ORLANDO, Fla. – You can’t miss 17-year-old Will Larkins.
For his News 6 interview, Larkins arrived wearing sparkly green makeup around his eyes, specks of glitter on his face and in his hair flickering as he spoke. He lives out and proud. It’s an attribute that sometimes rubs his classmates at Winter Park High School the wrong way.
“There was a situation that happened where a group of boys from my school at a Halloween party that I attended sort of surrounded me and my friends and called us all slurs and said some really horrible stuff to us and threatened to beat us up,” Larkins said.
That incident led the then 16-year-old to create the Queer Student Union at Winter Park High School. But it was what happened next that garnered him national attention.
In late March, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the Parental Rights in Education bill into law, which goes into effect on July 1.
“They are validating the beliefs of very hateful people. They are doing this under the umbrella of parents’ rights,” Larkins said of the new law.
Critics called it the “Don’t Say Gay” bill because it prohibits classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity for students in kindergarten through third grade.
A lawsuit pending in federal court alleges the “effort to control young minds through state censorship - and to demean LGBTQ lives by denying their reality - is a grave abuse of power.”
“It tells us that our identities and our existence is something that we shouldn’t speak about. The really scary thing about this is that it equates queerness to perversion,” Larkins said.
High school students across Florida walked out of their classrooms in protest.
Larkins organized and led the walk out at Winter Park High School. His articulate and sharp opposition to the legislation caught the attention of the New York Times. The publication invited Larkins to write an op-ed that published days before the legislation was signed.
In it, he tries to humanize LGBTQ teens to a wider audience, explaining how they feel targeted by what they see as anti-gay legislation in states across the country.
“Queer kids in general, just seeing the way people debate our identities online... it’s pretty heartbreaking,” Larkins said.
The op-ed quotes a startling statistic from the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for youth identifying as LGBTQ, which shows LGBTQ teens are four times as likely to attempt suicide as their straight counterparts.
In life, Larkins also sometimes quotes late civil rights legend John Lewis by advocating for others to “Get in good trouble,” just like he did on a week night in May at an Orange County School Board meeting. He and others got in “good trouble” by getting kicked out for a chant about LGBTQ rights.
“We had a lovely school board meeting where we were dragged out by the police,” Larkins said on a microphone outside the Orange County Public Schools building after he and his fellow activists were thrown out.
Larkins mother said she’s learned to follow his lead.
She offered advice to other parents raising an LGBTQ child.
“I would say that you need to educate yourself on what children of your age group really need. What they need as a kindergartner is different from what they’ll need in fifth grad to what they’ll need as a 17-year-old. So it’s really up to a parent who may be wondering that to really find out,” Beth Nelson said. “There’s a lot of information out there about how you could really help your child through that process so that they feel comfortable, that they know that they are safe, and that they can at least feel safe at home even if they don’t totally feel safe at school.”
Will Larkins starts his senior year at Winter Park High School in the fall.