Hundreds of high school students in Massachusetts and across the country walked out of their classrooms Friday afternoon to protest a wave of anti-queer government actions in Florida and Texas.
“We’re trying to get people talking about the issue,” said Alia Cusolito, a student at Old Rochester Regional High School in Mattapoisett and a member of the leadership of Queer Youth Assemble, which organized the protest. “When you have the public having conversations about it, and the press getting involved, there is more pressure on legislators to rethink their own states’ actions when they see people fighting back.”
The protest comes in response to anti-queer legislation and government action happening in multiple states, as Republican politicians seek to rally their conservative voting bases. In Florida, a bill titled “Parental Rights in Education” — called the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by LGBTQ advocates — would ban schools from discussing sexual orientation and gender identity in some classrooms. And in Texas, Governor Greg Abbott issued an order last month instructing Child Protective Services workers to investigate the families of trans minors, with the state’s attorney general labeling gender-confirmation treatments as “child abuse.”
Georgia, too, introduced a bill similar to Florida’s, and other states are introducing legislation aimed at young LGBTQ people.
The plan was for students to briefly leave their classrooms at 1 p.m. Some had told their schools they were participating, Cusolito said, and made it clear they are opposing the legislative and government actions, not necessarily how they are treated by their own schools. Some asked for queer support groups in their schools and communities, and for an end to anti-queer legislation.
At Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School in Marlborough, senior Adrian Chambers said school officials were supportive of the walkout. Some teachers brought whole classes to the basketball court, where about 100 students held signs that said “Gay is not a bad word” and “Schools should be safe for everyone.”
Chambers, president of the school’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance, handed out rainbow-hued Skittles and lollipops to thank people for coming.
“We are going to continue to support our LGBTQ friends in other states, and no one is going to take their rights away and get away with it,” Chambers said. “To have our school support us being against this [legislation] was very empowering.”
The plan for the walk-out came together in a few days, said Esmée Silverman, cofounder of Queer Youth Assemble. Silverman, who grew up in Easton, said the group posted sample fliers and letters on its website and spread the word through volunteer networks and social media. By Friday, schools from Vermont to California had joined in, she said.
Far from home, Silverman watched photos and video from the walkouts from Portland, Ore., where she attends Reed College.
“We had thousands of people across the country unite for queer youth and say enough is enough. I am, personally, eternally grateful for this,” she said. “There is no voice that is more powerful than the voice of queer youth. Their experience, their enthusiasm, their energy, it’s electric.”
As she spoke with a Globe reporter by phone Friday afternoon, five more posts from walkouts nationwide came in.
“I felt overwhelming positivity and joy. My heart radiates for queer youth,” Silverman said.
Instagram posts and stories showed large crowds of students in high schools across the country, including several in Massachusetts and elsewhere in New England, participating in the walkout on Friday.
An Instagram post from the Bedford High School library showed a significant number of students holding signs outside the school.
“Students supporting themselves and their peers,” the post said.
Evvy Shoemaker planned the walkout at Acton-Boxborough Regional High School, where she is a sophomore, with help from two friends. She expected maybe 25 or 30 people to show up, she said.
But the drop-off loop in front of the high school was filled with students, she said. The school even flew the pride flag for what she believes was the first time.
“It wasn’t what I expected, and it meant a lot,” Shoemaker said. “I hope that queer students are able to see that there are people who are willing to stick up for them, and that there are staff members and students who are on their side.”
In Walpole, Norfolk County Agricultural High School students stood in a circle and listened to speakers talk about protections for queer youth. Some draped rainbow flags across their shoulders or held signs that read “We say gay,” a reference to the Florida bill.
Kimm Topping, program manager of the Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ Students, said that, as an adult, it was heartening to see high school students speaking out and supporting one another.
“I started the first GSA in my town and I you couldn’t get anyone to show up to a meeting, because the culture was just silence and stigma,” they said. “And I feel like that’s really shifted in a lot of places, but there are so many pockets of students who are not getting that support. There’s still a lot of work for us to do.”