(NEW YORK)– PEN America, the free expression advocacy organization, honored Florida high school activist Jack Petocz with the 2022 PEN/Benenson Freedom of Expression Courage Award last night at the PEN America Literary Gala.  Asia Kate Dillion, who on Billions plays TV’s first nonbinary main character, presented the award to Petocz before an audience of 650 people at the Museum of Natural History in New York. 

Petocz was honored for organizing a statewide student walkout in March to protest HB 1557 (the Parental Rights in Education, or “Don’t Say Gay,” bill), which helped catalyze a groundswell of protest at schools and beyond against the legislation that prohibits discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation from kindergarten through third grade. Following the walkout, on March 3, Petocz was suspended from Flagler Palm Coast High School for handing out 200 LGBTQ+ pride flags. He was reinstated in school on March 7, though his school appears to continue to take disciplinary action against him, which effectively barred him from running for senior class president.

Accepting the award, Petocz, 17, said,  “I am proud to be a member of Gen-Z. We are a group of progressive, politically-engaged, and dedicated change-makers, who will not and cannot stand idly by as lawmakers across the country strip us of our basic constitutional rights. Instead of being allowed to focus on menial responsibilities such as schoolwork, my generation has been forced to rapidly mobilize and fight for our future.” He urged everyone listening 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.” He concluded, “If our collective voice couldn’t make a difference, then they wouldn’t be trying so hard to silence it.”

Petocz’s fight against censorship in his school district includes leading students in protest against the removal of George M. Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue. He has written to Governor Ron DeSantis and Florida lawmakers, imploring those in positions of power to stop policing the education and identities of LGBTQ+ students.

Asia Kate Dillon, widely acclaimed for their performance on Billions as Taylor Mason, spoke to the power of written words and representation to deepen one’s understanding of self and others. They said, “I hear from young people that seeing my character on Billions has helped them understand their own gender identity – and that this allowed them to feel less alone. I even hear from people who have actually set aside their phobias and hostilities, traded them for a more open mind after watching our show. For me, that demonstrates with such clarity how books, and screenplays, and creativity in other forms can make this world a better – and a safer — place. But not if those books aren’t read, if they can’t be found on shelves in schools and libraries, if they can’t be discussed, if questions and differences can’t be explored. That is why what Jack and his fellow students are doing is so important.”

Devoted to exceptional acts of courage in the exercise of freedom of expression, the PEN/Benenson award recognized Petocz for his unflinching stance against censorship and silencing, and as an exemplar of his generation’s refusal of the regressive legislation burdening education throughout the country.

Author Jenny Finley Boylan likewise mentioned Petocz’s work, with the bestselling author and PEN America trustee recounting telling her conservative, 85-year-old mother that she is transgender—and receiving a loving response that surprised her. Boylan recalled, “She also suggested, ‘you should write a book. Your story might open hearts.’ And a few years later, I did publish a book, She’s Not There, a memoir about a life in two genders, and about my long journey to find acceptance. That book did open hearts, I hope—but it also threatened people who have no room in their mind, or in their imaginations, for a life like mine. Instead, books like mine are being banned—in Florida, and across the country. Still, thanks to people like Jack, authors like me know that we are not alone, and that the forces that would erase our work now know that they will have a fight on their hands.”

The annual PEN gala gathers together a literary who’s who under the museum’s blue whale to support literary culture and champion the free expression right that makes it possible. This year, PEN honored renowned writer Zadie Smith, presented with the PEN/Audible Literary Service Award by Academy Award and 2022 Tony Award Nominee Ruth Negga; Audible founder and Executive Chairman Don Katz, recognized as Business Visionary Honoree by U.S. Senator Cory Booker, and imprisoned Ukrainian journalist Vladyslav Yesypenko, given the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, accepted by his wife, Kateryna Yesypenko, from Academy-Award Winning actor Michael Douglas. The gala raised $2.6 Million for PEN America’s work defending free expression.

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], 201-247-5057