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Meet the groups behind the right's campaign against trans rights

Legislation restricting transgender people’s access to health care, school sports, and bathrooms has surged in Republican-controlled states, backed by major anti-LGBTQ groups.

By Nick Vachon - May 25, 2023
Protesters of Kentucky Senate bill SB150, known as the Transgender Health Bill, cheer on speakers during a rally on the lawn of the Kentucky Capitol in Frankfort, Ky., March 29, 2023. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, File)

This story is part of a series on the origins and implications of the conservative campaign against transgender rights.

The rights of transgender Americans are under attack. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, conservative state lawmakers have introduced 490 anti-LGBTQ bills in 47 states in 2023 alone.

In April, the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would ban transgender girls from participating in girls’ sports. The bill, which the White House condemned, is a sign of the ascendance of anti-trans ideas within the GOP.

The conservative focus on banning gender-affirming health care for minors comes as a record number of young Americans identify as other than heterosexual and cisgender. According to a study produced by the Centers for Disease Control that analyzed 2021 data, one in four high schoolers self-identified as LGBTQ. Surveys conducted in the past four years reviewed by the American Independent Foundation found that between 1% and 2% of high school-aged youth said they are transgender.

In 2020, Politico reported on deep divides within former President Donald Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign over how much to emphasize anti-transgender issues. Now Trump and his presidential primary opponents all speak frequently about banning gender-affirming care for minors, transgender athletes’ participation in school sports, and instruction about gender and sexuality in schools, all of which are often cast in terms of a crusade against so-called gender ideology or the “gender cult.”

Behind that change are a collection of conservative groups that have worked vigorously to promote the anti-trans policies and rhetoric that are now ubiquitous within the Republican Party.

The American Principles Project

One of the key groups making the argument that Republicans should embrace anti-trans policies is the Americans Principles Project, a Trump-aligned group that styles itself as a lobby for “Big Family,” akin to major corporate lobbies for Big Oil and Big Tech.

The 501(c)(4) group has been at the forefront of politicizing transgender rights in pursuit of winning elections. Ahead of Wisconsin’s April election for an open seat on the state Supreme Court, the group’s super PAC — a major spender in the 2020 and 2022 elections — funded a series of television and digital advertisements attacking the progressive candidate, Judge Janet Protasiewicz, for receiving support from “radical activists” who support “trans ideology.”

In total, the American Principles Project PAC spent $800,000 backing Protasiewicz’s opponent, conservative former Justice Daniel Kelly, who ultimately lost the race.

The group was founded in 2009 by Republican political strategist Frank Cannon and Princeton University professor of jurisprudence Robert P. George, a prominent conservative Catholic legal scholar.

Terry Schilling, the group’s president, told CNN earlier this year that his group has been working with state legislatures to restrict gender-affirming care for minors, with the eventual goal of banning the care outright for all Americans.

Major medical institutions support gender-affirming care, and many have spoken out against bans. Studies show that gender-affirming care reduces suicides and improves mental health among trans youth.

American Principles Project materials about transgender issues misrepresent essential facts and make grand assertions of conspiracy. “The Transgender Leviathan,” a report issued by the group in late 2022, purports to have uncovered a vast network of pro-transgender activists, ideologues, doctors, and politicians devoted to “undermining the family” in pursuit of profit and power.

The report, however, fails to accurately convey the number of transgender youth living in America. Citing a study produced by the Williams Institute, a think tank at the University of Los Angeles School of Law that studies legal issues related to gender identity, sexual orientation and public policy, “The Transgender Leviathan” claims that one in five Americans between the ages of 13 and 17 identify as trans. The Williams Institute report, an analysis of federal data collected between 2017 and 2020, actually found that 1.43% do.

The American Principles Project did not return a request for comment.

The Heritage Foundation

The Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank that has been instrumental in setting the policy agenda of the conservative movement since the group was founded 50 years ago, has published a number of studies and reports that deny the medical consensus among prominent American medical organizations on gender-affirming care.

In June 2022, the Heritage Foundation released a non-peer-reviewed report that claimed that gender-affirming care “likely leads to higher rates of suicide among young people.” Medical experts were quick to condemn the report.

“The methodology and conclusions are absurd, which is likely why they didn’t submit it for peer review,” tweeted Jack Turban, an assistant professor of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco.

Heritage Foundation researchers, like other conservatives, have often used the term “gender ideology,” a term scholars note has no specific meaning but was originally adopted for use by the Catholic Church to fight what it described as LGBTQ and feminist attacks on family and social values.

In September 2022, Jay Richards, the director of the think tank’s DeVos Center for Life, Religion, and Family, said during remarks at a National Conservatism Conference in Miami: “What I want to do is, if nothing else, help you understand exactly what gender ideology is, because it’s a very weird thing, and honestly, I sometimes feel like about half of my job is really just persuading people that it really is as awful and as crazy as it seems to be. Because gender ideology is so extreme, so anti-human and anti-body and frankly anti-biology that people tend to think, I must be misunderstanding this, or this must just be something that happens in California and it’s never going to meet me.” 

In an evidence-free retelling of the development of so-called gender ideology, Richards told his audience that “gender ideologists” replace biologically determined identity with “a rainbow … a purely subjective immaterial reality” and sex with sex assigned at birth: “That is gender ideology: Biological sex, human nature, rooted in nature, is replaced by an entirely subjective impression of your identity. …  It’s a fundamentally anti-life and anti-human ideology. It’s coming for our kids, and we have to do something about it.”

The Heritage Foundation did not return a request for comment.

Gays Against Groomers

Gays Against Groomers is a new and vocal group that has organized protests against gender-affirming care and aggressively promotes anti-trans content on social media. The group’s name is a reference to the baseless homophobic claim that schools and LGBTQ people are “grooming” children to encourage them to change their gender identity or sexuality and to indoctrinate them politically.

The group’s founder, Jaimee Michell, denies that the group is bigoted, telling Fox News last year:

Obviously, we are not homophobic, we are not transphobic, we don’t care what adults do, obviously. We literally just don’t want this happening to children, and especially not being done in our name, because the backlash against us is growing. You know, I launched Gays Against Groomers for two reasons: first and foremost is to protect the kids, to stop the sexualization, indoctrination, and medicalization — otherwise known as mutilation — of children; but also to try and reclaim our good standing in society, which we achieved not that long ago.

An investigation by Media Matters for America, which tracks conservative media coverage, found that Michell has a history of promoting the QAnon conspiracy theory, alleging that a deep state cabal of Democrats and liberal public figures secretly traffics and molests children.

Michell celebrated the rioters who attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in an attempt to overturn President Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election as “patriots.”

In September of last year, Paypal and Venmo banned Gays Against Groomers for violating the platforms’ policy against promoting “hate, violence, or discriminatory intolerance.” 

Earlier, Michell had told Fox News host Tucker Carlson that her group had been banned from Twitter multiple times for “hateful conduct.”

Gays Against Groomers did not return a request for comment.

Moms for Liberty

Moms for Liberty was founded in early 2021 out of the opposition among some parents in Brevard County, Florida, to policies in their schools that mandated the wearing of masks and allowed students to use bathrooms that corresponded with their gender identity, and to what some described as the teaching of critical race theory in schools.

The group trains parents to push back against school policies; members have been accused of harassing school board officials, teachers, and parents.

Last December, according to the Advocate, Moms for Liberty and Gays Against Groomers held a rally in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, against what a flyer called “radicalized sexual curriculum, gender ideology, child grooming, parental alienation, and ‘gender-affirming care.'” The Anti-Defamation League characterized the organization of the rally, which was also coordinated by a group called Florida Fathers for Freedom, as “an example of an emerging coalition of far-right parents’ groups.”

Moms for Liberty co-founder Tiffany Justice told the American Independent Foundation it’s unfair to call the group far-right: “I’ve seen things said like ‘Christofascist.’ I don’t even know what to say to that. We have Jewish members, we have Muslim members. I don’t even know what that means, Christian nationalist.”

Justice equated body dysmorphia to eating disorders, characterizing gender-affirming care for youth as “insanity.”

“No child is born in the wrong body,” she said.

Independent Women’s Forum

The Independent Women’s Forum was founded in the early 1990s by a group of women who had supported the nomination of conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and dismissed Anita Hill’s claims that Thomas had sexually harassed her. 

Since then, the nonprofit has worked to oppose progressive policies and laws, including paid family leave and the Violence Against Women Act. More recently, it has focused on passing laws that would prevent trans women from accessing women’s spaces and would ban gender-affirming care for minors.

“From a policy perspective, IWF has really prioritized and targeted our legislation to focus on protecting children, protecting minors,” Kelsey Bolar, a senior policy analyst with the group and its director of storytelling, told the American Independent Foundation in an interview.

“Generally, from what I, based on my own research of the evidence surrounding so-called gender-affirming care, I do not believe there is enough evidence to justify enabling minors who are unable of consenting to the lifelong potential implications of these procedures,” she said.

Unlike the American Principles Project, Bolar said that the IWF wasn’t interested in legislation on trans care after patients turn 18 and that the attitude within the IWF is “Once you’re an adult, live and let live.”

However, Bolar also said she didn’t believe in transgender identity: “I’m not sure there’s such thing as a transgender person.”

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.

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