Anthony Cabassa speaks at a parents rights event in Watsonville.
(Max Chun / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

Controversial parents’ rights group Moms for Liberty participated in an event in Watsonville this weekend. Who are they?

The Southern Poverty Law Center labeled Moms for Liberty an anti-government extremist group earlier this year. The group participated in a three-hour forum in Watsonville on Sunday that featured a number of speakers who attacked schools’ approach to sex education — particularly LGBTQ+ and transgender topics. Its latest targets are two California Assembly bills that recently made it to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk.

More than 50 people congregated in a barn in Watsonville on Sunday for a forum organized by supporters of controversial “parents’ rights” groups that have opposed school vaccine mandates and teaching students about issues such as gender identity and systemic racism.

Among the speakers at the event was Moms for Liberty San Luis Obispo founder Jennifer Grinager. Started in 2021 in Florida, Moms for Liberty has quickly become a polarizing political force. It has chapters in at least 40 states and claims to have 100,000 members. It has strongly opposed pandemic measures and mask mandates, and claimed that schools across the country are indoctrinating and radicalizing children with school curricula that teach students about LGBTQ+ — and particularly transgender — topics.

The group has drawn controversy for quoting Adolf Hitler in a newsletter. Earlier this year, the Southern Poverty Law Center labeled Moms for Liberty an anti-government extremist group. It has also captured the attention of Republicans — several of the party’s presidential candidates attended a Moms for Liberty summit in Philadelphia in June, including Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Dalila Epperson told Lookout that Sunday’s event was organized by herself and three others. Flyers shared online ahead of the event variously listed California Parents United and California Republican Assemblies of Santa Cruz, San Benito and Monterey Counties as presenting the event.

California Parents United is a separate organization that shares many of the same key messages as Moms for Liberty. Its founder, Tracy Henderson, spoke in Watsonville on Sunday and was listed as among the speakers at a Moms for Liberty Town Hall in Santa Margarita in January.

Epperson is the founder of ACT Monterey Bay, a group that connects with other parental rights groups and advocates for similar issues as Moms for Liberty, such as opposing vaccine mandates and the teaching of critical race theory in schools, according to a profile in Monterey County Weekly.

The three-hour forum Sunday afternoon in Watsonville featured a number of speakers who echoed common right-wing talking points, including “LGBTQ+ indoctrination” in schools, referring to the COVID-19 pandemic as the “scamdemic,” and claiming that the United States is becoming a communist country.

“The power is not with some Republican somewhere, or some Democrat as mayor,” keynote speaker Anthony Cabassa, a conservative social media commentator from Los Angeles, told the crowd. “God has bestowed that power into you.” He described transgender and LGBTQ+ topics as part of a “Marxist global agenda.”

moms for liberty
(Max Chun / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Moms for Liberty’s appearance in Santa Cruz County has drawn the concern of local LGBTQ+ advocates. The community has been the target of recent attacks, including an anonymous letter in Good Times earlier this year denigrating participants in a drag story time.

Raudel Covarrubias, vice president of Pajaro Valley Pride, said the group opted not to organize a protest against the Moms for Liberty forum so as to not bring visibility to Sunday’s event.

Covarrubias — who uses either he/him or they/them pronouns — said the event serves as a reminder that just living in a predominantly Democratic area does not guarantee that members of the LGBTQ+ community will be safe from political attacks.

“It’s really telling that it’s important in today’s age to be aware of the dangers that can invade our community,” Covarrubias said. “In this situation, they’re spreading misinformation in a very strategic way by attacking trans kids and nonbinary kids while using the Latinx community in Watsonville to gain some footing within our community.”

Sunday’s event also focused on criticizing two pieces of California state legislation, Assembly Bills 665 and 957. Organizers also displayed copies of the children’s sex-education book “It’s Perfectly Normal,” which some speakers called “pornographic” due to its illustrations of sexual acts. The book is one of the most banned books of the past 20 years.

moms for liberty
A parents rights event in Watsonville.
(Max Chun / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Speakers claimed that AB 665 seeks to allow the removal of children from their parents’ or guardians’ custody if they do not consent to the child receiving gender-affirming surgeries.

“They want to take children away from loving parents who refuse to go down this dangerous path,” said Max Bonilla, an 18-year-old social media political commentator and one of the event’s speakers. “Kids don’t need a gender assessment, or need to be taken away from their parents. They need a loving home where they’re not going to be neglected.”

Fact-checkers have debunked such claims, pointing out that the bill would allow some children between the ages of 12 and 17 to receive mental health treatment on an outpatient basis without parental consent, but would not change requirements for parental consent for gender-affirming surgery. The bill also doesn’t contain language that would let school mental health professionals remove children from the custody of their guardians.

Speakers also criticized AB 957, which would instruct judges to weigh whether a parent affirms a child’s gender identity among several other factors when making custody and visitation decisions.

Bonilla told the crowd the legislation is a “very slippery slope” that could allow courts to remove children from their guardians’ custody if the guardian doesn’t support a child’s wish to undergo gender-affirming surgery. “What if the kid wants to go from dressing a certain way, to taking hormone replacement therapy, to then getting surgery?” he asked.

Fact-checkers have said that the bill does not directly mention surgery at all. It doesn’t require a court to favor a gender-affirming parent, nor does it require courts to remove a child from a nonaffirming parent.

Other speakers spoke out against trans people. Among them was San Francisco attorney Erin Friday, who said she pulled her daughter out of school when she came out as a transgender male, and after Friday heard teachers using male pronouns and a male name when addressing her child during online schooling. Friday told the crowd her child now identifies as a female once again, eliciting applause from the audience.

The organizers of a drag story time event in Watsonville say they are disappointed that a local newspaper published a...

“A little boy cannot become a little girl and a little girl cannot become a little boy. There is no such thing as a transgender child,” said Carmel-based Tracy Henderson, founder of California Parents United, another parents’ rights group that formed to fight mask mandates in schools. “We should not be talking about sex or morality in the schools, we should teach math and science.”

Dalila Epperson, one of the organizers of Sunday’s event, told Lookout that Moms for Liberty’s main request is parental control over the content of lessons taught in schools.

“It’s up to the parents to have that conversation with their children, but what they’re teaching in schools should be parent-approved as well,” said Epperson, who last year ran as the Republican nominee for the U.S. House of Representatives District 19 seat against Democratic incumbent Jimmy Panetta.

“[Sex ed] would really need to start in ninth grade,” she added. “But the most important thing is that we’ll have parents signing off on the actual curriculum.”

A psychologist from Berkeley named Dave, who did not give his last name, told Lookout he doesn’t have kids but believes that children as young as 5 and 6 years old are “being taught that their bodies may not be right,” and that it is needlessly confusing them: “I think they should be left alone to go through the process of normal development, and if they have questions about whether they’re male or female, those questions can come up later.”

A few other attendees made comments about schools being unsafe due to indoctrinated teachers taking over public schools and pushing their agenda onto the students.

Covarrubias urged community members to educate themselves on the California legislation under attack by Moms for Liberty, and gender education as a whole.

“Look up definitions, look up how the bills are written. Even if I, myself, am already talking to someone about them, it’s going to be biased because I obviously see it in a certain way,” they said. “Don’t have someone tell you your own perspective in life.”

FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this story stated that Moms for Liberty hosted the event in Watsonville on Sunday. Dalila Epperson told Lookout that Sunday’s event was organized by herself and three others. The founder of a Moms for Liberty chapter in San Luis Obispo was among the speakers on Sunday.

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