Zander Moricz says he's always had a good relationship with the principal at Pine View School. But when the Florida high school student sat down with the administrator two weeks ago, the tone of the conversation shook him.
The principal, Stephen Covert, wanted to deter the senior class president from discussing his activism in a graduation speech, and for the teen to stay away from an ongoing lawsuit challenging Florida's "don't say gay" law, Moricz tells The Advocate.
"It was so shocking, as I know that I believe that as a human being, Dr. Covert is someone who would support what I'm doing and support these rights," Moricz says. "This law is so effective in turning people into vehicles of oppression that he was unrecognizable in that meeting."
Moricz, Pine View School's first gay class president, is one of the individual plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit challenging Florida's law, which prohibits instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third-grade classrooms and requires the topics to be handled at any grade level in an age-appropriate way. For Moricz, the conversation with Covert demonstrated that the vagueness of the law will ensure educators are afraid to discuss matters important to queer students of any age. Technically, the law won't go into effect until July, but already it's frightening educators.
Covert did not return calls from The Advocate Tuesday or Wednesday.
Moricz notably went public with his story the same day news broke that another Florida high school would censor a yearbook spread about a student protest against the state's "don't say gay" law. That school district reversed its decision over the yearbook after widespread criticism over the decision.
The two stories seem to further arguments that even before officially going into effect, the law has chipped away at the ability to publicly express support for gay and transgender rights.
To Moricz, that's a discouraging trend. When he attended Pine View in middle school, the school took a then-controversial stance to allow transgender students the right to use a bathroom corresponding to their gender identity. Covert then also initially turned down a student's request to do so but sided with equality in the end.
Moricz has met regularly with the principal since being elected class president, but he said the meeting over the graduation speech took him by surprise. Covert, by Moricz's telling, informed him activism would not be welcomed at the ceremony, and in fact, microphones would be turned off if the graduating student violated that directive.
"It felt dystopian because I had to sit there and listen to someone tell me -- and I am the first gay class president, and this makes it incredibly clear as to why -- that a discussion about who I am and the fact I am who I am is OK would be an inappropriate thing for school," Moricz says.
In a statement to public radio station WUSF, the Sarasota School District told the outlet that the schools in the district review students' speeches. It said that Covert did meet with Moricz about the expectations of his speech and noted that Moricz's speech had not been reviewed yet. District representatives added that graduation wasn't for "personal political statement." WUSF reports the district also said that action may be taken if the speech doesn't meet these expectations.
Moricz led a protest of the "don't say gay" legislation himself earlier this year. He's been active politically and involved with groups like Equality Florida, which is why he ended up a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
Equality Florida expressed its own support for the senior in a statement.
"The censoring of students is the inevitable consequence of DeSantis' anti-freedom agenda to curb free speech, propagandize school curriculums, and monitor classroom conversations, private workplaces, and doctor's offices all in service to his Presidential ambitions," the statement reads. "This chilling effect ultimately goes well beyond intrusion into classrooms and graduation stages. Books that include gay parents or any LGBTQ+ characters are being challenged and yanked from school bookshelves. Even And Tango Makes Three, the true story of two penguins raising a chick together at a zoo has been challenged as 'obscene' because the adult penguins are both male. This forced erasure of a monumental part of the school year is more evidence that DeSantis' agenda is having its intended effect."
At the same time, teachers and students alike have expressed concern to Moricz about the potential mess that could unfurl. Now he's faced with a choice. He could defy the directive, but that runs the risk of disrupting graduation for his entire class.
"My priority will continue to be as it has been, which is to fight for my rights and to fight for human rights," Moricz says. "But I will be balancing that with the awareness that something hundreds of my friends have worked for four years is at risk now and that could be taken away from them -- and I will not let that happen."