Group that fought marriage equality spending millions on ads attacking Democrats

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The American Principles Project is back ahead of the 2020 election, and this time it's demonizing transgender people.

A right-wing group led by organizers of the failed anti-marriage equality movement is back — this time with a new anti-LGBTQ cause: demonizing transgender people.

The American Principles Project announced this month that it will spent $4 million on ads in swing states attacking Joe Biden and other Democratic candidates for supporting transgender rights, specifically accusing them of "transgender radicalism."

"Biden and his fellow Democrats have pledged to use the power of the federal government to destroy women’s sports and push young children into highly experimental and dangerous sex-change procedures," executive director Terry Schilling claimed in a press statement. "In the coming weeks, we will be making sure voters in Michigan and nationwide know the extreme agenda Joe Biden and Democrats want to impose on the country."

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Half of the $4 million total, the group said, will be spent in Michigan. The group released an ad there on Sept. 3 featuring a former drag queen who now opposes transgender rights for youths. 

Treatments to change the gender of a minor are very dangerous and irreversible. Children need time," the individual tells viewers, accusing Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) of "taking that time away."

Experts have rejected the myth that most gender nonconforming teens will "desist" — or supposedly grow out of their transgender identity — and have urged that transgender kids be treated based on their gender identities. "[O]ur main priority is not predicting children's adult identities; it is supporting children's present and future health and well-being," wrote a group of professors and researchers in a 2018 paper published by the Canadian Family Physician. 

Additionally, many of the treatments used for transgender youths are reversible and studies have shown that affirming the gender identities of youth drastically reduce the risk of mental health consequences, including depression and suicidal thoughts.

The American Principles Project does not just oppose medical treatments for transgender minors — it opposes LGBTQ rights in general. 

Its website asserts that "fundamental to the flourishing of this country" are their beliefs that "the union of one man and one woman as the definition of marriage" and "the reality of human beings as divided into two distinct and complementary biological sexes."

It opposes nondiscrimination protections, claiming women will be "erased," and promoting the widely-debunked myth that bathrooms will become havens for sexual predators. The group also claims that charities will be "shuttered" and small businesses "shut down" if discrimination protections are enacted.

The group has even fought against allowing GOProud, a group of openly gay and lesbian Republicans, to participate in a conservative conference. 

"Rather than join as individuals and be welcomed and respected into these groups, GOProud pursues policy outcomes that are rooted not in the broad conservative principles it claims to support but in the identity — in this case, sexual and behavioral identity — politics it advocates," officials complained in a 2011 statement.

Peter Montgomery, senior fellow at People for the American Way and the organization's Right Wing Watch project, has tracked the American Principles Project for some time. In a phone interview, he noted that the organization was "very similar" to the groups that drove the anti-marriage fight. 

"It's the same playbook they used for years against gay and lesbian people, against marriage equality: trying to smear gay people as a threat to children," he said.

"The religious right knows that it has lost the war for the hearts and minds of the American public when it comes to equality for gay and lesbian people," he continued. "So they have focused now on trans issues because fewer people know a transgender person personally, they're probably not as aware of the issues. They see that as a vulnerability. They've been very explicit about it."

The American Principles Project and its leaders did not respond to an inquiry for this story. A review of the people running the group finds that it is a virtual who's who of the movement that unsuccessfully tried to stop marriage equality in the United States.

Its founder is Robert George, a Princeton professor and co-founder of the National Organization for Marriage. In a 2009 profile, the New York Times called George "this country's most influential conservative Christian thinker." His thoughts include the belief that same-sex relationships have "no intelligible basis in them for the norms of monogamy, exclusivity, and the pledge of permanence," that gay sex is "immoral," and that transgender boys and girls are not "real" boys and girls.

Maggie Gallagher, who also co-founded the National Organization for Marriage, is the group's senior fellow. She has previously used debunked research to claim that "sexual orientation, while not necessarily chosen, is not genetically determined (for otherwise identical twins would share the same orientation which, we know, they do not)" and that LGBTQ individuals "aren't merely 'born that way.'" She has called homosexuality "an unfortunate thing" and urged public funding for harmful "ex-gay" conversion therapy research.

American Principles Project's chair and major funder is Sean Fieler, the wealthy hedge fund investor who runs Equinox Partners. Fieler bankrolled the National Organization for Marriage during its 2009 campaign in Maine. He told the New York Times in 2013 that he opposes same-sex marriage because "it promotes a very harmful myth about the gay lifestyle. It suggests that gay relationships lend themselves to monogamy, stability, health and parenting in the same way heterosexual relationships do. That's not true."

While he was not as actively involved in the marriage fight, executive director Terry Schilling has also earned a reputation as a rabid homophobe. While leading an ultimately unsuccessful campaign for a U.S. House seat in Iowa for former-Rep. Bobby Schilling (R-IL) — his father — in May, local media reported that he’d posted a number of offensive tweets slamming LGBTQ people.

 "I have zero problem explaining heterosexual sex to my kids if they ask — it's how babies are made. Am I really a snowflake for not wanting to explain butt sex to my kids?'" Schilling wrote in one tweet from May 2019. 

Questioned a year later about why he had deleted that tweet, he offered to replace it with more "*really* offensive [tweets]," and used the hashtag "#womencanthavepenises."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.