Already as a child, 17-year-old Jack Petocz knew he was different from other boys. “I didn’t like sports. Most of my friendships were with girls,” he said in a phone interview with The Blade, “I already knew I didn’t like girls.”
His experience at school helped Petocz, who is gay, understand his sexuality. School staff and teachers did not try to influence her sexual orientation. “Staff and teachers weren’t trying to push a program forward,” he said, “but I felt supported.”
It takes a lot of courage to get out in rural and suburban Florida, said Petocz, who lives in Flagler Beach, “schools are a safe space to get out.”
“School gave me the courage to come home when I was in first grade,” he added.
Politics and advocacy for the rights of LGBTQ and other marginalized communities are Petocz’s passions.
Earlier this month, Petocz, a junior at Flagler Palm Coast High School, organized a statewide student protest against Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
The bill, HR 1557, titled “Parental Rights in Education,” and known as “Don’t Say Gay,” was approved by Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature. Governor Ron DeSantis is expected to sign it.
The legislation would ban classroom teaching about sexual orientation or gender identity from kindergarten through third grade. The bill would ban teaching on these subjects for older students that is “not age or developmentally appropriate”. If they believe the provisions of the bill are violated, parents could sue school districts.
Proponents of the legislation believe the bill would give parents the right to be more involved in what their children learn in school. They argue that it is not “age appropriate” to offer classes on LGBTQ issues to elementary school students.
Opponents of the bill, from many members of the LGBTQ community to celebrities to President Joe Biden, do not believe it.
Petocz worries about what will happen to LGBTQ students if the “Don’t Say Gay” bill becomes law. If that happened, “LGBTQ students wouldn’t have a safe space in schools,” he said, “bullying and suicide could increase.”
Proponents of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill are “trying to erase us,” Petocz said.
On March 3, Petocz organized a Florida statewide student strike against the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Hundreds of students walked out of their classrooms at more than 20 schools across the state to protest the measure. In the Petocz school, more than 500 students protested, chanting “Say Gay! Say gay! Say Gay!” and waving pride flags.
Following the protest, Petocz was suspended. “They said I was suspended. That they should investigate,” Petocz said.
“They told me it was wrong to hand out the pride flags,” he said, “they said it was threatening.”
“Student leaders were notified ‘no flags’ prior to and at the start of the event to avoid undue security concerns and campus disruptions,” the Flagler County School District said in a statement.
Protesters were fighting for inclusivity at a rally against anti-gay politics, Petocz said. “The pride flag is a symbol of peace, not violence,” he said. “I wouldn’t let them take our flags away from us and silence us.”
Petocz received an outpouring of support after his suspension. A Change.org petition opposing Petocz’s suspension has been signed by 7,559 people.
“As the Supreme Court has ruled, students do not waive their constitutional rights to free speech at the school gates,” Pen America, the free speech group, said in a statement. “This is especially true given that this was a pre-approved and apparently peaceful gathering. This unwarranted suspension must be rescinded.
On March 7, Petocz was allowed to return to school. The suspension will not affect his academic record.
“The district has no comment,” Jason Wheeler, spokesperson for the Flagler County School District, emailed Blade. “Because it’s a school decision. I can say that the external “refoulement” had no impact on the decisions of the school administration.
The March 3 protest was not Petocz’s first battle with his school. He fought against the banning of books.
“All Boys Are Not Blue: A Memoir – Manifesto”, a teen and young adult novel by George M. Johnson, has been removed from the school library.
The book is described on Amazon as a “memoir for young adults” that “weaves together the trials and triumphs faced by black gay boys.”
A school board member has filed a criminal complaint against a media scientist who put “Not All Boys Are Blue” in the school library. The lawsuit was dismissed, but the book still isn’t back in the library, Petocz said.
“There’s a process to challenge classroom material, but we’ve never had a challenge for the media center material,” Wheeler emailed Blade when asked why the book was still missing at the school library, “that’s what we’re working on right now.”
Three other books were banned and then reinstated, Petocz said. “I created a link on my Amazon wishlist where people could donate banned books,” he said. “Over 400 books appeared on my doorstep! So that I could bring them to students who wanted to read them!
“I have received inspiring messages of support from everywhere – Seattle, Massachusetts, California – Florida!” he added.
The “Don’t Say Gay” protest is far from Petocz’s only political organizing effort. He organized Recall FCSB (@RecallFCSB on Twitter), a local student-run group. “We’re working to recall bigoted school board members,” Petocz said, “so it’s more inclusive and stops hurting people in marginalized communities.”
Nationally, Petocz is a political strategy associate with Gen-Z for Change (@genzforchange on Instagram). The group works for civil discourse and progressive change among Generation Z. The organization will push for the election of progressives midterm, Petocz said.
Politics will likely always be in Petocz’s DNA. “I plan to study political science and a minor in international affairs,” Petocz said, “after law school. Then maybe I’ll run for office.