Florida high school activist Jack Petocz receives PEN honor

By Hillel Italie

NEW YORK (AP) – A Florida teen who became a prominent opponent of the state’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill will be honored at next month’s PEN America gala. Jack Petocz, a high school junior, will be presented the PEN/Benenson Freedom of Expression Courage Award.

“Jack Petocz is leading his generation in fighting back against book bans and legislative efforts to police how individual identities can be discussed in schools,” Suzanne Nossel, CEO of the literary and human rights organization, said in a statement Wednesday.

“Jack understands that the struggles he and his peers are waging for a more equitable and inclusive society cannot succeed without robust free speech protections. He has been fearless in asserting his rights and those of others in the face of political forces that are determined to meet ideas they disagree with not with reasoned argument, but with bans and punishments.”

Petocz helped organize a statewide “Say Gay” student walkout in early March to protest the bill, which forbids instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. He was briefly suspended from Flagler Palm Coast High School for handing out LGBTQ+ pride flags during a protest there.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill into law on March 28.

Asia Kate Dillon, known for their roles in “Orange Is the New Black” and “Billions,” will present the award to Petocz. Among previous honorees are Darnella Frazier, who recorded on video the murder of George Floyd; and two survivors of the shootings at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Also on Wednesday, PEN announced that actor, author and radio and television commentator Faith Salie will host the May 23 gala, to be held at the American Museum of Natural History. Other honorees will include the imprisoned Ukrainian journalist Vladyslav Yesypenko, Audible founder Don Katz and author Zadie Smith.

Oscar winner Michael Douglas will present Yesypenko’s award to the journalist’s wife, Kateryna Yesypenko.