June 28, 2023
Assistant curator Trish Norman was absent the day the Museum of the American Revolution informed staff it would host a welcome reception for Moms for Liberty, the conservative group pushing to remove books on race and LGBTQ identity from schools. But as soon as Norman came into work the next day, they filed a formal complaint.
The complaint worked its way up the chain of command, they said, resulting in a one-on-one meeting with Scott Stephenson, the museum's president and CEO. An "emotional" town hall meeting with the entire staff followed, and then another staff meeting on June 1, the first day of Pride Month. At that meeting, Norman said, 39 museum employees — the staff includes 112 full-time and part-time members — presented an internal petition calling on leadership to cancel the event.
But that same day, they all learned the reception would proceed as planned.
"Moms for Liberty kind of goes against everything that we do at the museum, especially when it comes to telling a more diverse and, therefore, accurate telling of history," Norman said. "All of the work that we've done thus far as a museum, all of the relationship and community building that has been done in order to get to the place that we are today is going to be erased and is being tarnished and overshadowed by holding this one event."
The Thursday reception is the first event in the Moms for Liberty Joyful Warriors national summit, running through Sunday, July 2, in Philadelphia. Most of the weekend will take place at the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, where guests including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former President Donald Trump are scheduled to speak. But the welcome reception at the Museum of the American Revolution has attracted much more scrutiny from LGBTQ advocates and historians, who argue the event jeopardizes the safety of queer staffers and the museum's own reputation.
Moms for Liberty bills itself as a parental rights group, but the Southern Poverty Law Center has categorized it an an extremist, anti-government organization. (Moms for Liberty disputes this label.) The group claims 27 chapters across Pennsylvania, including in Philadelphia, on its website, but its largest presence is in Florida, where Moms for Liberty was founded in 2021. Over the past two years, the group has protested mask policies in schools and sought to ban curriculum about racism and library books featuring LGBTQ characters or content. Members have a long history of threatening teachers, school officials and opponents; the chairperson of the Monroe County chapter was convicted in May of harassing, via Facebook, a member of a Stop Moms for Liberty group.
While the Anti-Defamation League does not currently categorize the group as extremist, its researchers have noticed alarming trends.
"Moms for Liberty essentially frames itself as a grassroots parental rights-type organization, representing the interests of parents, and that's really helped the organization grow rapidly over the past couple of years," Ben Popp, an investigative researcher with the ADL's Center on Extremism, said. "But in reality, the organization advocates for policies and rhetoric that marginalize certain communities, particularly the LGBTQ+ community, and they even outright promote hateful tropes against the LGBTQ+ community. Several of the group's chapters and leaders have associated with known extremist groups that we track, and several members have engaged in anti-LGBTQ+ hate incidents, as well."
Popp points to the group's July 2022 tweet attacking a trans law in California. The post violated Twitter's guidelines about hateful conduct and resulted in a temporary suspension. The group also engages in "the baseless anti-LGBTQ+ groomer conspiracy theory," he said, which the ADL specifically linked to 191 incidents of anti-LGBTQ harassment and assault in 2022. Its members, including co-founder Bridget Ziegler, are known to associate with members of the Proud Boys and other extremists. One of the speakers at the Philadelphia summit, KrisAnne Hall, is also linked to the Oath Keepers militia and has spoken at a conference for the League of the South, a white supremacist group.
These associations and patterns of harassment have resulted in a troubling "feedback loop," Popp says, in which "they've platformed more extreme individuals, but they're also being platformed by more mainstream figures, as well." It's also left LGBTQ members of the Museum of the American Revolution staff feeling unprotected at work.
"There has been a great sense of feeling like our concerns aren't valued, especially for the staff members that work for the museum," Norman said. "Our personal safety hasn't been considered, especially when we know that Moms for Liberty likes to harass and attack people. We have a lot of members of the museum who have public facing jobs and, you know, they are participating in videos that the museum creates that are readily available online."
Historians have also expressed concerns about signaling any kind of support for Moms for Liberty, or legitimizing its platform through association with a respected institution like the Museum of the American Revolution. Two national historian groups issued statements against the museum's decision on Monday, including the Organization of American Historians, the largest professional society dedicated to U.S. history.
"The OAH expresses, unequivocally, the organization’s opposition to the actions of M4L and groups like it that seek to distort history and historical practice," the groups said in a statement. "There are multiple harms at the center of the agenda of these groups: harm to accurate and inclusive history, harm to the work undertaken everyday by our community of historians, and harm to individual historians — especially in the LGBTQ+ and BIPOC communities. We condemn these groups that threaten by word and action the ability of teachers to teach, students to learn, scholars to produce and amplify histories of systemic discrimination, and the safety of individuals for whom that discrimination still reverberates today. The increasing normalization of these groups in the national public discourse is an outrage."
In a June 26 letter addressed to Stephenson, the American Historical Association explicitly called on the museum to explore all legal options to cancel the event, saying Moms for Liberty had "crossed a boundary in its attempts to harass and silence teachers" and that the museum should "reconsider whether this organization should be granted the legitimacy of holding a major event at a museum with (your) reputation and professional standing."
Citing a commitment to fostering "a scholarly community free from discrimination," Penn's McNeil Center for Early American Studies also said it was "unequivocally opposed to the agenda of Moms for Liberty" in a statement, offering support to museum staff members protesting the decision.
Other historians have vowed to no longer work with the museum on public programming if the event goes on. In a TikTok posted on June 9, Marvin-Alonzo Greer announced that he — along with fellow Black public historians Daryian Kelton, Joel Cook and Cheyney McKnight — would cut ties with the museum over the Moms for Liberty event.
@mag_the_historian @Museum of the American Rev is hosting @Moms for Liberty at their museum. This is a match made in hell. M4L is an anti government extremist organization. Their entire mission is to strip classrooms and libraries of books and people who are not cis gender and white. Let MOAR know you don’t support their choice. @NotYourMommasHistory @Joel @Daryian Kelton . . . . #historytiktok #blackhistory #philadelphia #lgbtq #lgbt #hatehasnohomehere #nonate #woke #woketok #livinghistorymuseum #livinghistory #blackhistorian #publichistory #publichistorians #activism #activists #greenscreen #momsforliberty #moms4liberty #momsforlibertyisahategroup ♬ original sound - Marvin-Alonzo Greer
Staffers worry that Greer and his peers won't be the only ones to boycott the museum. Norman, who worked on the museum's ongoing Black Founders exhibit on James Forten and his family, says that work was only possible through collaborations with local Black community leaders and churches. The museum, which opened in 2017, relies "heavily" on community partnerships as a newer institution, they say.
As of Wednesday afternoon, museum leadership has not changed its position: the event is still on. In a statement, a spokesperson said "we are aware that some members of our staff do not agree with the museum's private booking" but that "rejecting visitors on the basis of ideology would be in fact be antithetical to our purpose."
Several of those staff members, including Norman, plan to work remotely and protest on the day of the event, which Popp and his colleagues at the ADL will be monitoring for violence or extremist activity. Norman admits they worry about their job security after criticizing their employer in the press, but they have no plans to leave, despite the museum's decision. Some of the loudest critics at the museum, they say, are the ones who care the most about its work.
"I want to make it very clear that I don't want this museum to fail," Norman said. "I think the work that me and my coworkers are doing is great work, great scholarship, great community building on that level.
"I just don't want this event to end that."
The number of employees who signed the petition has been corrected.