A wave of anti-LGBTQ hate exploded throughout the country last year as educators, parents, and students were attacked by parents seeking to ban books, prevent expressions of gender identity and sexuality, and otherwise pressure schools to conform to a set of rigid, right-wing beliefs.
The Hudson Valley was not immune: Far-right school board candidates ran for office in several towns, and local chapters of well-funded national organizations like Moms For Liberty attacked educators and sought to ban books, even contributing to the resignation of a superintendent in Orange County.
But despite a sometimes-climate of intolerance, an organized and growing resistance of parents, students, and educators called Defense of Democracy also began in the Hudson Valley. The grassroots organization has quickly spread across the country, as its members coordinate locally and nationally on how to fight back against right-wing extremism in their communities—in many cases, doing so with real success.
For Karen Svoboda and Laura Leigh Abby, the 2022 school board elections were a wake-up call about the local threat from the far right. Both Dutchess County parents describe being horrified by signs for Wappingers Central School District board of education candidates running on what they characterize as Christian nationalist platforms—candidates like Anthony DiLullo, who put up signs that read “Christ is King; Anthony Ciro DiLullo; WCSD Board.”
Originally, Svoboda and Abby say, the intent was just to make their own signs—reading “Teachers Shouldn’t Be Preachers”—to push back in support of free and diverse public schools. But their efforts quickly struck a chord. “We put out signs all over the community, people got involved, people donated money, we were able to pay for the signs, and then we just called ourselves Defense of Democracy,” says Abby. Turnout for the May election dwarfed that of the previous year, and the three Defense of Democracy-endorsed candidates won.
Despite the victory, both Svoboda and Abby knew the problem wasn’t going away. They moved to formalize their coalition, incorporating the organization in October.
“We are answering a need in the community for people who want to fight back but don’t know how,” says Svoboda. “They’re frightened, they’re being shouted down, they’re being bullied, they’re being terrorized, and so we are trying to give people an outlet. We’re a clearinghouse for people who want to fight back against this. And we are very open about the fact that we are on the offensive.”
Along with a budding national expansion (more below), Defense of Democracy’s work over the last few months has consisted of rallying at school board meetings (for instance, convincing the Arlington school district to refuse a gift of pocket Constitutions from the local Moms For Liberty chapter), doing outreach on social media, enlisting the support of elected leaders, and offering regular workshops on ways to combat the far right in school districts—by supporting librarians, being an ally to the LGBTQ community, conducting FOIL requests, effectively connecting with the media, and more.
For Wappinger parents like Karen Hawkins (who is a Defense of Democracy volunteer, as well as a teacher for special needs students in Westchester), the presence of Defense of Democracy has helped to show just that there is community support for combating hate. “I’ve reached out to the librarian at my son’s high school and said, ‘Listen, if you ever feel any pressure to get rid of books, will you please just let me know?’” says Hawkins. “‘Because we are out here supporting you.’”
Moms for Liberty
Defense of Democracy’s primary reason for existing, in many respects, is the group named above: Moms for Liberty, a Melbourne, Florida-based organization that gained national prominence last year for spearheading an assault on public schools, and which on its website lists chapters in Westchester, Putnam, Orange, and Dutchess Counties in the Hudson Valley.
Moms for Liberty portrays itself as an organic movement of parents pushing back on radicalism in education in defense of “parental rights,” but Abby, Svoboda, and others characterizes them as a hate group. The Southern Poverty Law Center has described them as a “radical parent group.”
Svoboda and Abby also make clear that Moms for Liberty are not as grassroots an organization—nor as substantial a local force—as they claim to be, characterizing their presence in Dutchess County as small, if extremely vocal. “They’re well-funded,” says Abby. “They’re politically connected. They pretend they’re not but they are.”
A 2021 report in Media Matters—“Unmasking Moms For Liberty”—sheds some more light on the organization, detailing connections to prominent Republicans like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Florida GOP Vice Chair Christian Ziegler (whose wife, Bridget Ziegler, was involved with founding the group), describing high-dollar fundraisers the group has held (including one featuring former Fox host Megyn Kelly), and listing the group’s high-profile endorsements in right-wing media—which began “unusually quick[ly]” after the organization was founded—including on “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” Breitbart, and the “Rush Limbaugh Show.”
Notably, the article describes how Moms For Liberty heavily promotes the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank that has—among other causes—supported “education freedom” and other euphemistically named moves toward school privatization.
Moms for Liberty may have been beaten back (for now) in the Town of Wappinger. But the group probably had its most significant regional success in the Orange County village of Florida, a small community between Warwick and Middletown. There, members of the local chapter were instrumental in contributing to the resignation of Larry Leaven, the superintendent of the Florida Union Free School District, who served 15 months on the job before resigning last fall.
In comments to The River,Leaven, who is openly gay, describes a pattern of harassment from some parents that began almost as soon as he took the job in August of 2021, and lasted until he resigned in November of last year.
“Where the problem lies across the board was this Moms for Liberty group,” says Leaven, emphasizing that he built strong relationships with educators in the district. “People living in the community did everything they could to undermine the work that was being done, and then through misinformation, through lies, through publication of things that were not even true, created this end that we are dealing with here.”
Leaven details demands that books like Gender Queer (a graphic novel by non-binary author Maia Kobabe that explores gender and sexuality, and which has been a frequent target of recent censorship efforts) be removed from school libraries, accusations that he held an anti-white and anti-Christian bias, criticism of him for reading a book called Pink Is For Boys to local kindergarteners (“of course this became my ‘woke’ agenda to make people gay by liking pink,” he says), unsubstantiated allegations of pay-to-play contracts in relation to American Rescue Plan money, and even accusations of past sexual misconduct.
“Every single decision that was made in the district was put out in these [Moms for Liberty-affiliated Facebook groups] and was twisted,” he says. “I can only fire back so much, and I’m not going to jump online with this stuff.”
The persistence of the campaign ultimately helped Moms for Liberty-backed candidates win seats on the board of education last May, and several months later, Leaven chose to leave.
While he expresses disgust with the smears, Leaven ultimately sees this as a much bigger problem than what happened in Florida. “This is, I believe, a national crisis for public education,” he says. “It’s not that ‘Larry stepped away from his job.’ It’s that these people are able to erode trust in our educators, and our leaders. It’s not just me. It’s huge.”
Leaven, who has been an educator for over three decades, is worried about the field in general, pointing to legislative changes that have instituted requirements like onerous teacher assessments, testing regimes, and similar policies. He says that educators need to be more self-directed and active responding to these sorts of threats.“We haven’t been leading in this,” he says. “I feel sometimes that things are done to us because we’re not doing them, we’re not leading the cause for what is best for students and best for children based on our expertise. We’ve let legislatures handle this and do this, not us.”
“And when we say things like, it’s going to go away—this isn’t going away,” Leaven adds. “People are not dealing with reality. And I fear for public education—because we’re going to lose opportunities of equity and equality for children and learning because of these people.”
Defense of Democracy didn’t have an Orange County chapter during the saga in Florida—Leaven says he wishes they did, if only to “balance the noise”—but they do now. And Svoboda, for one, is not over what happened there. She has helped to organize a petition calling for the resignation of several of the new Florida board of education members, and Defense of Democracy has showed up to speak out at recent board meetings. But this is only one front in the organization’s rapidly expanding mission.
As one part of their effort to work with elected leaders, the group has created a pledge that legislators, school board candidates, and others can endorse, which functions as a sort of antithesis to an ideologically opposite Moms for Liberty pledge.
It’s brief and relatively simple, stating things like “I acknowledge that my constituency is made up of individuals from every walk of life, all religions, cultural backgrounds, gender identities, and sexual orientations,” and “I acknowledge that an excellent public education system and access to information is the cornerstone to a fully functioning society.”
So far numerous elected officials—including Dutchess County Legislature Minority Leader Yvette Valdés Smith, a former public school teacher—have signed it. “I was proud to sign Defense of Democracy’s Pledge,” says Smith, who has invited Svoboda to speak in front of the Legislature. “Groups like Defense of Democracy are giving an extra voice to many marginalized groups and groups that have been under attack in recent times. Our civil rights must be protected—and that means each and every one of us should speak up.”
State Senator Michelle Hinchey has also signed the pledge, telling The River: “Supporting our children by creating safe places for them to learn, to express themselves, and to feel comfortable in who they are must be a top priority in our education system. It is incumbent upon all of us to defend our schools against forces that seek to divide us through racist and anti-LGBTQIA+ agendas, and I thank those at Defense of Democracy for standing up against hatred.”
But the work is no longer just local. In fact, after only three months, according to Svoboda, Defense of Democracy now has 20 chapters in 17 states, and approximately 1500 active volunteers. This includes its second formal chapter, in Erie County in western New York, which was founded by Diana Patton, who is transgender and a longtime LGBTQ activist.
Patton—who has run the Spectrum Transgender Group of Western New York, (an organization that provides support for transgender individuals and their families), and who founded the We Exist Coalition—has, with allies, been active in speaking out against Moms For Liberty and associated groups like Constitutional Coalition in western New York.
Patton is also a Navy veteran, and is working to help form a national “Veterans for Defense of Democracy” organization. “Veterans took an oath to the Constitution,” she says. “We don’t have to like the speech, but we are supposed to stand up and defend keeping those books and keeping free speech going. A student’s rights don’t stop at the school house door.”
Svoboda has embraced the rapid growth, and sees a particular urgency in making this not just a local, but a national effort, emphasizing that this is a national problem and must be met everywhere. Aside from helping new chapters get started, she’s also helped to put together a national board—which includes attorneys, advocates, educators, and people of diverse political backgrounds—to help steer the mission. Defense of Democracy is also leading targeted national campaigns, like an ongoing petition (now near 15,000 signatures) to prevent Marriott from allowing Moms For Liberty to host their national convention in Philadelphia this coming summer.
Svoboda and co-founder Abby are clear about the stakes, emphasizing that this is literally a matter of life and death. “The Department of Homeland Security has a terrorism advisory for queer people out in the United States of America right now,” says Abby. “What [groups like Moms for Liberty] are doing is dangerous. I have a wife. I have two children. This is my family and we’re at risk because of the crazy hateful language that they’re spewing.”
Above all, both emphasize, this is urgent for students—students like Bee, who is transgender and graduated from S. S. Seward Institute in the village of Florida last year. Bee says that the extremism on display by parents is filtering down to students. “As soon as Gender Queer started getting challenged, you could feel a big change in the dynamic of the school. It seemed as if kids were made aware that it was okay to voice negative feelings about people who just weren’t like them, who didn’t do anything to them,” they say.
But Bee, who now volunteers with Defense of Democracy, also says the atmosphere has sparked a corresponding desire to push back on groups like Moms for Liberty. “I’m still friends with some of the seniors and juniors in Florida, and a lot of them are really interested in stopping Moms for Liberty,” Bee says. “These people are annoying and loud and they’re bigoted. I don’t get why they want to cause trouble when there was nothing wrong going on. Why are you doing this? What’s the point?”