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Student Walkout: "We Say Gay" in Belmont

By Claire Svetkey :

This past Friday, Belmont students took part in a nationwide school walkout to protest anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in Florida and Texas, as well as to show support for LGBTQ+ youth everywhere. The walkout was entirely student-led; in Belmont, it was organized by members of the high school’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance and supported by a passionate crowd of their peers.

On March 8, the Florida Senate passed a piece of legislation that opponents have dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. The bill would prohibit discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade classrooms. It would also unilaterally ban instruction about these topics judged to be “not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards”; critics note that this broad language could enable censorship of LGBTQ+ topics in all classrooms regardless of students’ age. For example, under the bill, a parent who felt that a mention of gay relationships in a high school health class was inappropriate could sue the school district. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has indicated general support for the bill and seems likely to sign it into law. Additionally, in Texas, Governor Greg Abbott recently published an order deeming gender-affirming care for transgender children “child abuse” and making clear that adults – including teachers and doctors – who fail to report such care to authorities may face criminal penalties. In response to these pieces of legislation and many similar proposals across the country, students planned a nationwide protest on Friday, March 11, at noon.

Belmont senior Robert Monovich, the GSA leader and an organizer of the walkout, expressed his hope that the walkout would increase “awareness” of these issues, and impart “a sense of community and power to the people participating in it.” He finds it “very important to keep dialogue going about the queer community,” especially in the face of censorship. “As soon as we get comfortable thinking that we’ve solved problems with homophobia or any sort of discrimination and hate,” he said, the supposed solutions will “start to slip away.”

Junior Anna Lugovskoy, a GSA member who also helped to organize the walkout, agreed that the walkout’s “biggest goal is to spread awareness,” noting that the legislation in Florida and Texas “sets the precedent for other states to follow suit and for more infringement” upon the rights of students “simply because of their gender identity, because of their sexuality.” She viewed the walkout as not only an act of “solidarity” with youth impacted by the recent legislation, but also a way to express that “we will not allow the same thing to happen to us… and we want our voices to be heard.”

Angus Abercrombie, an openly gay senior in the GSA, elaborated on the idea of solidarity. Past solidarity, he said, played a role in the success of “the movement that lets me be who I am today in Massachusetts… So it’s essential that we continue that tradition: we continue in our responsibility of supporting our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters and siblings across the country and the world. Governor DeSantis is making a direct attack on the lives of young people in Florida, and I’m not going to stand by and watch.”

While the methods through which Belmont can show its solidarity are myriad, “it starts with people here knowing that there’s a problem, recognizing it, and standing up for what is right.”

Although specific wording and emphasis varied, universal among student protesters was the desire to increase awareness of the challenges to LGBTQ+ rights and to show support for those impacted by the recent homophobic and transphobic legislation. Freshman Wynn Tenhor, another walkout organizer and GSA member, saw the walkout as a chance to “spread awareness and raise our voices as queer students,” because the harm that anti-LGBTQ+ legislation does to students’ lives is “worth some national recognition and protest.” Megan Kornberg, a senior who participated in the walkout, felt that it was an opportunity to “take a stand” and “lead more people in the direction of positive change.” Senior and GSA member Lisa Bili Rossi hoped to show LGBTQ+ people not only “that there are groups to support them through their experiences and journeys, but also that we oppose what the government has imposed on them, and that we’re ready to fight by their sides.”

(Photos by Claire Svetkey)

Belmont High School’s administration did not formally support the protest – Monovich noted that it was “civil disobedience” and “not sanctioned by the school” – but did back it implicitly: teachers were encouraged not to write cut slips for students who missed class to attend the walkout, and many teachers and administrators wore rainbow clothes or accessories to school on Friday. GSA advisor and English teacher Dr. Kristin Comment expressed pride in student protesters across the nation; although “deeply concerned” about the impact of the legislation in Florida and Texas on LGBTQ+ youth, she said, “I don’t think the radical right pushing this discriminatory agenda will be successful in the long run.” The “young people in Florida and elsewhere who are speaking out about the injustice and the harmful effects of these laws” inspire her, and make her feel “confident that this generation will prevail in bringing acceptance and full equality to LGBTQ+ citizens.”

The walkout went smoothly, a crowd of Belmont students peacefully gathering outside the school’s front entrance. Many protesters brought pride flags and wore pins with rainbows or messages of support. Members of the GSA and other student protesters addressed the crowd through a megaphone: Lugovskoy summarized the protest’s purpose; Monovich delivered a fiery speech; and then several students, among them senior Nick Missiti and sophomore Kiko Thompson, gave passionate improvised remarks. A group of Belmont residents attended the protest as well, to show their support for the cause and solidarity with the high school students.

Members of Belmont’s GSA, while under no illusion about the continued struggle faced by LGBTQ+ youth across the country, were heartened by the walkout’s success. Monovich praised “the vision and the strength” the GSA members showed in simply organizing the walkout; also, on a more palpable level, the sheer size of the crowd that gathered to protest created a feeling of optimism.

Even when the megaphone had been turned off and students had returned to their classes, a sense of accomplishment remained. The organizers had spread awareness and signaled their support for an incredibly important cause; they had made their voices heard. Despite the future’s uncertainty and the ongoing nature of their fight for equality, they had said, in Lugovskoy’s words:

“We are here. We are queer. And that is never going to go away.”

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