“We’re Going To Make Our Presence Known”: 5 Teens On The Bill To Ban Period Talk

Photographed by Serena Brown.
In public schools in Florida, books are banned and you better not talk about your period. A year after Gov. Ron DeSantis (FL–R.) signed into law the controversial bill that opponents dubbed "Don’t Say Gay," which limited conversations about sexual orientation or gender identity through the third grade, a bill aimed at restricting the state’s already limited sex education may be headed to the governor’s desk. Detractors are calling House Bill 1069 the "period ban" after the lawmaker who proposed the legislation, Rep. Stan McClain (FL-R.), said the bill would prohibit conversations about menstrual cycles between students who are younger than the sixth grade. The bill is the latest in a wave of proposed legislation from Florida Republicans aimed at restricting reproductive health education, gender-affirming care for minors, and the books students can read. 
If passed into law, the legislation would require schools to teach that "sex is determined by biology and reproductive function at birth … and that these reproductive roles are binary, stable, and unchangeable." The bill would also restrict educational materials and require that sexual health education doesn’t begin before the sixth grade. Florida state Rep. Ashley Gantt (D.) asked Rep. McClain during a hearing if the bill would restrict girls from discussing menstrual cycles at school. 
"So if little girls experience their menstrual cycle in fifth grade or fourth grade, will that prohibit conversations from them since they are in the grade lower than sixth grade?" Rep. Gantt asked.
"It would," Rep. McClain said.
Rep. McClain later stated the bill isn't meant to "punish" students who ask questions. The bill is subject to another committee hearing before facing the full Senate. If passed to Gov. DeSantis’ desk, it is expected to be signed.
Though menstruation typically begins between the ages of 10 and 16, with an average onset at age 12, it can begin as early as age 8 and rates of precocious puberty have increased during the pandemic. Annie Filkowski, the policy director of Planned Parenthood of South, East, and North Florida, called the bill "on brand" for Florida Republicans. "There’s so much shame legislators are perpetuating that makes their agenda to have control over our bodies that much easier," she told Refinery29. "Shame first, control second. The Florida legislative agenda is centered on control over our bodies." By restricting the conversations students are able to have with each other, detractors of the so-called period ban say that Florida is sending young girls a message: The normal processes of your body are shameful and should be kept secret.
Refinery29 spoke to five teens — four from Florida and one from Pennsylvania — about what they make of the proposed ban and how they’re fighting it. 
Lily Stahlman, 15, she/her, freshman in high school
Lily Stahlman finds comfort in knowledge. She wants to know what to expect and what is coming next but when she first started her period, she was flung into the unknown. After a minor sex education in elementary school which touched on menstrual cycles, periods still felt like a mystery to her. Lily can’t imagine what it would be like for kids in Florida if the period ban passed. "I think girls would become even more confused — confused about themselves and why they can’t talk about what’s happening to them," Lily said. "It’s going to be very hard to explain to a [kid] why they can’t talk about their menstrual cycles … [that] your government just wants to 'protect you' from yourself."
She’s not sure what to do to fight the period ban. At only 15, she can’t yet drive or vote but what she can do is help her peers understand what’s happening. Lily is part of her school’s debate club and makes sure to raise issues like the period ban there. She goes to law seminars and educates herself to be ready for the fight she sees ahead, even as she balances the normal demands of adolescence. "I'm supposed to be living my kid life," she said. "No one knows what teens in Florida are really going through besides teens in Florida."
Nia Larkins, 15, she/her, freshman in high school
Nia Larkins is no stranger to protesting. Her brother, Will Larkins, has been instrumental in the fight against Florida’s so-called "Don’t Say Gay" bill. Nia has tagged along with her brother to Tallahassee, the site of the Florida Capitol. But as Florida aims to further restrict students by banning them from learning or talking about menstruation in elementary school, Nia wonders if it’s time to stage a school walkout, as her brother did to protest "Don’t Say Gay." Some of her peers, she said, don’t even know about the possible period ban — and Nia says that is the point. "[The Florida legislature] wants kids to be confused and scared and not sure what’s happening," Nia said. "It brings them more power."

When I was able to [talk to my friends about menstruation], it completely changed my worldview and made any woman a form of community for me.

NIA, 15
Nia remembers when she first got her period and the relief she found in talking to her friends about it. She’d had a brief lesson on menstruation in fifth grade and when her menstrual cycle began a year later, she knew the basics of what to expect. If that weren’t an option for young people, she worries they would be scared and lost. Menstrual cycles can begin as early as age 8, when a child is typically in elementary school. If the period ban were to go into effect, those kids might not be allowed to talk about their experience with their teachers or friends. "So many girls will be lost and not know what to do," Nia said. "It’s such a rough experience already. When I was able to [talk to my friends], it completely changed my worldview and made any woman a form of community for me."
Riley Lepley, 15, she/her, sophomore in high school
Riley Lepley doesn’t live in Florida but she’s worried about what she sees as the violation of free speech the period ban would enforce. At her Pennsylvania high school, she’s part of Student Advocates for Speech, a group dedicated to advocating for free speech. Despite the thousands of miles between her state and Governor Ron DeSantis, Riley feels a responsibility to speak out. "As a mostly female group, we all feel this sense of ownership," she said. "We know what it was like for us. That connection and shared experience makes us come together."

Listening is really important, especially in spaces where adults are deciding things for young people. They don't understand how important it is for girls to be able to talk about this because they may not have a safe place within their home or maybe they have single dads.

Her group is considering reaching out to Florida high school groups to see how they can support the young people who would be directly affected by this bill. She worries about what the period ban would mean for student free speech in a country where attempts to ban books doubled in 2022, according to the New York Times. And she has a tip for the people making these decisions: "Listening is really important, especially in spaces where adults are deciding things for young people," she said. "They don’t understand how important it is for girls to be able to talk about this because they may not have a safe place within their home or maybe they have single dads. [The period ban] is such a big violation for young girls who need to talk about their bodies."
Maria Ellis, 15, she/her, freshman in high school
Maria Ellis is brainstorming. What can she do to counteract Florida’s proposed period ban? She was talking to her mom and they came up with a possibility: What if they printed T-shirts that said "Women REFUSE to go back. PERIOD!" with the last word in bold red text? (Maria likes the idea but thinks she can make it more fashionable.) She’s sharing online petitions and social media posts but she wants to do more. She’s used to doing more — she’s grown up going to protests. She thinks her first one was outside a Publix when she was about four and her mother was protesting farming working conditions. Now, as a teenager, her focus is on sexual and reproductive equality.

This is only going to teach young girls to be ashamed and [teach] young boys to not respect the amazing power our bodies have.

Maria, 15
Maria worries what the effect of the period ban would be, how it could deepen the existing shame around menstruation. "Young girls for centuries have been shamed for a very natural and beautiful human process," she said. "Our thoughts and feelings and biological functions have been disregarded and called disgusting. This is only going to teach young girls to be ashamed and [teach] young boys to not respect the amazing power our bodies have."
It could be easy, in a post-Roe America, where her state is considering banning even the discussion of menstruation and book bans are continuing at a rapid pace, to feel hopeless. But Maria has hope. As long as she can get the message out to other young people, she knows they won’t let this bill pass. "When girls find out, they’re going to speak out," she said. "We’re going to make our presence known."
Storm, 14, they/them
Storm first got their period in fifth grade so the possible Florida ban is personal. They can’t help but think about what it would’ve been like for them. They wouldn’t have been able to talk to their friends. They wonder if they would’ve been able to ask a teacher or a nurse about it. They think maybe they would’ve tried to call home and talk to their mom, ask her to come pick them up. But one thing is clear to them: being able to talk to their friends and teachers about menstruation beginning made it less taboo. "I was able to talk about what’s considered a 'gross topic' and have a support group," they said. "It was like…we’re all in this together."
Storm and their mom have been writing to their state representatives, urging them to reconsider this action. They’ve been going to protests since the fourth grade. Considering what the last year has been like in Florida, there are plenty of reasons to feel hopeless about the state's future but Storm isn’t hopeless. They see Rep. Anna Eskamani (FL-D.) and Rep. Maxwell Frost (FL-D.), Gen Z’s first Congressperson, and they feel something different. "They just give me hope for the future of Florida schools."

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