A Florida high school activist has been given a PEN award for organizing protests against the “Don’t Say Gay” Bill. The PEN/Berenson award was presented to Jack Petocz at the annual PEN America Literary Gala on May 23rd for “exceptional acts of courage in the exercise of freedom of expression.” The award recognizes his efforts in organizing a statewide student walkout earlier this year to protest HB 1557, the bill that’s become known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. The bill prohibits discussing anything relating to gender identity and sexual orientation from kindergarten to third grade within schools.
The walkout gained nationwide attention and inspired protests at other schools. It also garnered negative attention for him from his school, as he was suspended from Flagler Palm Coast High School on March 3rd. Although he was allowed to come back to school on March 7th, he has faced repeated disciplinary actions since. Some of these actions have even prevented him from running for senior class president.
Despite these and other setbacks, he proclaimed that he “will not and cannot stand idly by as lawmakers across the country strip us of our basic constitutional rights” while accepting the award. Continuing on, he encouraged others to “make their voice heard in November, not just by voting in local, state and national elections, but also by supporting young organizers working to guarantee a more progressive and democratic tomorrow.”
The award was presented to Petocz by actor Asia Kate Dillon. Dillon, who plays TV’s first nonbinary main character on the show Billions, took the moment to highlight the significance their character has played in young people’s lives. They also acknowledged how “books, and screenplays, and creativity in other forms can make this world a better – and a safer — place. That is why,” they continued, “what Jack and his fellow students are doing is so important.”
The gala’s other presenters included actors Michael Douglas and Ruth Negga, and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. The host was award-winning journalist, writer, and actress Faith Salie. Among the other honorees were author Zadie Smith, Ukrainian freelance journalist Vladislav Yesypenko, and Audible founder Don Katz.
The event was held at the American Museum of Natural History and its proceeds will help fund PEN America’s mission to advocate for free expression.
Find more news and stories of interest from the book world in Breaking in Books.