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Photo courtesy Kane Kliewer

‘I won’t survive’: Growing up with a Moms for Liberty parent, a group that’s suddenly one of the most influential forces in U.S. schools

‘The school I went to taught us so many awful things.’

 

Claire Goforth

IRL

Kane Kliewer, 28, attended an evangelical Baptist church and went to a private Christian school when he was growing up. Kliewer, who is trans and uses he/they pronouns, said there was immense pressure to adhere to traditional gender roles, which left him feeling lost and depressed. Dressing up as Peter Pan for Halloween was a rare reprieve from the expectation of being a good Christian girl.

“I think I had my first suicidal ideation maybe at about age eight or nine when I started developing breasts,” Kliewer recalled in a recent conversation with the Daily Dot. “Those feelings didn’t go away. They stayed until adulthood.”

Kliewer was also taught to have negative views of the LGBTQ community.

“The school I went to taught us so many awful things about LGBTQ people, [such as] they’re sleeping with other people all the time and getting illnesses,” Kliewer said.

In college, Kliewer started questioning this and other facets of the conservative worldview that had been drilled into him from an early age. He said he’d also started noticing more positive LGBTQ representation around him and in media like Orange Is the New Black. “It helped me realize there are people like me out here,” he said.

That’s when Kliewer came out of the closet.

His parents, he said, reacted by convincing him to attend conversion “therapy.” The American Psychological Association refers to such treatment as “sexual orientation and gender identity change efforts” that “use an array of psychosocially harmful techniques, including public shaming or inducing adverse psychological reactions.” Half of U.S. states and Washington, D.C. have partial or total bans on using it on minors.

Kliewer said the therapy included discussing his sexuality with his parents and “quote unquote reformed gay” people. It was agony. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt so low or dark,” Kliewer said.

The experience also led to an epiphany. “I knew I can’t stay here. I won’t survive. For lack of a better way to put it, I will end my life,” Kliewer said. “That was kind of a catalyst for me to leave home.”

At 25, Kliewer came out as trans. Now he maintains minimal contact with his parents, only checking in about things like getting a new car or moving. “It’s been a journey of finding my boundaries,” he said.

In July, Kliewer unexpectedly encountered his mother online. She was going viral for telling the Oklahoma State Department of Education, which formerly employed her son, that teachers unions are “implementing Marxist gender ideology” in order to make all children queer. In her remarks, she also said it was a struggle to sound “joyful” when discussing this conspiracy that supposedly includes the National Education Association, the largest teachers’ union in the United States. Moms for Liberty, a conservative group that crusades against what it considers woke content and liberal indoctrination in schools, often claims it’s Marxist to be LGBTQ affirming and it refers to its members as “joyful warriors.” It’s also repeatedly attacked the NEA, which it calls the “K-12 Cartel.”

Kliewer was stunned. He also felt attacked.

He worked at the department until May; now he’s employed at a nonprofit that provides support to families and caregivers. He said that, while he knew his mother supported politicians with anti-LGBTQ beliefs, he didn’t realize how extreme her views had become until that moment.

The Daily Dot was unable to reach Kliewer’s parents for comment.

He said he spoke to his mother later that day and they had something of a dialogue. But he still struggles to reconcile the parent he knows with the woman who thinks there’s a conspiracy to make kids trans.

“I have a love for my mom,” he said. “I can see the brainwashing but it does not excuse the very real impact.”

Kliewer believes his mother recently joined Moms for Liberty.

Moms for Liberty is a right-wing group that was formed to force schools to reopen and oppose mask and vaccine mandates during the pandemic. Its mission quickly shifted to focus on protecting children from what it views as woke indoctrination, primarily by removing classroom materials and instruction related to racial and LGBTQ equality. It’s also taken aim at LGBTQ-affirming educators by accusing them of sexualizing children and even grooming them.

This has made Moms for Liberty among the most visible and influential forces in conservative politics. Its annual summit this summer was a who’s who of powerful right-wing pundits, politicians, and influencers.

Moms for Liberty has simultaneously become a lightning rod for controversy. There’s a powerful and growing resistance showing up at school board meetings, organizing online, and giving it colorful nicknames like “Klanned Karenhood.” In June, the Southern Poverty Law Center deemed it an “anti-government extremist group.”

For this story, the Daily Dot spoke with people whose parents are among Moms for Liberty’s purported 120,000 members, advocates for LGBTQ acceptance and equality, mental health experts, and people who oppose the polarizing nonprofit.

While the fight over America’s children plays out in the public square, at dinner tables and in terse text threads all over the country, a quieter, more personal battle is being waged between LGBTQ children and parents who belong to the group. Parental rejection is already disturbingly common for LGBTQ children and youth. Advocates say that Moms for Liberty may claim to be protecting children, but in reality it’s tearing families apart.

The public relations firm that represents Moms for Liberty said it would respond to a detailed inquiry the Daily Dot sent via email on Aug. 9. It did not.

Radicalized by liberty

Sarah’s mother had always been a conservative, but the pandemic sent her careening into conspiratorial thinking and extremism. Sarah requested anonymity to prevent further conflict in their household. She said that her mom joined Moms for Liberty in its early days to oppose pandemic restrictions. It snowballed from there.

As Moms for Liberty became more overtly political, so did Sarah’s mom.

“Every single time I speak to her, I hear something related to conservative politics. I know that politics are a normal part of life and adulthood, but I miss when I could speak to my mother without feeling like this,” Sarah, 18, said.

Her 15-year-old brother had already come out to Sarah when one day, her mother made a joke about him being gay. She may have been kidding, but the truth showed itself on his face.

Sarah said her mother cried and said to her son, “I don’t believe in all that LGBT shit, but I support you.” Then their parents sent Sarah out of the room for hours.

She doesn’t know everything that was said during that time. Her brother only shared the most hurtful things with her.

Her mother’s claim to accept her son’s sexuality proved to be hollow. She’s told him that gay people are immoral, promiscuous, and often have sexually transmitted diseases (STD). She also blamed Sarah for not outing her brother.

“Months later [she] told me that I should’ve told her so that she ‘had time to mourn him,’” Sarah said.

Sarah said that her mother has become more convinced of harmful stereotypes about gay people since joining Moms for Liberty. “She is a big supporter of the ‘gay people are groomers’ narrative and spouts bullshit about that constantly,” Sarah said. She also often cites Gays Against Groomers, a far-right group that falsely maligns trans people and drag queens as pedophiles. The group was founded in June 2022.

“I take testosterone to stay alive,” Kliewer said. “It’s just that simple.”

Like Kliewer’s mother, Sarah’s mother believes there is a conspiracy to make more children trans.

“She is convinced that the government wants to trick kids into getting bottom surgery,” she said, referring to gender-affirming surgeries. “I don’t know how that makes sense to her.”

Moms for Liberty has said that the organization isn’t homophobic, it just wants to protect children and “parental rights.” In its view, removing classroom materials about LGBTQ people and forcing schools to out children to their parents helps accomplish both.

Moms for Liberty’s chapters are notorious for working to ban LGBTQ-affirming books from schools. The group often specifically targets trans and nonbinary people. In July, it tweeted, “Gender ideology has no place being taught in America’s public schools.” (Gender ideology is a term that conservatives use as code for accepting trans and nonbinary people, whose gender identities they view as illegitimate.)

A TikToker recently posted purported audio from a chapter meeting in which attendees referred to a trans child as “it.”

@morgan.howls It took them 25 min. into the Moms for Liberty meeting to get transphobic in ways that made my brain go all hot and spicy. Follow & share so I can put these in playlists! #momsforliberty #moms4liberty #momsforlibertyisahategroup #stopmomsforliberty #stopm4l #stopbookbanning #freedomtoread #righttoread #supportpublicschools original sound – Morgan

The national group has given a platform to people with a history of both homophobia and transphobia. Alongside the frontrunners for the Republican presidential primary, the lineup at its annual summit included James Lindsay, who takes credit for popularizing smearing LGBTQ people as groomers; Michael Knowles, a pundit from the Daily Wire who opposes gay marriage and has called to eradicate trans people from public life; and Jaimee Michell, the founder of the transphobic Gays Against Groomers.

In a recent interview with the Daily Dot, Melanie Willingham-Jaggers said Moms for Liberty has a “white Christian nationalist vision for this country.”

“It’s one that does not include people of color. It does not include gay or trans people,” said Willingham-Jaggers, the executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). GLSEN, pronounced “glisten,” works to create LGBTQ-inclusive environments in K-12 schools.

Willingham-Jaggers said that, like all children, LGBTQ youth thrive when they are accepted and affirmed. Willingham-Jaggers, who uses she/they pronouns, describes Moms for Liberty as a small, vocal minority, but cautioned that it’s been successful at laundering its views into the mainstream.

“There is an additional danger of the radicalization of the nameless, faceless people who are in the chatrooms and on Twitter and being applauded and finding community and affirmation in this foolishness,” Willingham-Jaggers said.

Every time a member of Moms for Liberty rails against “groomer” teachers and conspiracies to make children trans, there are others watching on the sidelines, some of whom are already uncertain or even fearful of trans people. Moms for Liberty’s focus on that community is, in Willingham-Jaggers’ opinion, strategic.

“Individuals who understand that it is not politically viable to advocate against gay people, the regular old gays and bisexuals among us, they have now targeted the most marginalized and vulnerable subset of our community: trans folks,” they said.

James Shepherd, a 19-year-old trans man in Texas, agrees. He told the Daily Dot that Moms for Liberty makes him nervous and afraid. “They seem like they’d rather see their kids live a life that’s unhappy and [end up] dead than have a different kid that’s odd,” Shepherd said. “It’s very scary.” Shepherd was one of many people who opined that Moms for Liberty would rather see a dead child than a trans adult.

Moms for Liberty has called this accusation “false” and “fearmongering.” Citing the right-wing outlet the Post Millennial, it claimed that the government uses the argument to make it easier for kids to receive puberty blockers and hormone therapy. The article alleged that access to such drugs makes children more likely to attempt suicide. Studies have repeatedly shown the opposite, that gender-affirming care reduces trans kids’ risk of depression and suicide.

Kliewer puts it more bluntly. “I take testosterone to stay alive,” he said. “It’s just that simple.”

Shepherd said he believes Moms for Liberty is motivated by both fear and a desire for control. “Some people want to totally eliminate trans people, but it never stops there,” he said.

Critics claim that Moms for Liberty is so extremist that it’s actually fascist. Fascism is a system of government characterized by authoritarian rule and far-right, nationalist beliefs. Moms for Liberty’s detractors point to its desire to control teachers and schools and its claim that teaching more complete and accurate history makes kids hate America as evidence of its authoritarianism and nationalism. The group has dismissed the claim that it’s fascist as “nonsense.”

In Body Image
People protest Florida’s new education curriculum

In a statement to the Daily Dot, leaders from the Queer Student Alliance at Yale University said Moms for Liberty should be labeled a hate group.

“As youth, we see them banning the books we want to read, removing more and more LGBTQ+ faculty in schools, and openly harassing our trans and nonbinary peers,” the organization said.

“The Queer Student Alliance has been a safe haven for LGBTQ+ youth and students who have grown up with a non-affirming parent and have faced the possibility of being disowned. We are concerned that Moms for Liberty is masking their homophobia, their removal of LGBTQ+ faculty and books, and their targeted campaign against trans and nonbinary people as ‘parental rights,’ which is dangerous and must stop.”

Sarah’s mother has become increasingly transphobic since joining Moms for Liberty. She said her mother does believe trans people exist, but has extremely high standards for what constitutes being legitimately transgender in her opinion.

“She doesn’t believe any of my friends or any trans person that hasn’t gone through all the gender affirmation surgeries,” Sarah said. “Which is ironic considering that she believes that the majority of people shouldn’t have access to those surgeries or even hormones.”

This causes Sarah distress because her best friend is a trans man and she has multiple friends who are genderqueer.

“I know from experience that if she finds out they were not assigned that gender at birth she will switch pronouns immediately,” Sarah said. She said her mother also frequently twists her best friend’s behavior to “prove” that he isn’t trans.

The situation at home weighs heavily on Sarah, who is disabled and reliant on her parents. But she’s particularly concerned about how it’s affecting her younger sibling.

“I know that my brother lives in fear even if he doesn’t show it,” Sarah said. “…I feel bad for him and am angry about the environment he is growing up in.”

Nowhere to turn

Over the last two years, Moms for Liberty has made school board meetings the frontlines of its battle to control what kids learn at school. Its members have had success running for positions on school boards and in parent-teacher associations. Now it’s seeking to expand its influence over elections further up the ballot.

Meanwhile, thousands are rising up against it. Two women in Florida recently formed Moms for Libros, one of a growing number of groups that oppose Moms for Liberty’s agenda. Leaders from Moms for Libros told the Daily Dot that they believe Moms for Liberty is trying to roll back progress toward racial and LGBTQ equality. Others are organizing online, speaking out at school boards, and encouraging people to join the fight over American education.

At a recent protest in Jacksonville, Florida, over the state’s controversial new curriculum that requires teaching kids that some slaves learned skills that were beneficial to them, state Rep. Angie Nixon (D-Fla.) called on people to resist.

“Make sure we are packing the house so that fringe group Moms for Liberty doesn’t keep pushing propaganda to our children,” Nixon said. “…Our schools are under attack.”

In Body Image
State Rep. Angie Nixon (D-Fla.) speaks at a protest in Jacksonville, Florida

(Moms for Liberty has opposed teaching kids about systemic racism, but there’s no evidence it was involved in drafting Florida’s curriculum about the “personal benefit” of learning a trade while enslaved.)

Moms for Liberty has increasingly found itself at the center of controversies, often due to its own statements and associations. It recently came under fire for saying that schools should not offer mental health care. Days later, it somewhat backed off that statement by advocating parental consent before children receive such care. It likes to say, “We do not co-parent with the government,” and insist that parents have a fundamental right to control their children’s lives.

Multiple people told the Daily Dot that this coupled with its apparent goals of banning LGBTQ-affirming books and curriculum from schools could sever one of the only lifelines for kids who are gay, nonbinary, or trans and don’t have a parent or caregiver who accepts them. For some of these kids, school is the only place they can be themselves.

A 2016 study found that 70% of lesbian, gay, and bisexual children experience some degree of parental rejection, which has been found to increase the risk of mental health issues. A trusted teacher or counselor can be the difference between life or death for these children. Experts also say that removing such care from schools increases the risk of harm to all children, such as those who are struggling with mental illness and kids whose parents are abusive or neglectful.

Rob, a pediatric nurse in Philadelphia, has seen firsthand how much LGBTQ kids struggle when they don’t have a supportive adult in their lives. He told the Daily Dot that these children were disproportionately represented at the adolescent psychiatric facility where he used to work. “Parents not accepting them, not giving them their autonomy were the biggest causes,” said Rob.

According to Rob, children in this situation often learn they can’t trust their family, which fosters a sense of abandonment. Having an adult to talk to who accepts them, at school or elsewhere, can be the difference between life and death for a young LGBTQ person.

“A lot of times the school system is the only time this kid will hear something outside their parents’ beliefs,” Rob said.

Nineteen-year-old Jeremiah Philips, a college student in Florida, grew up in an environment where neither of his parents accepted him, and other family members made jokes about what he described as his “flamboyant” mannerisms from a young age. Philips asked to use a pseudonym because he still lives at home.

“For example, [they’d say], ‘He spends so much time with his female cousins, he’s destined to be a ladies man,’” Philips said. “…But there were always questions. Those questions became more intense as I aged.”

His father grew increasingly antagonistic toward him over the years. When Philips came home with his fingernails painted in his mid-teens, his father reacted by throwing him against a door, ripping his jewelry off, and threatening his life.

“At the climax of it all, he once literally referred to me as the devil,” he said.

Philips struggled with self-harming and depression. “Thirteen-year-old [me] would have never sat down and had this conversation at all. Because he was still…” Philips paused for several seconds before continuing. “Putting knives close to himself at the mention of that. Literally and figuratively.”

Therapy in his later teens, his LGBTQ friends at school, and supportive teachers and faculty helped Philips get through it. Not all of his friends were so fortunate. All of them have run away from home, some have been temporarily committed under the Baker Act (a law that allows people experiencing a serious mental health crisis to be temporarily committed to a mental health facility), a few died by suicide.

“Most of them, thank God, are still alive,” Phillips said. “…We rallied around each other because we understood each other’s issues, which was our one consolation.”

While the conflict with his family over his sexuality has lessened somewhat over the years, Philips still practices a type of code-switching by altering his behavior when he’s around them.

“I know my place and I know what I can get away with. But I know that they are not to be trusted with certain things,” he said.

To this day, he says he’s never said to either of his parents or even to himself in the mirror, “I’m gay.”

Kane Kliewer didn’t have a community or trusted adult to turn to about his sexuality and gender identity when he was growing up. His childhood and adolescence were essentially the equivalent of bare-knuckling it. The private Christian school he attended preached negative views of LGBTQ people, so there certainly weren’t any copies of texts like This Book Is Gay on the library shelves, much less affirming instruction in the classroom.

Moms for Liberty has argued that educating kids about gender identity and sexuality is a form of indoctrination. Yet Kliewer, who didn’t receive any such instruction, is trans.

When asked if it might have been easier to come to terms with his identity, if it would’ve eased his depression and angst if he’d had access to LGBTQ-affirming instruction or books, Kliewer is clear. “One hundred million thousand percent yes.”

There’s no turning back the hands of time, and Kliewer considers himself fortunate to have reached a place where he is settled and comfortable with who he is. He wishes that other parents could see beyond their own fears, discomfort, and egos and love their children for who they are, not who they wish they would be.

While Kliewer says his mother may never accept him, there’s still space in his heart for her.

“It’s complicated the kind of love you have for somebody,” he said. “I am trans and she is a Moms for Liberty type of person.”

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