Boone High School’s Queer and Ally Alliance club in Orlando, Fla., had plans to host their third annual Drag and Donuts event after school and on-campus on March 23. The event has, in the past, featured Jason DeShazo, who performs in drag as Momma Ashley Rose, sharing tips and tricks for building self-esteem, and finding self-love in high school.
But the event, within the Orange County public school district, was canceled a day before it was to take place—after administrators received a call from the Florida department of education questioning the event and warning that staff could lose their job or teaching license due to their presence there.
This happened on the same day Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration announced the move to expand the scope of the state’s Parental Rights in Education law—known by opponents as the “Don’t Say Gay” law which currently bans instruction and discussion about sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through 3rd grade. DeSantis’ expansion calls for extending the ban through 12th grade.
Ahead of the state’s board of education vote on April 19 over expanding the law’s scope and penalties for educators, Scarlett Seyler, president of the Boone High School student club, spoke with Education Week about how she feels the state’s bans on certain types of instruction and books is having an impact on all students.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What happened to this year’s Drag and Donuts event?
Annually, we’ll have a Drag and Donuts event and it’s widely beloved within the community at Boone. But this is not the first event of ours that has been canceled this year. And we’re very aware of the political climate. So we were more hesitant, and we talked to [administrators] and confirmed that everything would be okay. Then we started promoting [the event], getting ready, everyone’s excited. And then we got a lot of social media backlash.
We were still set to have our event ... And then administration canceled the event the day before. At that point, we sort of regrouped. And we’re like, ‘Okay, the community still deserves to have an event. We’re not going to say, ‘You know what, they’ve stopped us, no safe space for anyone this week.’ So we decided we were going to have an education policy and donuts event instead.
That was really interesting to see all of this social media backlash, especially the people saying they didn’t know what the event might be like, and that we couldn’t anticipate it, despite the fact that the event had happened two years prior. So we had full knowledge of everything that was scheduled to happen at this event.
We had almost 100 people attend our makeup event, just to say that the student body values every member of our student body. We had administration come out and say ‘We’re so sorry that this happened to you.’ We had teachers talking about it. We had donuts delivered to campus all day on the day of our event, because the community wanted to stand up for us. Parents offered to host the event in their homes so their children could still get that positive information. I think our community deserves a big shout out for saying this isn’t okay and this is not who we are.
How is the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law, and efforts such as book bans, impacting all students, LGBTQ+ students in particular?
Students definitely feel the difference. The word I’ve been using to describe it to adults who aren’t in high school walking the halls is that it’s a palpable difference. You can feel this sort of unease when talking about anything that might be considered controversial, or non-traditional. And the student body feels the sense of discomfort with those things.
So we can feel when we’re not welcome, as any person can, and legislation like this tells certain students, they’re not welcome. It makes a clear message that if you don’t fit within these certain cultural norms, you don’t have a place on campus. And that can be really negative for a lot of students’ mental health, and just even getting through your academic performance. If you’re worried about being comfortable on campus, and whether or not you belong, or your existence has merit and has value, it’s really hard to focus on your [calculus] test with all of that else going on.
What do you want to tell those pushing for bans on some topics and books on LGBTQ+ identity?
There are a couple of things that I think everyone deserves to know about these banning efforts.
So first, when you ban something from the high school library, all you’re doing is saying that that is a bad thing. You’re not preventing anyone from getting any information. We have the internet, you are not going to stop a high schooler from finding out something that they want to know about.
And then in terms of what I would tell legislators who are trying to pass these laws, I feel like it’s clear this is hurting students, and that if you care about helping the students, and if you believe that queer students are valid and have a place on campus, then you can’t be arguing in favor of these laws.
And to school officials, who understand that students are being hurt by this, but are sort of scared or exhausted, like to the extent that I as 16-year-old can understand, it is exhausting to be an educator in Florida. When you have boards of education, threatening to investigate you or suspend your license, I understand that it can be overwhelming to try to fight back. But what the students need is for the adults in power in education to be less afraid, and to be less tired. If you are at that point where you don’t think you can keep going, we need you to keep defending us because someone has to defend the students. We can’t get to a point where teachers and administrators are too scared to defend their students.
What would you say to those who will vote on whether to expand the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law’?
I will say it already impacts us. The event that was [canceled] was in high school. So this is already being enforced all the way from [kindergarten] at least to high school. The enforcement of this [law] goes well beyond the letter of what it says, which has made some people feel as though there’s nothing to be done. Who cares if they pass this extension when we’re already being affected? But it’s further solidifying this legislation that hurts students to expand it.
So I would ask, I would implore, any school board members to really consider how this is affecting students, and what they feel the freedom of assembly really should be, and freedom of expression. Really think about what you would feel if your viewpoints were being censored in the way that these viewpoints are. I know a lot of more conservative students and a lot of conservative teachers, who would never in a million years come to a drag event. But they’re concerned, because the second you start limiting people’s views, and limiting the way they can express [them] based on the content of those views, it’s impossible to say who will be limited next. So I would ask them to think how they would feel and what fears they would have if it was their opinions and their culture and their community that was being impacted in this way.
What can those educators and leaders against banning efforts do to support students?
There are a lot of things that one can do. There are school board meetings that you can go [to] and speak out at. You can speak to the press ... so that people outside of Florida can see into our microcosm of strange education policy. You can be there for your students. It’s something as simple as saying everyone is welcome here. Or those little [Orange County Public Schools] stickers that say ‘all are welcome here, we’re allies.’ Kids notice those, and we appreciate those and they help us relax and maybe perform better on that [calculus] test when you’re not worried about whether or not your teacher thinks you matter.