Teens stage ‘die-in’ protests against Florida’s anti-trans driver’s license policy

Cameron Driggers (back row, far left) and other demonstrators protest outside the Gainesville, Fla. Department of Motor Vehicles (Photo credit: Youth Action Fund)

On Friday, just days after the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles issued a policy prohibiting transgender residents from updating the gender markers on their driver’s licenses, a group of teens coordinated “die-in” protests at DMVs across the state.

Speaking with the Washington Blade on Friday afternoon, Cameron Driggers and Jack Petocz relayed how they led demonstrations in Orlando, Miami, Tampa and Gainesville that featured more than 200 participants including representatives from more than eight LGBTQ groups.

The 18 and 19-year-old college students serve as, respectively, executive director and deputy director of Youth Action Fund, “a collective of Gen-Z activists fighting against the far-right culture war raging throughout Florida.”

This latest front on the war against trans people in the state, Driggers said, represents “one of the scariest, most authoritarian developments in Florida in a long time.”

The state agency’s policy preempts legislation in the Florida House of Representatives that would implement the same restrictions, permitting Floridians to list only their sex assigned at birth on state-issued IDs.

In response, Driggers recognized that “we need to have an Act Up-style direct action where we put our bodies on the line,” a reference to the AIDS activist organization’s practice of staging “die-ins” to demand that the federal government and Reagan White House stop ignoring an epidemic that was ravaging gay communities in the 1980s.

Driggers said Friday’s demonstrations were each 37 minutes long, a nod to data from the U.S. Transgender Survey that 37 percent of respondents have experienced discrimination because their IDs have inaccurate gender markers.

“We really wanted the protests to tell a story,” Petocz said. “We had the individuals actually lying down and committing the die-in where they had mock gravestones with messaging like ‘RIP: Killed by the DMV’ or ‘killed by the DeSantis administration’” along with “general messages about trans resistance.”

At each site these demonstrators were joined by a narrator to “tell the story of why we are out there today to passersby, what we are fighting for in this moment, [and] what the DMV just committed.”

Asked whether their decision to emulate the protest methods of Act Up was grounded in the relationship between Florida’s anti-trans crusade and increased incidence of death by suicide in communities already beset with high suicide rates and mental health challenges, Petocz said yes — but added that it’s “multifaceted.”

“I also think that you have to look at it from the perspective of enabling hate — of enabling the kind of sentiment that contributes to widespread transphobia,” he said. “And when the state goes ahead and they amplify that sentiment and they actually endorse it, it definitely leaves way for additional hate and hate crimes.”

“Our trans brothers and sisters are most susceptible to hate crimes in this country,” Petocz added.

Driggers said that next up for the coalition that participated in Friday’s demonstrations is bringing their protest to the Florida House. He noted that the copycat legislation, which was filed by state Reps. Douglas Michael Bankson (R-Apopka) and Dean Black (R-Jacksonville), is headed to committee for markup next week.

Meanwhile, they’re working with the Human Rights Campaign and Equality Florida on a letter writing campaign to urge the Justice Department to investigate the policy, which appears both unconstitutional and authoritarian, Driggers said. They have 1,167 letters so far.

Driggers also noted that Simone Chriss, director of the Southern Legal Counsel’s Transgender Rights Initiative, is “getting testimony from people who experienced problems” following the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles’ issuance of the new policy a couple of weeks ago.

A new wave of youth activism

Friday was hardly the first time Driggers and Petocz have led a protest against anti-LGBTQ and other harmful policies in Florida.

“Jack and I obviously been involved in activism for a very long time,” Driggers said. Their organization, which was just founded in November, awards $500 and $1,000 stipends for youth-led campaigns and individual advocates — while also lending their expertise in organizing to others through advisory services.

“We’ve worked through a variety of more institutional established organizations,” Driggers said. “And through that we’ve kind of identified a lot of shortcomings in the nonprofit industrial complex, if you will.”

“First among those, we think that there’s a structural lack of resources, and we’re often put on a pedestal and [told] ‘you’re gonna save us,’ but really, all that really means is they want us to be free labor, they want to knock on doors, they want to, you know, co-opt labor for the benefit of other organizations,” he said.

By contrast, with the Youth Action Fund, Driggers said, he and his friends have pioneered a new organizing model where “we tell people to come to us with their ideas, and then we work with them to make those ideas happen.”

For instance, Driggers said, when they were approached by students from Brevard County public high schools who objected to the district’s practice of banning books, Youth Action Fund was able to provide resources for them to acquire “speaking equipment, tables, literature” along with guidance on matters like how to “negotiate with their school board on how to get permits to protest.”

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