Being a queer student in Florida wasn’t easy on Cameron Driggers, who recently graduated high school in coastal Flagler County, a conservative stronghold about an hour north of Orlando.
Driggers, who identifies as gay, has faced vitriol for his LGBTQ+ advocacy, which has included working to oust right-wing members of his district’s school board and participating in a walkout in protest of the so-called Don’t Say Gay bill. Outside his political work, he also endured discrimination on the high school track and field team; one of his own coaches once called him the F slur as he was clearing chairs and bleachers after a meet.
The coach was disciplined, but Driggers still had to face him as a teacher after the incident.
“I guess I’m just kind of used to the overt homophobia,” he said.
No one would fault Driggers if he, like many LGBTQ+ Floridians, decided to leave the state, which has passed a slew of anti-LGBTQ+ laws under governor and Republican presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis. As a high school senior—and one with an impressive résumé of political action already under his belt—college in a blue state like Maryland or Colorado would’ve been a perfect out for Driggers.
Instead, he will attend the University of Florida in the fall.
Driggers said the idea of leaving the state certainly crossed his mind and the minds of all his politically oriented friends.
“That is something I’ve heard often—that it’s too much heartache, too much stress, too much grief to stay in Florida,” he said.
But ultimately, he decided to go to UF to save money. State scholarships will make his schooling there almost free, and while other universities offered him comparable funding, none can provide the same quality education as UF, he said. Plus, he will avoid the costs of moving out of state; Gainesville, where UF is located, is only about two hours from Driggers’s hometown.
Costs weren’t the only factor in Driggers’s decision, however. He also hopes that by staying in Florida, he can continue to fight against anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and sentiment.
“There [are] far more people who will be enthusiastic about [DeSantis’s] defeat than there are” who are enthusiastic about him winning, he said. “I’ve knocked on thousands of doors in my community … and these people, once you to talk to them, they just kind of regurgitate and are fearful of what they hear on the TV. Once they actually meet young people and LGBTQ students, they begin to realize that it is a phony culture war. And so all it takes is enough conversation, enough hard work—hard as it is. But that’s what it will take to defeat him.”
To Leave or Not to Leave
Florida’s hostile history regarding LGBTQ+ rights didn’t begin with DeSantis’s election in 2018. The state was home to the Johns Committee, which investigated and interrogated LGBTQ+ people—particularly university faculty and students—during the 1950s and ’60s. In the 1970s, pageant queen turned activist Anita Bryant famously crusaded against gay rights in the state. And the second most deadly mass shooting in American history took place in 2016 at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando.
Last year, the state passed the Parental Rights in Education Act—which critics dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill—limiting classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation topics. As a result, many LGBTQ+ Floridians have experienced an increase in day-to-day discrimination, said Brandon Wolf, press secretary for Equality Florida, an LGBTQ+ advocacy organization where Driggers is working as a summer fellow. Wolf pointed to a study by the Human Rights Campaign showing that the language DeSantis’s office used to support the legislation—calling gay and transgender people and their allies “groomers” and “pedophiles”—surged 400 percent on social media after the bill passed, turning it into a rhetorical trope for conservatives.
Other anti-LGBTQ+ legislation the DeSantis administration ushered in include a bill requiring individuals to use the bathroom that aligns with their sex at birth, a ban on gender-affirming medical care for transgender people and a bill that allows health-care providers to deny patients medical care based on religious or moral beliefs.
Research shows that growing numbers of LGBTQ+ Floridians and their allies are looking to leave the state. Over half the state’s LGBTQ+ parents report that they’ve considered moving their families to another state, according to one study. News outlets have also reported a growing number of fundraising campaigns aimed at helping LGBTQ+ people relocate.
For students, pursuing a college education is a common reason to leave; earlier this year, one in eight high school seniors said that they were not planning to attend a public in-state university due to DeSantis’s policies.
Jack Petocz, a high school classmate and close friend of Driggers, as well as a fellow activist, is one such student. He wrote in a text to Inside Higher Ed that his main motive for leaving the state was not fear about his safety on campus, but about the quality of a college education under DeSantis’s policies.
“Given that Florida has initiated a takeover of our university system, I know my schooling would be hyper-politicized and often censored,” he said. In the fall, he will attend Vanderbilt University in another red state—Tennessee—where he is excited to continue “fighting the good fight,” he said.
DeSantis’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
The anecdotes and statistics about people leaving the state obscure an important caveat, Wolf said: not everyone has the means to move out of state.
“It’s expensive on your own, but it’s even more expensive if you’re trying to move a family. Parents, families—cost is often very prohibitive. The same can be said of students … out-of-state tuition is expensive. Not all families have the means to pick their student up and move them to a different state for college or university,” he said. “When I was a college student, I didn’t have all the support in the world from my parents, and the possibility of leaving the state would have been impossible for someone like me to do alone.”
For some students, moving out of state is less about cost than about what they would leave behind.
Faerie McCollum, a nonbinary 19-year-old who uses all pronouns but will be referred to as they/them in this article, describes themself as a homebody. A lifelong Floridian, they couldn’t image living in cooler climes or away from their hometown of Orlando.
But they also can’t picture leaving behind their family—especially a queer sibling, who they know would be unable to leave the state.
“My little sister came out to me a while ago as bisexual, because, obviously, of course, I am the biggest queer in the family,” McCollum said. “I’m always talking about it. Everybody comes to me when they’re considering it. They’re like, ‘Hey, I might be gay,’ and I’m like, ‘That’s great for you! I love you!’ To me, I have to stay and keep an eye on my sister to make sure that, you know, she understands that even though it’s scary, you don’t have to flee at the first sight of danger.”
Although it isn’t McCollum’s main motivation for staying in Florida, like Driggers, they too want to help push for change in the state. An aspiring pediatric nurse—they are hoping to earn an associate degree at Valencia College in Orlando and perhaps pursue a bachelor’s afterwards—they want to be an advocate for transgender and nonbinary youth facing the trauma of going to the hospital. McCollum was inspired by the excellent care they received when they were hospitalized for anxiety as a teenager.
Even now, McCollum hopes to have an impact on the kids they meet working in childcare at a local gym.
“I can kind of teach them compassion while they’re still young,” they said. “I have very brightly colored hair. So they remembered me and my brightly colored hair, and they remember to be kind to one another. And that’s really important in our current climate.”
Culture on Campus
What will students like Driggers and McCollum find once they arrive on campus this fall? Legislation that went into effect July 1, SB 266, bans the use of state funds for diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, and it is unclear what effect that will have on the day-to-day experiences of university students. Though student fees pay for most college clubs, LGBTQ+ advocates worry the legislation could result in the elimination of majors like gender, sexuality and women’s studies (which is offered at the University of Florida) or of cultural centers—including LGBTQ+ resource centers.
When McCollum visited Valencia’s campus in June—pride month—they were heartened to see a small LGBTQ+ pride gathering. But a spokesperson for the community college clarified to Inside Higher Ed that the event was not held by the institution itself.
Asked how the college was continuing to support LGBTQ+ students in the wake of recent legislation, a spokesperson told Inside Higher Ed via email, “I can assure you that Valencia intends to comply with the new law (SB 266) that took effect July 1, and will be cognizant of its prohibitions and the exceptions it contains. Please also note that we’re currently awaiting the results of the Florida Department of Education’s rule development/adoption processes with respect to the implementation of these new provisions of Florida law.”
Lisa Lippitt, a longtime humanities professor at Valencia College who previously served as adviser for the west campus’s Queer Alliance, said there weren’t many places for Valencia’s LGBTQ+ students to turn even before the latest legislation. The Queer Alliance, which used to be a site where LGBTQ+ students would meet to play games or just chat about their lives, hasn’t been active in recent years due to low student interest, she said. Clubs must have at least 10 members to be recognized by the college and have access to campus space.
“I wanted to be a resource for the students. I think those students need someplace to go,” Lippitt said.
She said she knows of no specific resources for LGBTQ+ students other than the club. Some faculty advertise through placards on their doors that they have taken LGBTQ+ ally training.
McCollum said they felt comfortable attending Valencia because it is based in Orlando, one of the most gay-friendly locales in Florida and a queer cultural hub. But Lippitt considers the area more of a “mixed bag,” citing an incident in which an electric road sign in the city’s Lake Nona neighborhood was altered to read, “Kill All Gays.”
“The pride events that were scheduled in that area were canceled as a result of it. Unfortunately, things like that happen around town. But then again, we have Disney, [which] is a huge supporter,” she said.
Like Valencia, the University of Florida, which Driggers plans to attend, had little to say about how it will support LGBTQ+ students who choose to study there.
“The University of Florida is a diverse and inclusive community where every student can engage a wide range of ideas and viewpoints in a culture that is grounded in trust and respect,” said Steve Orlando, interim vice president of communications and marketing.
Wolf said he can understand why universities aren’t prepared to make bolder statements.
“The governor has made it clear he is ready to burn entire institutions to the ground,” he said, referring to the right-wing takeover of New College, a small liberal arts college where DeSantis handpicked conservative trustees who ousted the institution’s president.
Still, Wolf believes it’s the responsibility of Florida’s institutions to think “proactively about how they continue to support all students and faculty on campus and how they are going to set young people up to be successful in the world.”
Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride, an organization that advocates for LGBTQ+ college students, said the lack of specific guidance on how to implement SB 266 was a function, rather than a bug, of the bill. It leads university administrators and employees to err on the side of caution; if an LGBTQ+ resource center is funded by student fees but the electricity that powers its building is not, a university may decide to do away with the center altogether, Windmeyer said.
“They want people to be fearful and confused,” Windmeyer said. “It’s what fascist governments, dictatorships are all about.”
For his part, Driggers is excited to be moving to Gainesville—which is significantly more liberal than his home region. Once on campus, he hopes to find a way to balance advocacy and academics; he plans to study business administration with the goal of one day running a nonprofit.
In addition to taking classes, “I intend to take on a new fellowship in Gainesville where I’ll be focused on getting the vote out among college students,” he said. “If all goes well, I’ll be able to manage that. But I guess that’s what college is about: finding your limits.”