Inside the Moms for Liberty Summit: Embracing DeSantis, fearing discussions of gender and sexuality in schools

Summit attendees were adamant that Moms for Liberty isn’t about hate. “We're just here to protect our children.”

Ron DeSantis speaking at a podium at the Moms For Liberty conference

Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Moms for Liberty meeting in Philadelphia, Friday, June 30, 2023. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

What you need to know

Hundreds of protestors greeted members of Moms for Liberty outside the Marriott Hotel in Center City Philadelphia Friday morning, as they made their way to hear opening remarks from Florida Governor and Republican presidential primary candidate, Ron DeSantis.

DeSantis opened the second day of the national Moms for Liberty summit. The group says it fights for parental rights, and advocates for changing the way history is taught and banning books from school libraries they deem as sexually explicit.

DeSantis congratulated the group for not backing down against what he described as the “woke mob” — referencing the anti-censorship and LGBTQ advocacy groups outside.

“That is a sign that we are winning this fight,” DeSantis said. “We are not going to save our country if we are not willing to accept that there’s going to be sacrifices, there’s going to be arrows that we have to take.”

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DeSantis listed his efforts in Florida to ban discussions on race, gender, and sexuality in schools, blocking diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives at public universities, censoring textbooks that reference social and emotional learning, and prohibiting gender-affirming medical care for transgender youth.

“We oppose the sexualization of children,” DeSantis said. “We will fight with anybody or any institution that’s seeking to rob our children of their innocence.” The crowd reacted with enthusiasm and cheers.

Former President Donald Trump also praised Moms for Liberty when he spoke to the crowd later Friday afternoon. Moms for Liberty is the best thing “that’s ever happened to America,” he said.

Trump used the event to stump for his 2024 presidential campaign, promising to pass a nationwide ban on gender-affirming medical care for transgender youth, ban teacher tenures in public schools, and eliminate all diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives “across the entire federal government” should he be elected.

A look inside the summit

Attendee Tonya Hettler from Wilmington, Delaware said DeSantis’ words resonated. She works for the Caesar Rodney Institute, a non-profit think tank that describes its goals as protecting individual liberties.

“The LGBTQ thing is now taking over,” Hettler said. “I actually just pulled my daughter out of the public school because her best friend said she was a ‘they/them.’”

Hettler says she wants schools to focus less on sexual and gender identities and more on improving academics. But both she and attendee Lorraine Ranalli say they aren’t anti-LGBTQ.

Ranalli is originally from Delaware County and recently moved to Florida. She says Moms for Liberty is about ending the “woke indoctrination” of youth inside public schools. It’s up to parents to decide how to educate their children on topics around sex, sexuality, and gender, she said.

“We’re just here to protect our children. We want to protect their innocence. They shouldn’t be learning about any kind of sex, homosexual, heterosexual, any of it,” Ranalli said.

All the way from Venango County outside Pittsburgh, Alesha Hartsfield said she was drawn to the summit even though she had never heard of the group until her friend invited her to this weekend’s event.

Hartsfield serves on her district’s school board, but is considering starting her own school. She said she wants parents to have more of a voice in what their kids are taught, “just because the state has requirements that might not align with how I want to parent my child.”

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She said she hopes to get some advice throughout the weekend.

Cathy Ingham was passing through the Marriott lobby and shared her concerns about public schools. Ingham declined to share where she’s from but said it’s in the Philadelphia region.

She said she’s worried about “indoctrination,” as well, and doesn’t want schools to “make my kid trans.” All of her children have already graduated from their public school systems. Ingham said a friend from church told her that her “kindergartner came home and said, ‘Mom, if my penis falls off, I can become a girl.’”

Ingham was adamant that the group isn’t a “hate group,” and pointed to the protestors outside — “the only hate are the people that feel we can’t rent this place and have a peaceful event.”

Ingham said she wants children to focus on math, science, reading, and not “hating America.”

Throughout the day were breakout sessions on specific topics including sex education, effective messaging strategies, and fighting dark money’s “infiltration into education.”

Sponsors of the event included the Heritage Foundation and the Leadership Institute, a national conservative group that trains conservative political leaders. The two organizations are public donors of Moms for Liberty, though M4L’s 501(c) 4 status means it doesn’t have to disclose its funders. Patriot Mobile — a conservative Christian cellphone company — sponsored Trump’s summit speech.

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