BY MINNA TROKEL
From a confrontation at an educational summit to derogatory online posts and comments, a local parent’s rights group has been trying to expose the Be Yourself Club, a club created for LGBTQ+ teens at CHS, for a message they say is promoting “transgenderism,” inspiring club members to speak out in defense of their organization and campus leaders to encourage togetherness within the club.
The club, formed two years ago to provide the high school’s diverse community a space to connect and feel welcome, has experienced mostly smooth sailing, but as it picked up its activities and community outreach this year, its advocacy for transgender rights for adults and teens alike has been criticized by some.
California Parents Union was founded during July 2022 by the nonprofit organization California Parents United as a way to focus on engaging in political activities and lobbying for parents rights. Founded by CHS parent Tracy Henderson, the group has expressed their criticisms of local districts. Currently, one of the CPUnion’s main issues with CUSD is the presence of the Be Yourself Club.
“The Be Yourself Club concerns me because it pushes transgenderism on our kids,” says Henderson, who shares the belief that club advisers are promoting certain ideas like gender-affirming care to Carmel’s youth. (Gender-affirming care is the term used by leading medical groups, including the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, to describe the mental and medical treatments that help bring a person’s gender expression in line with their gender identity.)
This position has been echoed by other members of the parents group, which has led to various actions, mainly through speaking at district board meetings and urging CUSD administration to take action against the club.
CHS site administration hasn’t followed complaints Henderson and other CPUnion members have made to the board, as assistant principal Debbie Puente says that while site administration values parent input, it wants to prioritize students, which includes the LGBTQ+ members of the club.
“We want all our students to feel welcomed and included,” says Puente.
In one such attempt to boost inclusion, site administration helped transport Be Yourself Club members to the Queer, Trans & Allied Student Summit of the Central Coast on Oct. 8 in Watsonville, which Henderson also attended at the request of concerned CPUnion members.
“The summit was holding classes on things like medical mutilation, ” says Henderson, in reference to gender-affirming care.
One of the adults Henderson says is promoting ideas to teens is CHS teacher and club co-adviser Kiera Benidettino, who goes by “Beni,” whom the CPUnion founder apparently confronted in conversation at the summit.
“I noticed an adult walking around looking lost, so I asked if I could be of assistance,” says Beni, who is nonbinary. “She asked me where hormones were being discussed, so I brought her to the adult summit. I went back to the youth summit, and about 45 minutes later she found me again, confronted me and made some very hurtful comments.”
Henderson denies ever meeting Beni and says that she holds no animosity towards the teacher as an individual. At the Nov. 16 district board meeting, Henderson shared her negative experience in the summit’s classes, mentioning “medical mutilation” and framing the summit as dangerous.
“We had two parents that came in, and one said that they heard there was free popcorn,” says librarian and club co-adviser Phil Crawford. “It wasn’t very clear why they were there, and then they left.”
That night, the CPUnion’s Instagram account posted a photo of the poster for the “Heartstopper” showing and captioned it as follows: “This is being promoted by Carmel Unified School District! The club is called be yourself!!! Be aware instead!!!!! This has no place in our schools. This club is getting children to question their gender.”
CPUnion is most active on Instagram, where they share videos and posts about local districts and educate members on parents’ jurisdiction in school districts. In recent months, the account has shared videos warning against the Be Yourself Club, including their belief that the club supposedly changes the gender and sexuality of CHS students.
“Students are definitely aware of the posts,” says Beni. “It raises tension, fear and anxiety.”
Sophomore Sophia Kemmerly, the club’s vice president, attended and spoke at the April 19 board meeting, sharing the sentiment that the club is vital to Carmel’s LGBTQ+ youth as it provides a safe space for connection and education.
“The Be Yourself Club is here to stay, no matter how treacherous our lunchtime laughs and movie nights may seem,” says Kemmerly.
Both Henderson and Be Yourself Club members have expressed interest in engaging in conversation with one another–Henderson herself expresses an openness to learning more–but have yet to do so.
“I think that we can solve this problem by engaging in an open and respectful dialogue, especially when it impacts our youth,” says Beni.
The CUSD school board, which has been relatively quiet about the situation, may now be taking a more active role as board clerk Karl Pallastrini attended a Be Yourself Club meeting April 27 and has allotted the club 15 minutes to speak at the May 17 board meeting.
This article has been altered from its original print version, removing inaccurate information about one subject.