There was commotion outside the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4031 during a La Plata County Republicans meeting Tuesday night.
Protesters outside the building voiced their displeasure for the meeting’s guest speaker, Darcy Schoening, chairwoman for the El Paso County chapter of Moms for Liberty.
Moms for Liberty, as defined by the organization’s website, is a conservative group “dedicated to fighting for the survival of America by unifying, educating and empowering parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government.”
In recent years, the group has garnered controversial attention for its views on the LGBTQ community, opposing critical race theory and attempting to remove books from school libraries.
The group has been vocal about standing up against educators teaching what it considers “woke” ideology.
About 100 people showed up to oppose Schoening’s speech. There were two people in favor of Schoening’s perspective standing along Main Avenue, with more inside the VFW waiting for her to speak.
“We invited Darcy, who is actually part of the El Paso (County) chapter, to come on down and give us a little information on Moms for Liberty and how we can help start protecting our kids in the fashion of school,” said La Plata County Republicans secretary Hope Scheppelman, holding a sign that read “Protect Our Kids” in support of Moms for Liberty.
That protection, which many meeting attendees cheered for, relates to school districts that are allegedly indoctrinating children by acknowledging students by their preferred gender, allowing explicit reading material in libraries and not allowing parents to have a say in their child’s curriculum.
“The big thing that we’re really wanting to make sure that our kids are learning history and not erasing history and not telling them there’s like 26 or 27 genders,” Scheppelman said.
Scheppelman further explained that she is a nurse practitioner and expressed that there are only two genders. She was concerned that school districts had been telling students not to disclose what was being discussed in the classroom.
On the other side, members of the Four Corners Alliance for Diversity, Indivisible Durango and other residents hoisted signs that read “Ban Bigots, Not Books” and “Censorship is not equal to liberty.”
The front lawn of the VFW was layered with Pride and Black Lives Matter flags. Post Commander Mike Benton said the VFW is a nonpartisan group and that its first priority is to support the community.
“They’re an anti-student inclusion group. They're a white supremacist group. They actively campaign against public education. They actively campaign against the existence of trans and gay kids,” said Four Corners Alliance for Diversity Chairperson Tyler Frakes.
Frakes said the protesters wanted to make it clear that hateful views were not welcome in Durango.
“Moms for Liberty is recognized as a hate group. We want them to know that we are a town that values our diversity and our inclusiveness,” said protester JoAnne Smotherman.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization that tracks extremists, considers Moms for Liberty a far-right extremist group but has not classified them as a hate group.
In November, Durango School District 9-R will host an election to fill school board seats in Districts B and D. Smotherman said that she wasn’t concerned about the election of a potential right-wing extremist candidate, but still wanted to stand up against the views of Moms for Liberty.
Scheppelman said she was hopeful that a candidate would come forward to represent the stances presented by Moms for Liberty, but did not specify if there was a candidate.
“Right now, we have a school board that values education and values young people, and they take care of their teachers,” Smotherman said.
Another protester, Robert Bridges, said that he identifies as intersex and that there are some commonalities between trans people and intersex people in terms of discrimination.
“There’s legislation that they’re trying to pass to prevent transgender kids from getting appropriate medical care, exactly the same treatments that intersex kids need,” Bridges said.
Bridges said his father was gay and suppressed those feelings for a long time living in Missouri during the 1960s and ’70s and never really came out because of the era he was living in.
Inside the VFW, Schoening started her speech in front of about 70 spectators, lamenting that public education was failing parents. She referenced the protesters outside, saying she was honored by their presence.
She referred to protesters’ claims that Moms for Liberty is bigoted. She said white supremacist groups were just buzzwords meant to cancel the organization.
“Everybody’s here for the same reason. We all want to educate our kids,” Schoening said. “My kids in the front row here are 7 and 8 years old. They have the right to go to school, to learn math, English, to learn to read, to learn science based in chemistry, without being told that they’re racist.”
She took issue with teachers and superintendents asking students what their pronouns were and that educators were “poisoning them with leftist ideology.”
“There is no such thing as pronouns. I’m a woman. You’re a man,” she said.
Much like other members of the Moms for Liberty group, Schoening expressed distaste for alleged unspecified literature in school libraries that referenced two men involved in sexual settings.
She also referenced the book “Push” by Sapphire, which was later made into a movie called “Precious,” claiming that she could not read the book in a public setting because she would be arrested for exposing children to its explicit material. However, she never indicated whether the book was in any of the Durango School District 9-R schools.
She accused school districts of putting this material in elementary school libraries.
“My son Dexter can’t go into Cinemark tomorrow and watch a movie with people doing gross things and people saying gross things and people being violent,” she said. “Why the hell can the state of Colorado do it?”
She was also upset by scenarios where a local principal in El Paso County allegedly put a sticker of the transgender pride flag on a water bottle.
“You think if it was a Trump flag, it would fly in that environment? It wouldn’t because leftists don’t believe in free speech,” she said.
Schoening also took the opportunity to blast HB23-1003, which seeks to create a sixth through 12th grade mental health screening act.
Her concern was that the bill was written in a similar fashion to California’s AB-957, which seeks to include a parent’s affirmation of the child’s gender identity or gender expression as part of the health, safety and welfare of the child.
The bill says, “the health, safety, and welfare of the child includes, among other comprehensive factors, a parent’s affirmation of the child’s gender identity or gender expression. Affirmation includes a range of actions and will be unique for each child, but in every case must promote the child’s overall health and well-being.”
The bill would make parents affirming their child’s chosen gender an extra piece of information used in making a decision about parental custody. Some other criteria involve the amount of contact a child has with a parent, the nature of the contact, and the health, welfare and safety of the child.
Her fear is that the state would try to implement something of this nature in HB23-1003.
Currently, the bill does not specifically discuss students disclosing their gender identity to their parents, but says if during one of the proposed screenings it is discovered that the student is suffering child abuse or neglect or that the child’s home situation presents an immediate serious threat of harm, the screener must contact social services or local authorities.
(An earlier version of this story had Moms for Liberty Darcy Schoening saying HB23-1003 would allow the state of Colorado to take parental custody away if they did not acknowledge their child’s transition. Schoening was referencing California’s AB-957 as the direction Colorado could take with HB23-1003.)