These Queer Kids Aren't Going to Let Ron DeSantis Ruin Their College

“Joy is a form of resistance,” one student said.
Students participate in a Defend New College protest in Sarasota, Florida, US, on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023.
Students participate in a Defend New College protest in Sarasota, Florida, US, on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023. (Photo by Octavio Jones / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Last week, K.C. Casey stood on a small stage dressed in gold Rocky Horror Picture Show shorts and a see-through blouse to give their college commencement speech. It was a speech that wasn’t supposed to happen, and it almost didn’t. The ceremony, which took place in front of hundreds of the New College of Florida’s graduating students and their family members on May 18 at the Sarasota Art Museum, wasn't the school’s official commencement event, but an alternative graduation, organized by students as an act of exuberant defiance.


This alternative event was a way for students to take a stand against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his plan to make New College the latest target of his public education culture war.  

For the last few months, students at the small college in Sarasota have been locked in battle against the governor and the DeSantis-appointed right-wing board of trustees who have been working to transform the liberal school into a conservative campus in what was called a “hostile takeover” by the college’s former president. The new board closed the office of diversity and equity at the college, and promised to make the school more like Michigan’s Hillsdale College, a private Christian college that doesn’t take any public funds or accept students who need government aid so that it can circumvent federal rules, including Title IX policies against sex discrimination. And while students and faculty fought back against their machinations, DeSantis continued waging his offensive, recently culminating in the governor’s signing of three education-related anti-LGBTQ bills on New College’s campus.

These changes inspired Casey and their peers to organize the alternative commencement, an event that is the latest example of ways students on campus, including a large group of LGBTQ students, have pushed back against efforts to restrict their rights and educational freedom across Florida. 


“It's as simple as I didn't wanna shake hands with someone who is trying to destroy our school,” they said. “The inspiration was a middle school field trip [because of] that sense of innocence and joy that is really hard to find at a time like this.”

alternative commencement at New College

Alternative commencement attendees (Photo courtesy of K.C. Casey)

Other students wanted graduation to emulate their years on campus. “It's the goal to graduate on our terms,” said Kacie, a student at New College whose last name has been withheld for safety reasons. “The school they want to create is not the one students have been going to.”

In spite of everything, the alternative graduation was also a moment to celebrate. “I am in awe of the freedom and strength that can be found through community and self-expression,” Casey told the crowd during their speech. “At an event like this, it’s just a bit easier to remember that we deserve to feel joy and love, and we deserve to be celebrated.” 

Because DeSantis has been targeting LGBTQ people in Florida and at the college, the event was explicitly about queer joy, and organizers went out of their way to make sure LGBTQ students would feel safe and celebrated. There weren’t any caps and gowns at the graduation, but a whole lot of rainbow and pink and blue flags. The event was an undeniable success: Of 119 graduating New College students, 90 showed up, Casey said, adding that about 60 professors also attended. Upon arrival, students, encouraged to wear whatever they wanted, were greeted with piles of pronoun pins and white t-shirts for their peers to sign. The event included college bands and a series of speeches, including a keynote speech from Maya Wiley, the president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Organizers and Attendees said the event highlighted how queer joy is the ultimate act of resistance. 


“That meant celebrating art, celebrating our identity, fighting for our values, fighting for what we believe is the truth and what we believe to be free and educational freedom.” Casey said. 

alt commencement

Attendees of the alternative commencement were greeted with pronoun pins. (Photo courtesy of K.C. Casey)

While DeSantis’ efforts would make New College less tolerant, students at the school have defied him by hosting inclusive chess tournaments, dances, garage sales, rallies, and, of course, protests. In February, about 300 students and parents, some dressed in Handmaid’s Tale outfits, protested a board meeting held by the new right-wing administration, the Associated Press reported. Students say it all amounts to the same thing: a commitment to maintaining the New College’s reputation for being a safe, alternative space.

Though the tiny New College may not seem like a likely battle ground for LGBTQ and civil rights, the school was once known as a safe haven. DeSantis previously said he “rejects woke ideology” and will “fight the woke in the schools.” So it’s not surprising he targeted New College, a school where three quarters of students identified as liberal or very liberal, according to a 2019 survey. The school also boasts the slogan “educating free thinkers, risk takers, and trailblazers,” and Casey described it as “a place that allowed [students] to explore themselves and a vast range of identities and perspectives.”


Right now, Florida is one of the most politically hostile states towards LGBTQ people in the country: Republican lawmakers have introduced an onslaught of anti-trans bills, including major restrictions on education. Last year, DeSantis ushered in the “Don’t Say Gay” bill that prohibits discussion of LGBTQ issues and gender identity. This year, it’s been hard to keep track of the sheer number of anti-trans policies introduced in the state and together the bills restrict gender affirming care, criminalize healthcare providers who provide gender-affirming care, threaten gender affirming parental custody, and ban the use of public funds for gender-affirming care for people of all ages.

Last week, when DeSantis signed the bills on New College’s campus, he also signed SB 266, which increases the power and duties of the board, adds more reviews for tenured professors, and updates the core curriculum to restrict courses that teach “identity politics” or are “based on theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States.” 


When word got out that DeSantis was on campus, New College students quickly mobilized. Kacie said around 70 students showed up at the school’s administration building, where DeSantis was holding a live streamed press conference. In the livestream, audible chants for academic freedom can be heard in the background.

“It was a beautiful moment of collective solidarity and action. Our actions were made communally, and it felt like they opened up the cracks of possibility and hope,” Ellie, a graduating student who was present, told VICE News.

“We are fighting as hard as we can to keep our dignity,” said Kacie. “We won't back down and let it be taken away from us easily.” 

Now, students like Kacie fear that the school they love is being destroyed, and wonder if they should leave.

“It's been really, really difficult because like, even if I do leave New College, my grandparents are here. I’m five minutes away from one and 30 minutes away from the other,” Kacie said. “I'm really connected with my family. And so it's really difficult trying to make this hard decision of leaving.” 

No matter what, though, Kacie said they will keep protesting on behalf of the college.

“Joy is a form of resistance,” they said, adding that politicians are “doing all of these things to make us lose our motivation and to make us lose our drive. And the fact is we are incredibly resilient students. We are queer students living in Florida…We have survived through this before and we're going to continue surviving through it.”