his school activism, Moricz is also a vital part of a massive federal lawsuit against DeSantis aimed at striking down the “Don’t Say Gay” bill before it goes into effect this summer. The main worry for activists like him is that the vagueness of the law, officially titled Parental Rights in Education, will lead to completely restricting students and teachers from talking about their LGBTQ identities and issues surrounding the community.
“We were told that the law would not have an effect. We were told that we were being dramatic. [But] the law is oppressing students, and it has not even gone into effect yet,” says Moricz. “And we still have people telling us that when it does go into effect, it will not have an impact.”
Attorney John Quinn tells Rolling Stone that the situation Moricz encountered with his graduation speech is a reflection of what may happen more broadly across the state of Florida if the bill is carried out.
“It would have a chilling effect in a way that school officials [will be] motivated, incentivized and even forced to single out LGBTQ students, teachers, and families, and silence and censor discussions that even acknowledge the existence of these people,” Quinn says. “The message has been sent very clearly by Florida’s legislature: Speech acknowledging the existence and equal dignity of LGBTQ people is to be silenced and suppressed, and that those communities should be discriminated against.”
Since his interaction with the principal, Moricz says he’s avoided going near the administrative office. However, the Sarasota County Schools district acknowledged that graduation speeches are reviewed so that they are deemed “appropriate to the tone of the ceremony.”
“Out of respect for all those attending the graduation, students are reminded that a graduation should not be a platform for personal political statements, especially those likely to disrupt the ceremony,” the district said in statement. “Should a student vary from this expectation during the graduation, it may be necessary to take appropriate action.”
Moricz plans to give his speech as anticipated, and hopes to use his voice to speak up for other LGBTQ students like himself, especially after growing up in a community where he didn’t necessarily feel welcome to come out.
“Sarasota, as a community, has been a hateful environment to grow up in. Since my role in the lawsuit went public, we have had people run into my parents’ place of work screaming about me,” he says. “I’ve received death threats, both in person and online. I don’t go to the grocery store alone, because I typically get someone trying to debate or trying to threaten me and it’s really wild.”