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Broward school board member speaks at anti-LGBTQ rally in Fort Lauderdale

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Gerard Albert III
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WLRN
The new Broward County school board pose for a picture together during a Tuesday Nov. 22 meeting. From left to right, back row: Brenda Fam, Jeff Holness, Sarah Leonardi, Allen Zeman, Nora Rupert, Torey Alston; front row: Lori Alhadeff, Superintendent Vicki Cartwright, Debbi Hixon.

South Florida elected officials and activists are decrying a local anti-LGBTQ rally held over the weekend, which was attended by uniformed members of the Proud Boys — and newly-elected Broward County school board member Brenda Fam.

On Saturday in Fort Lauderdale Beach, throngs of beachgoers and holiday shoppers milled under the palm trees on Las Olas Boulevard and A1A.

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Nearby, a group of activists who are working to reshape public policy in some of the state’s largest school districts bowed their heads in prayer, asking Jesus to bless them as they’re “taking back territory for the kingdom of God."

The event was hosted by the Miami-Dade County chapter of Moms for Liberty and Florida Fathers for Freedom, which have advocated against gender-affirming care, LGBTQ-inclusive instruction and comprehensive sex education in public schools.

Counter-protestors gathered across the street, flying rainbow flags and chanting. “When LGBTQ rights are under attack, what do we do?” the crowd chanted. “Stand up! Fight back!”

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Brenda Fam speaks at a rally in Fort Lauderdale Beach on Dec. 3, 2022 hosted by Moms For Liberty and Florida Fathers for Freedom. Members of the Proud Boys also attended the event.

Promotional materials for the “Protect the Children” event showed stick figures protecting children from a rainbow, an internationally recognized symbol of the LGBTQ community.

Messaging at the event echoed both the campaigns of anti-LGBTQ rights activist Anita Bryant and conspiracy theories advanced by adherents of QAnon.

Brenda Fam, who was elected to the Broward County school board in November, warned rally attendees about “groomers." She got a warm reception from the group as she spoke from the raised ledge separating the sidewalk from the sand above a sign that read “Grooming Leads to Sex Trafficking.”

Fam did not respond to interview requests for this story.

Lately, the term “groomer” has been used broadly to insult people who support LGBTQ rights. It’s among the latest buzzwords right-wing activists are using to advance anti-LGBTQ policies.

Actual grooming occurs when adults manipulate kids for sexual abuse.

Experts say there is no evidence that LGBTQ people are more likely to abuse kids. According to reporting by Politifact, research indicates that the school employees who are most likely to molest children identify as white, heterosexual male adults. Experts also say there is no evidence that simply discussing LGBTQ issues makes kids more likely to identify as LGBTQ themselves.

Nonetheless, the event seemed to play into these longstanding false claims.

Advocates say this kind of rhetoric fuels anti-LGBTQ sentiment, at a time when federal data shows hate crimes have been on the rise in recent years. Just last month, a 22-year-old shooter killed five people and injured 18 others at a queer nightclub in Colorado Springs.

"The things that they're protesting are the things that protect children. I know that when I stepped onto a campus or into a classroom that had a pride flag or a safe space sticker, I felt more confident that this was a place where I would be safe to learn."
Maxx Fenning, president of PRISM

“This hate… even if the violence doesn’t happen on-site itself, that sort of messaging in and of itself incites violence,” said Maxx Fenning, who helped organize the counter-protest. “These are dangerous things that lead to loss of life, that incite violence, that incite actions like what we saw in Colorado Springs.”

Fenning, who is also the president of LGBTQ education organization PRISM, says “it is very telling” that members of the Proud Boys have aligned themselves with so-called “parental rights” groups like Moms for Liberty. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center and ADL, members of the Proud Boys are known for their misogynistic, white supremacist and antisemitic ideology.

In June, the group’s former leader, Enrique Tarrio of Miami, was indicted for his alleged role in the Jan. 6 insurrection. He faces charges for conspiring to “prevent, hinder and delay the certification of the Electoral College vote, and to oppose by force the authority of the government of the United States.”

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Broward County School Board Member Brenda Fam won her race for District 6 by three percentage points. She represents a western portion of the county.

The rally on Saturday was billed as being against so-called parental alienation, gender ideology and gender affirming care. Signs read “There are only two genders” and “You were not born in the wrong body.”

“The things that they're protesting are the things that protect children,” Fenning said. “I know that when I stepped onto a campus or into a classroom that had a pride flag or a safe space sticker, I felt more confident that this was a place where I would be safe to learn, where there were staff or administration that would stand up for me if I was bullied based on my sexual orientation.”

Joseph Zolobczuk is the executive director of YES Institute, a South Florida nonprofit aimed at preventing suicide and improving the health outcomes of young people. Research shows that LGBTQ youth are far more likely than their heterosexual peers to attempt suicide. Zolobczuk says having a safe and supportive environment can make a difference.

“I can absolutely empathize with parents’ reactions for safety,” Zolobczuk said. “I also want to just remind people, given the suicide and bullying statistics that we have, youth are also not safe if there isn't a place that works for families and communities to have discussions about these topics.”

"I can absolutely empathize with parents’ reactions for safety. I also want to just remind people, given the suicide and bullying statistics that we have, youth are also not safe if there isn't a place that works for families and communities to have discussions about these topics."
Joseph Zolobczuk, executive director of YES Institute

Both inspired and disheartened

State Sen. Shevrin Jones D-West Park attended the counter-protest on Saturday. Jones, who is gay, came out to support student activists like Fenning who he worked with to oppose the Parental Rights in Education bill, also known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

Jones says he was both inspired and disheartened by the activism.

“The unfortunate part is that the young people have to use their voice to fight against adults who are acting like children,” he said.

Jones called the message of the rally-goers “horrendous” and said he saw one sign that read “you weren’t born this way.”

“What type of example are you leading as adults when right across from you… you have children who you're talking about protecting but yet you're holding signs like that,” he said. “You don't know what type of trauma that brings to a child when they see things like that.”

Elijah Manley is a political consultant in Fort Lauderdale. He wasn’t at the counter-protest but wasn’t surprised to see reports that Fam was in attendance. Manley campaigned for Fam’s opponent Steven Julian.

“She said that she will try to lead by listening and respecting everybody,” he said of Fam’s message while campaigning.”But I think attending an event like that she's already off on the wrong start. She's showing her support for extremist groups.”

He said that Fam’s victory needs to be a wake-up call for Democrats to pay attention to school board races.

Elon Gerberg, a leader of Florida Fathers for Freedom and one of the organizers of the rally, said he’s thrilled to have Fam on the Broward school board – though he says he’s pulled his own children out of public schools.

“I think Brenda's already done a fantastic job of uncovering a lot of books that don't belong in our school. She's very passionate about that,” he said. “I'm very excited to see what she can get done.”

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

Gerard Albert III is back in Broward, where he grew up, after reporting on crime and public safety in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and West Palm Beach. Albert is a former WLRN intern who graduated from Florida International University.
Kate Payne is WLRN's education reporter