On the afternoon of Feb. 23, students and allies at the University of Central Florida took a stand against the Ron DeSantis administration. Recent requests for Florida universities to deliver the medical data of transgender students receiving gender-affirming care have caused uproar across the state, with UCF being one of the institutions to have complied with their demands.
Underneath a towering American flag, the protesters gathered at the campus’ symbolic Memory Mall. At the heart of the event was Olivia Solomon, a student activist who leads UCF’s chapter of the March For Our Lives movement and helped organize the event. “Today we’re here because we’re not going to stand for the attacks of Ron DeSantis,” said Olivia in an opening speech for the event. “We’re not going to stay silent and we’re not going to allow our education to be destroyed in front of us. We’re going to continue to show up no matter the fear and we’ll continue to fight back,” she stated.
The demands of the Ron DeSantis administration are just one of the many recent attempts by the Governor to ban Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives from state institutions. In his inaugural address on Jan. 23, DeSantis said “Florida is where woke goes to die,” and has since proposed a Stop W.O.K.E. act to ban Critical Race Theory in classrooms, which he claims to be “state-sanctioned racism.”
Students and allies have grown exhausted at these anti-DEI proposals, which inspired so many of them to rally against the injustices that are putting their loved ones, communities, and education at risk. I was proud to stand among these individuals who wore black in solidarity and held up protest signs that illustrated their frustrations and demands. Keynote speakers, such as Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, set the tone for the event before giving students the opportunity for their voices to be heard as well. Many courageous people shared their stories and I felt empowered by the unifying passion growing stronger as the event went on.
“We will not let him do this. Florida is a free state, it is not a fascist state,” said Smith, who is a UCF alumnus and Florida’s first openly LGBTQ+ Latino lawmaker. He continues to speak out against DeSantis’ plans to abolish DEI initiatives, especially support services for transgender students. According to Smith, “These are lifesaving support services that are offered not only at UCF but at state universities across the country so that transgender students can live happy lives as their authentic selves.”
There is no clear explanation as to what the DeSantis administration plans to do with the medical data of these transgender students, which are supposed to be protected from being disclosed by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Needless to say, Florida universities are not required to hand over this sensitive information and are invading the privacy of their students by doing so, one of whom I was fortunate to speak with about their thoughts on the significance of the event.
“I am a transgender nonbinary person,” said the student, who wished to remain anonymous. They stated, “I see a lot of people saying ‘it’s just trans people, they’re a small population, it doesn’t really matter.’ But an attack on trans people is an attack on everyone. So to care about trans issues is to care about everyone’s issues. Fascists don’t stop at one population. This protest is important to let people know that we will not stand for our right to privacy, our right to healthcare, and our right to exist to be stepped on.”
The event would not have been possible without Ben Braver, a student at the University of South Florida who is behind the statewide walkout Stand For Freedom Florida. Ben has encouraged hundreds of individuals to advocate for these DEI programs, including Bella S., a classmate of mine whose efforts helped me first learn about the cause. “As members of the UCF body, we want to maintain all of the current programs we have in place that allow for a welcoming and accepting environment to all,” Bella stated. “We as students have hope that the UCF administration will protect us and our educators here.”
In the aftermath of the walkout remains one question: what now? As a cisgender woman, I understand that freedom is not only a right but a responsibility, one that weighs on both our government leaders and the individuals that must do their part by continuing to show up for marginalized communities. Many students who wanted to attend the protest feared their safety would be at risk by doing so and those present managed to stand their ground, but the work doesn’t stop there. Speaking for myself, Stand For Freedom is the first protest I showed up for, and it definitely won’t be my last.
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