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The Pseudoscience Network in Action: A Case Study of Virginia

In 2023, the Virginia House of Delegates adopted Sage’s Law. The law was drafted in part by the Virginia Family Foundation’s Founding Freedoms Law Center to out transgender students to their parents and bar schools from engaging in socially affirming practices without parental consent. As the House of Delegates considered the bill in January 2023, Julia Mason from the Society for Evidence-Based Gender Medicine (SEGM) testified in support of the measure citing the desistence myth and saying, “social transition concretizes what could have been a transient [transgender] identity.”[1]

Mason also quoted SEGM’s Michael Biggs, without noting their organizational connection, to claim “there is no evidence that affirmation lowers the risk of suicide.” When asked by a friendly lawmaker if the United States was undertaking any systematic reviews of the evidence for gender-affirming care, Mason noted changes in the U.K.’s use of the affirming care model, again without noting her own organization’s hand in sowing distrust in the model and its deep connections across the pond.

Screenshot of an online meeting
Julia Mason, Erin Brewer, Abel Garcia, Erin Friday and Mary McAlister testifying via video link to the Virginia House Education K-12 Subcommittee, January 2023

Mason’s testimony was sandwiched between comments from Erin Friday of Our Duty and Erin Brewer of Advocates Protecting Children, Mary McAlister of the Child and Parents Rights Campaign and detransition activist Abel Garcia. Friday’s parental perspective, recounting how she rejected her trans child, was complemented by Brewer’s testimony, which suggested that trans identity results from child sexual abuse and the testimony of Garcia, who suggested that schools in California were forcibly transitioning children over parental objections. Mary McAlister gave perspective on the breadth of the perceived threat. McAlister claimed that parents who want to reject their trans kids are calling her organization “every day” to request help with the “rampant problem” of schools affirming transgender kids.

At a sparsely attended press conference on Feb. 13, the Family Foundation of Virginia was joined by representatives of Moms for Liberty’s Loudoun County chapter to repeat many of the misleading claims made during the House hearing and rebut a press conference by Equality Virginia, the state’s LGBTQ+ rights organization. At the press conference, Laura Hanford, a Federalist contributor and “architect” of Sage’s Law, used the questionable account of Missouri “whistleblower” Jamie Reed (who is represented by Child and Parental Rights Campaign and works for Genspect) and the anti-LGBTQ campaign against the U.K.’s Tavistock Clinic to justify her law.[2]

VFF Press conference Feb. 13, 2023. Pictured: Todd Gathje at podium, two members of Moms for Liberty, Suzanne Satterfield, Del. Tara Durant, Jess Smith and Laura Hemper

The week before, on Feb. 9, 2023, Del. Dave LaRock, a major supporter of the legislation, appeared on Tony Perkins’ Washington Watch streaming program. Speaking to Perkins, who is president of the Family Research Council, LaRock claimed that being “100% affirming of everything LGBT” is sometimes harmful to children and “completely deprive[s] parents of their opportunity to … put things [gender- affirming care] on hold” if they do not want to support their transgender child.[3]

LaRock’s district includes portions of Loudoun County, Virginia, a community just west of Washington, D.C., that has been a testing ground of sorts for the renewed “parents’ rights” movement, with a focus on censoring LGBTQ+ and anti-racist topics in public education. The intense political conflict in the area has also pushed the bounds on the acceptability of violence to achieve political ends and witnessed the use of social media to fuel right-wing mobilizations against LGBTQ+-inclusive and anti-racist education.[4]

In 2021, the Alliance Defending Freedom sued the local school board to overturn a district policy requiring teachers to use pronouns requested by students and parents of trans and nonbinary kids. The lawsuit argued that referring to a trans student by a pronoun that does not “match” the student’s real or perceived sex would violate the teacher’s conservative Christian beliefs about creationism and the “immutability” and “complementarity” of sex and “harm” the child because, they argue, affirming their trans or nonbinary identity is “untrue.”[5] The same year, ADF gave the Family Foundation of Virginia an $84,000 grant for work related to the “sanctity of life.” Two years prior, ADF gave the Family Foundation $156,000 for work related to “religious liberty.”

In 2022, Moms for Liberty in Loudoun County protested anti-racist and LGBTQ inclusive education policies at the local school board. The protests featured the slogan “stop grooming our kids,”[6] an anti-LGBTQ phrase championed by right-wing “intellectuals,” notable among them Chris Rufo of the Manhattan Institute and early advisory board member of the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism, who also helped inject the “parents’ rights” and anti-inclusive education framing into the state’s governor’s race in 2021.[7]

At FRC Action’s 2023 Pray Vote Stand summit, held Sept. 15-16 in Washington, D.C., Todd Gathje of the VFF addressed a crowd of conservative Christian activists interested in repeating his success in Virginia.[8] "Parents’ rights trump Trump” according to polling conducted by VFF, Gathje said. Noting that the campaign to ban trans athletes, largely led by ADF,[9] helped “turn the public” against trans rights, Gathje then expressed enthusiasm that the parental rights framework offered a path to political victory for the far right because it built on the success of that anti-trans narrative and resonated even in the “purple state” of Virginia. Importantly, Gathje also claimed that the VFF helped coordinate the 2023 voting schedule in the House of Delegates to ensure their preferred “experts” could testify in favor of Sage’s Law.

assorted images of anti-trans demonstrators
Michelle Blair featured in a VFF presentation at Pray Vote Stand, 2023

Similar scenes have played out across the country for the past two years, resulting in 23 state bans on gender-affirming health care for trans youth, 23 bans on trans kids playing school sports, six state laws restricting drag performances, five state laws forcing the outing of transgender youth in schools (Virginia’s parental notification law did not pass in 2023), and the introduction of hundreds of bills targeting LGBTQ+ rights.[10]

That anti-LGBTQ medical “experts” who crisscross the country are often employed or coordinated by anti-LGBTQ groups and politicians to defend anti-LGBTQ laws is largely known.[11] What is less known is the extent of the network that has developed since 2015 to manufacture scientific controversy and public policy targeting LGBTQ+ people. This case study is one example. Chapter 5 of the SPLC’s CAPTAIN report provides further evidence of the organizations and division of labor within the network.

Read more: Combating Anti-LGBTQ+ Pseudoscience Through Accessible Informative Narratives





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[10] For details on legislation see:; Other state examples - Montana see: Senate Judiciary Hearing: House Judiciary Hearing: In Ohio: In Tennessee: In Louisiana, see: Gene Mills’ president of Louisiana Family Alliance said, ” We had allied attorney from Alliance Defending Freedom, Matt shore, we have physicians from Louisiana, we had moms whose children had experience transition, and we had D transitioners. And I gotta tell you, the case was compelling. When I say this is the closest thing to an impeccable hearing I've ever attended. In the 40 years or so that I've been doing this is phenomenally correct.”