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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Gainesville activists rally against Don’t Say Gay bill

Tents, tables, supporters filled the Heartwood Soundstage lawn to oppose recent legislation

Becky Fields, a teacher at Talbot Elementary School, and Fields' two children hold a "We Say Gay" sign to protest Florida's Don't Say Gay bill at Heartwood Soundstage on Saturday, March 19. The bill has passed the state legislature and is on the governor's desk.
Becky Fields, a teacher at Talbot Elementary School, and Fields' two children hold a "We Say Gay" sign to protest Florida's Don't Say Gay bill at Heartwood Soundstage on Saturday, March 19. The bill has passed the state legislature and is on the governor's desk.

Cheers and applause roared through the crowd of nearly 500 people draped in rainbow flags with shirts that read “y’all means all,” “love wins” and “HUMAN.” 

The crowd sat in chairs, eyes glued to the stage ahead. Two middle school students spoke publicly for the first time, racing through their sentences and stuttering over words. Still, they delivered a strong message against the recent anti-LGBTQ+ bill that could make changes to their schools. 

Supporters shouted words of encouragement at local officials, church leaders and students speaking against the Florida “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

The Pride Community Center of North Central Florida, the Unspoken Treasure Society and PFLAG Gainesville hosted the We Say GAYnesville Rally Saturday at the Heartwood Soundstage in downtown Gainesville. Over 20 organizations participated in the rally, PCCNCF President Tamára Perry-Lunardo said. 

The rally voices support for the LGBTQ+ community and stands against the Parental Rights in Education bill, companion bills HB1557/SB1834, which passed the Senate March 8 and awaits Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signature. Activists have labeled this bill as the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill

“We feel ‘Don’t Say Gay’ is more apt because of its restrictions on the topics of sexual orientation and gender identity in the public classroom,” Perry-Lunardo said. 

The bill prohibits state educators from discussing LGBTQ+ topics that are not “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students.” It mainly applies to grades K-3; however, the broad language leaves school districts vulnerable to lawsuits. 

The sea of supporters shifted between silence and applause as speakers like 14-year-old Oliver Flanagan, who led the walkout protest at Kanapaha Middle School, recounted their own experiences and demanded change. 

“Neutrality means nothing,” Flanagan said. “This bill is about killing us. This bill is about silencing us. It’s never been about protecting us and no one can tell me different.” 

Several speakers brought up suicide rates among LGBTQ+ people, and the statistics on how they are higher than their straight, cisgender peers.

Alachua County Commissioner Mary Alford, who was not in attendance but sent in an audio recording to be played, read the resolution that will be presented to the County Commission for approval Tuesday. 

“Lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals are four times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual people,” Alford said. “In the transgender communities, those rates are even higher.” 

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Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe provided his own educational experience as a teacher for 25 years and expressed the necessity of schools being a safe place for students. 

“[Children are] allowed to openly talk about who they are and who their families are in school,” Poe said. “They have literally made it illegal to save lives.”

Despite the weight of the circumstances bringing the group together, small children played tag and hula hooped, college students gathered around an empty poster armed with markers and dogs strolled around prompting smiles from attendees. 

Another middle school student, 12-year-old Aidan Gamble, approached the microphone with confidence, even though this was his first public speaking attempt. He spoke of his participation in the Howard Bishop Middle School walkout and how the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill goes against America’s principle of freedom of speech. 

“Honestly I’m pissed,” Gamble said. “This is not right. This is trying to suppress people.”

Gamble’s impromptu speech garnered a roar of cheers from the crowd and a few laughs.

Five-minute music breaks divided up groups of speakers and gave attendees a chance to walk around the tables lining the perimeter of the Heartwood Soundstage lawn. Groups such as Gainesville Girls Rock Camp, Planned Parenthood and National Association on Mental Illness offered resources and supported the rally from their tables. 

“We teach empowerment to high school kids, basically the exact group of youth that are being targeted by this anti-gay bill,” said Coral Smith, co-director of Gainesville Girls Rock Camp. “So it’s the antithesis of what we teach, which is empowerment; say you’re proud, say you’re queer.”

Smith worked for Heartwood Soundstage in the past and helped connect the venue to the organizers. Owner Dave Melosh offered his venue free of charge for the rally. 

Several faith groups like First United Methodist, Holy Trinity Episcopal, Shift Church and more set up tables on the lawn and promoted acceptance. 

Beth Snarr, a pastor at First United Methodist Church, joined the faith leaders in attendance. She will speak at the Alachua County Commission meeting Tuesday to amplify the voice of the community and combat feelings of apathy. 

“I wanted to come to this event today because we are a church in particular, but just for me as a person, that wants to affirm that everyone is a child of God,” Snarr said, wearing a shirt that read “this pastor loves you.” “We don’t want anyone, especially our children in school, to feel less than, for their families to feel less than.” 

Each group in attendance was recruited by the PCCNCF, PFLAG Gainesville and the Unspoken Treasure Society. PCCNCF’s president, Perry-Lunardo, felt these speakers could be a part of community action and political efforts to work against the legislation. 

PFLAG Gainesville President Jane Spear, 77, sat in a pink mesh lawn chair behind a table with a rainbow flag tablecloth. Pamphlets covered the table, brimming with resources for LGBTQ+ youth. She used her cane to help her stand; she’s been fighting this fight a long time now. 

“My message today really is that to the whole LGBTQ+ community, we see you, we hear you, we will not forget you, we will not allow you to be erased,” Spear said.  

Among the smiles and sweat from the glaring sun, a community of LGBTQ+ people and its supporters said gay and will continue to say gay. 

“I love you all,” Mayor Poe said. “And your city loves you.” 

Contact Emma Behrmann at ebehrmann@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @emmabehrmann.

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Emma Behrmann

Emma Behrmann is a fourth-year journalism major and the Fall 2023 digital managing editor. In the past, she was metro desk editor, K-12 education reporter and a university news assistant. When she's not reporting, she's lifting at the gym.


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