If you were to ask any of the protesters lining part of Valley Road and Fair Oaks Avenue why they were demonstrating in front of Arroyo Grande High School on Wednesday, you’d probably get a slightly different answer each time.
Organizer Gaea Powell said the demonstrators at the Moms for Liberty-promoted event — who held signs bearing messages opposing critical race theory; diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives; and the validity of transgender identity — were there to change the minds of students.
“The whole goal of this (protest) is to let children know that they have the right to speak up against unjust laws,” Powell told The Tribune. “In fact, that’s the only thing that’s ever changed anything for the better in our country: that people stand up against unjust laws that they get changed.”
Wednesday’s protest drew a large mix of supporters of the San Luis Obispo County Moms For Liberty chapter and Arroyo Grande High School students, who made up the majority of the counter protest.
Senior Colby Schmidt, who organized the counter protest, said the concerns raised by the crowd of around 50 to 60 parents and community members were largely based on misinformation and fearmongering.
“If you look around at the counter protesters, it’s almost 95% students,” Schmidt said. “The vast majority of the people who (the protesters) are saying are being indoctrinated are coming out and saying, ‘No, we’re not. This is who we are, and you’re making false claims.”
In total, around 30 students turned out to express opposition to the Moms for Liberty-promoted event.
Protesters take issue with LGBTQ+ content in schools
Jane Grivjack, a lifelong Arroyo Grande resident and 1976 Arroyo Grande High School graduate, said most of her fellow demonstrators were motivated by a sense of concern over the direction of schools in the United States.
“My particular opinion is that the educational system has strayed away from teaching kids how to think, and now they’re teaching kids what to think,” Grivjack told The Tribune.
Grivjack said she believes the public education indoctrinates and sexualizes children by teaching them about sexuality across the spectrum.
She also said children should not be exposed to the idea they can change their gender identity, and said it wasn’t the schools’ place to introduce those topics.
“The school has gone too far, and I think that it’s time for us as parents and grandparents to stand up and say, ‘It’s gone too far. We feel like it needs to get back to the basics,” Grivjack said.
Arroyo Grande resident and Harvest Church youth pastor Jeremy Sutherland echoed many of Grivjack’s sentiments, taking issue with transgender students playing sports and using restrooms that don’t align with their sex assigned at birth.
“As a father of only daughters, I want to preserve that legacy of girls competing with girls and boys with boys,“ Sutherland said.
Sutherland said he was glad the event stayed civil between protesters and counter protesters, but said he didn’t think many people’s minds were changed.
Powell took issue with children being permitted to receive gender-affirming care by some doctors and parents.
“A lot of these kids don’t even understand their sexuality yet,” Powell said. “You’re not even letting children become 18 years old, and then they can decide whatever they want to do.”
Instances of gender-affirming care are exceptionally rare in the United States. According to Reuters, in 2021, a total of 1,390 U.S. children between ages 6 and 17 started puberty blockers, and a total of 4,231 children started hormone therapy.
Powell also said she had found books in the school’s library that included pornographic content, including “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson and “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe.
The Lucia Mar Unified School District marketing and communications coordinator said in an email to The Tribune that those two books are in the school’s library.
PEN America, a free speech advocacy group, has called both books some of the most likely to be banned in U.S. schools in an April 2023 report.
Powell said she hoped students who believed they were being subjected to the type of indoctrination she described would feel comfortable voicing their views.
“(Some students) feel like they’re being oppressed and bullied because they’re gonna get not be able to get in college if they do anything that might ruffle any feathers of a boy, basically, in the girls’ locker rooms,” Powell said. “They don’t feel like they have any power to stand up against that.”
Counter protesters: ‘It’s not like this is an actual serious problem’
Schmidt said they were surprised to see community members who aren’t affiliated with the school or its students making comments on what students learn and how they express themselves.
“Gaea Powell herself has nothing to do with the school — she isn’t former faculty, current faculty, a parent — she’s just a mayoral candidate who admittedly believes that something is going wrong here,” Schmidt said. “She’s kind of sticking her nose where it doesn’t concern her.”
Student counter protesters such as senior Emilija Miskovic said the protesters’ concerns were out of touch with the daily reality of being a student at Arroyo Grande High School.
Miskovic said if anything, transgender students often face misgendering and anti-LBGTQ+ rhetoric from peers and teachers.
“We’ve never talked about trans and gay people (in class) once,” Miskovic said. “I think we might have mentioned it in one of our classes once because it was American history class and we were talking about Stonewall.”
Senior and counter protest organizer Ethan Barnes said it was important to oppose the protest because transgender people have a right exist and express themselves free from harassment.
Barnes said compared to the shouting matches and toxic atmosphere at school board meetings that have become synonymous with movements like Moms for Liberty, a civil protest was “probably the most appropriate way” for the protesters to express their views.
“You should be able to identify however you want to,” Barnes said. “It’s not like this is an actual serious problem. It’s just a cultural war used by some people at the expense of others.”