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Merging Pseudoscience and Politics

The Right-Wing Strategy to Use Anti-Trans Disinformation to Split the LGBTQ+ Community & its Allies

In a 2014 presentation at the Heritage Foundation, Richard Viguerie, the financial mastermind of the religious right, argued that achieving the goal of a right-wing ideological “takeover” of the Republican Party and American governing institutions he helped engineer requires a coalition.[1] As journalist Anne Nelson reported, Viguerie asserted that forming effective coalitions requires two things: “[I]t takes things to get real bad very quickly, and there has to be some political machinery there to take advantage of the opportunity.”[2]

Viguerie’s insight into coalitions is telling because it is repeated in the contemporary partnership between the anti-LGBTQ+ movement, the anti-LGBTQ+ pseudoscience industry and several groups of right-wing LGBTQ+-identified and feminist-identified actors who each have suffered a series of ideological, professional and political defeats to their anti-LGBTQ+ agendas and collectively believe things have gotten “real bad” in American society.

Despite their losses, these groups have been able to “take advantage of the opportunity” presented by decades of right-wing institution building to quickly reframe their anti-LGBTQ+ ideology and repackage their theocratic intentions for American society. Because of the deep connections between the far right and the Republican Party pioneered by Viguerie, Paul Weyrich (co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, American Legislative Exchange Council and Council for National Policy), and others, the repackaged anti-LGBTQ+, anti-abortion and “religious freedom” agenda of the religious right has seemingly taken root overnight. However, the push for anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in the 2020s represents the culmination of a yearslong strategy.

Specifically, anti-LGBTQ+ activists plotted an alignment with conspiracy-minded LGBTQ+ people, including advocates of QAnon[3] and anti-trans conspiracies, in a divisive campaign to isolate transgender people from the LGBTQ+ community. That plot coincided with the rise of a disaffected group of researchers seeking to undermine the LGBTQ+-affirming health care model and even re-legitimize conversion therapy practices for trans kids using pseudoscientific claims.

By melding pseudoscientific claims and manipulative religious right narratives about “parents’ rights” and “religious freedom,” the strategy is intended to pit members of the LGBTQ+ community and their allies against one another, invigorate moral crusaders who might otherwise be out-mobilized by pro-choice activists in the wake of the unpopular overturning of Roe v. Wade, and, ultimately, roll back LGBTQ+ rights across the board and further the white Christian nationalist takeover of American law and society.

The plan, which one anti-LGBTQ+ hate group leader referred to as “divide and conquer,” has many precedents.[4] One modern scholar who spoke, most presciently, about the atrocious consequences of divisiveness was political philosopher Hannah Arendt. In 1951, Arendt wrote, “Terror can rule absolutely only over men who are isolated against each other. … Isolation may be the beginning of terror; it certainly is its most fertile ground; it always is its result.”[5]

Arendt was arguing against totalitarianism, but bigoted extremist groups have since recognized that loneliness – that is, lacking a shared understanding of one another – could be weaponized to fuel totalitarian movements since people who share no common ground are willing to allow others’ rights to be sacrificed in pursuit of a greater cause. A cause, they have been convinced, will solve all their problems by eliminating supposedly undesirable, and therefore problematic, people in society.

This theme is perpetuated as extremists erect rhetorical boundaries around race, nation or state. They point to one group of people who can be blamed and scapegoated for the problems of the majority. They claim the rights and even the existence of the “others” are not inalienable, but instead, are in competition with their own rights and livelihoods. The solution for bigoted extremists, then, is often simple: restrict the rights of or eliminate “them.”

The pseudoscience advanced in response to professional abandonment of conversion therapy laid the foundation for the anti-LGBTQ+ movement to advance this kind of extremist agenda. In its early stages, the plan was to focus on transgender people, reestablish conversion therapy as a legitimate therapeutic practice and undermine the affirming care model. As it progresses, it is tearing down long-established rights to privacy and bodily autonomy, civil rights and discrimination protections, as well as marriage equality. In their place, the plan seeks to erect a theocracy built on a right to discriminate against people who do not hold conservative white Christian beliefs. The far right’s decadeslong institution building allowed it to quickly spread. The coalition-building between anti-LGBTQ+ organizations and anti-trans LGBTQ+ groups has allowed it to succeed, so far.

The Isolation of Transgender People: Setting the Stage

In the mid-2010s, transgender rights entered the national conversation with renewed vigor as anti-LGBTQ+ groups experienced a series of political losses. In 2016, the Department of Education under President Obama issued guidance holding that Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 also protected transgender students from discrimination in American public schools.[6]

While much of their policy agenda foundered (i.e. marriage equality, “don’t ask, don’t tell”), anti-LGBTQ+ movement stalwarts like the Family Research Council (FRC), American College of Pediatricians (ACPeds) and Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) were plotting a shift in political and legal strategies along with several groups of anti-trans “feminists” and right-wing LGBTQ+ personalities like the Hands Across the Aisle Coalition (HATAC) and Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF).[7] The new strategy focused on isolating transgender people and using the ensuing moral panic to reignite an anti-LGBTQ+ policy agenda that includes attacks on civil rights, bodily autonomy and democratic accountability in the name of “religious freedom.”

The strategy would require supportive “evidence” and, even before the legalization of marriage equality, at least two groups, ACPeds and ADF, were discussing the need for research to support anti-trans policy claims. For example, a 2023 investigation of documents left in a publicly accessible Google Drive by ACPeds showed that, in the years before the Obama administration issued its education guidance, ADF requested ACPeds produce “research” to help the group “substantiate” its legal claims that gender identity should not be protected under Title IX.[8]

Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 presidential elections accelerated the refocusing of the anti-LGBTQ movement on trans rights. The unquestioned access of hate groups like FRC and ADF to the Trump administration proved valuable.[9] In 2017, the Trump administration withdrew the Title IX guidance protecting trans students and made similar enforcement changes to laws protecting transgender people from discrimination in health care, housing and employment, and barred transgender people from serving in the military, among other anti-transgender policies.[10] The Trump administration was also staffed with people connected to many of the religious right, anti-trans groups who helped guide anti-LGBTQ+ policies through the bureaucracy.[11]

Around the same time the Trump administration withdrew its support for protecting trans students, Meg Kilgannon, a senior fellow at FRC, publicly articulated the political and cultural strategy of the anti-LGBTQ+ movement: use transgender people to “divide and conquer” the LGBTQ+ movement and its allies.[12] Specifically, during FRC’s Values Voter Summit in 2017, Kilgannon argued that “if you separate the T from the alphabet soup, we’ll have more success.” Isolating transgender people, it was reasoned, would not only stop the progression of transgender rights but also start the rollback of all LGBTQ+ civil rights gains.

A review of additional documents from ACPeds, including recorded minutes from the group’s March 2018 board meeting, suggests that group was also “trying to stop the LGBTQ movements in CA [sic], with LGB folks who see the dangers of transgenderism.” The group’s Committee on Adolescent Sexuality co-chair and board member of the International Federation for Therapeutic and Counselling Choice, Advocates Protecting Children and Moral Revolution, Dr. Andre Van Mol, confirmed the strategy in a 2022 interview, saying that “we even have, no kidding, gay identified groups, and one trans identified adult group who work with us.”[13]

A Three-Legged Stool: Pseudoscience, “Parents” and “Whistleblowers”

For three decades, the American public has warmed to LGBTQ+ rights. From the 1970s, when public opinion polling began regularly measuring attitudes on the issue, to the 2010s, attitudes toward lesbian, gay and bisexual rights improved faster than almost any other attitude. Prejudicial opinions which once were common have increasingly been abandoned and replaced by more positive perspectives.[14]

According to data from the General Social Survey, one of the longest-running polls of American attitudes, the percentage of the population who view same-sex relationships as “not wrong at all” has skyrocketed from about one in 10 in 1988 to more than six in 10 in 2021.[15] More Americans than ever support the rights of lesbian and gay people to be teachers, to get married and to be protected from discrimination. Similarly, more Americans than ever oppose banning books about lesbian and gay people and censoring lesbian and gay people in public spaces.

Attitudes toward transgender rights are on a similar positive trajectory. A study by the Public Religion Research Institute shows most Americans say their attitudes toward transgender rights have improved over the past five years.[16] Most people support nondiscrimination protections for transgender people and are comfortable with transgender teachers in their local elementary school and oppose banning books about transgender people.

However, scholars, including political scientists Jami Taylor, Daniel Lewis and Donald Haider-Markel, show that public opinion on transgender rights can be moved.[17] Namely, most people favor antidiscrimination protections – which explains why some trans-inclusive policy successes have been recorded in previous years. Yet, prejudicial attitudes toward transgender people are still common, and a substantial number of people report not having an opinion or say they do not have enough information to form an opinion about transgender people. For example, a 2023 study by PRRI shows an uptick in the percentage of the adult population who believe there are only two genders, with stark partisan divides over attitudes toward transgender rights.[18] This means that even though attitudes toward transgender rights are improving, the public can be easily swayed and is susceptible to manipulation about transgender identity by anti-trans messaging.

Campaigns by right-wing extremists that rely on dangerous and defaming rhetoric and pseudoscience to delegitimize transgender identities, bodies and rights exploit this underlying knowledge deficit about transgender people. Recent public opinion polling shows the strategy has been effective.[19]

Consistent with Hannah Arendt’s views on creeping totalitarianism, knowing that attitudes toward transgender people can be easily influenced, a campaign to demonize them could open a political fissure, isolating trans people from their allies. That opening creates a need for information and legislation as lawmakers react to the new moral panic. Anti-LGBTQ+ hate groups are ready to fill that vacuum and can regain any influence and revenue lost after the legalization of same-sex marriage and similar policy losses in the mid-2010s.[20]

The strategy involves consolidating public opinion, not around diversity and pluralism, but around fear and the revitalization of a trope commonly used to isolate minority groups – “recruiting” or “grooming” children – then advancing anti-LGBTQ+ legislation at the state level. Three things have been essential to this narrative construction: pseudoscience that purports to call into question the efficacy of LGBTQ+-inclusive education and health care, an active cohort of “parent’s rights” and “religious freedom” groups whose members are needed to establish legal claims against LGBTQ+ civil rights, and so-called “whistleblowers” from within the LGBTQ+ community who are used to insulate the anti-LGBTQ+ attacks from being rightly described as such.

“Gay Marriage was the Tipping Point”

Political campaigns against trans rights, especially focusing on inclusive education and health care, began in earnest after the Supreme Court issued its 2015 landmark Obergefell v. Hodges decision legalizing same-sex marriage across the country.[21] For example, at the same 2018 ACPeds board meeting when the group discussed partnering with anti-trans LGB people to undermine transgender rights, the group’s then-president Dr. Michelle Cretella reflected on the evolution of anti-LGBTQ+ political organizing: “Gay marriage was the tipping point for the transgender movement. The transgender topic is legally the next step and is very threatening.”

Later that year, ACPeds sent a letter to the Trump administration applauding their anti-LGBTQ+ efforts and making numerous pseudoscientific claims including mischaracterizing a study of the relationship between affirming care and suicidal ideation.[22] The letter brought together many of the “old guard” opponents of the affirming care model and many anti-LGBTQ+ movement leaders.[23]

In 2023, journalist Madison Pauly revealed that many of the same figures who signed the anti-LGBTQ+ letter were also part of a shadow coalition along with several state lawmakers pushing anti-LGBTQ+ laws in state legislatures.[24] Glimmers of that strategy were hinted, then announced in 2021 as a coalition+ movement.[25]

The plan, which researcher Frederick Clarkson has described as a continuation of the right-wing legislative agenda known as “Project Blitz,”[26] was endorsed by the Heritage Foundation, ADF, Family Policy Alliance, ACPeds, FRC and dozens of state-level family policy councils that have pushed anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and amplified anti-LGBTQ+ pseudoscience in state legislatures for decades.

The Promise claims “children are increasingly targeted for adults’ sexual messages, images, and themes, and this is happening at younger ages” and calls for banning transgender children from playing sports, requiring schools to out LGBTQ+ children, potentially allowing foster care agencies to discriminate against LGBTQ+ and religious minority parents, censoring school curriculum to exclude "sensitive topics” like LGBTQ+ and anti-racist books, and promotes conversion therapy.

The Promise also includes demands based on anti-trans pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. Notably, the groups’ narrative manipulation strategy includes conflating affirming social practices with surgical procedures – a common strategy to overstate the incidence of gender-affirming surgery, obfuscate the fact that no major medical association endorses surgical transition interventions for minors and sensationalize gender-affirming care to gin up anger. They also sow distrust in the affirming care model by amplifying claims that affirming care is experimental or untested.

The narrative manipulation strategy also rests on the construction of LGBTQ+ identity, representation, and existence as “sexualized.” Combined with the pseudoscientific claim that trans identity is spread through “social contagion,” the anti-LGBTQ+ campaign characterizes any expression of LGBTQ+ identity as “sensitive,” controversial, or a method of “recruitment” or “grooming” and subject it to exclusion, censorship or elimination.

The strategy has taken hold across popular discourse. U.S. Sen. John Kennedy’s reaction to President Joe Biden’s 2023 State of the Union address – in which the president mentioned LGBTQ+ rights once – is a case in point. The Republican Louisiana senator absurdly claimed Biden wants “a drag queen for every school library whether the parents want that or not.”[27] FRC’s Suzanne Bowdey used similar language – quoting then-Michigan Attorney General candidate Dana Nessel, who was criticizing anti-inclusive education policies – to conflate drag performances and gender-affirming health care and claiming that “it’s not a winning recipe.”[28]

While right-wing extremist groups accelerated their attacks on transgender people, journalist Natasha Lennard notes,[29] American liberals generally have no cohesive answer and many mainstream institutions have been complicit or culpable in the spread of transphobic pseudoscience.[30] “There is nothing organic nor grassroots about this anti-trans moral panic,” Lennard says, “yet it is accorded the status of a legitimate public concern.”

The Promise is focused on state legislatures and has many successes. Anti-LGBTQ+ hate groups like FRC and ADF regularly circulate model legislation to prevent transgender people from accessing medical care or trans children from playing sports, for example. However, as researchers Annika Brockschmidt and Thomas Lecaque have noted, the anti-trans moral panic generated by right-wing groups have led some to adopt violent anti-trans tactics modeled on the anti-abortion movement that target doctors directly while anti-LGBTQ+ extremists shrug off violence in public comments.[31] Indeed, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s annual hate crimes report documented a nearly 33% increase in anti-LGBTQ+ hate crimes from 2021 to 2022.[32]

This legitimization of anti-trans violence is mimicked in state legislatures where, for example, Oklahoma state Sen. David Bullard introduced the “Millstone Act” – named after the passage of the Bible that warns it is better to have a millstone tied to one’s neck and be drowned in the sea than to cause another to “sin” – that threatens doctors who provide gender-affirming care.[33] Andrew Seidel of Americans United for Separation of Church and State said such bills “promise violence and death.”[34]

The pattern is repeating across state legislatures in the South, especially. The governments of Florida, Texas, Tennessee and Arkansas, among others, are weaponizing administrative and legislative institutions against LGBTQ+ people – banning books, harassing drag performers, demanding information about the menstrual cycles of student athletes, attempting to compile lists of transgender residents and their health care records and abolishing transgender-affirming health care.[35] At the local level, anti-LGBTQ+ and antigovernment groups recruit extremist candidates for school board races across the country, with a platform of preventing inclusive education practices and banning anti-racist and LGBTQ+-inclusive books.

Meanwhile, the isolation of transgender people continues.

Holes in the LGBTQ+ Umbrella

The anti-LGBTQ+ movement is known for divisive political tactics. For example, anti-LGBTQ+ campaigns led by the National Organization for Marriage attempted to use religion to pit people of color against LGBTQ+ people in a racialized version of the “divide and conquer” strategy.[36] In 2022, anti-LGBTQ+ organizations, including the American Principles Project—whose founder, Robert P. George, is associated with Heritage Foundation, Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism, American Enterprise Institute, and Center for Urban Renewal and Education—targeted Black and Spanish-speaking voters with conspiratorial campaign ads designed to stoke division and anti-trans animus.[37] The anti-LGBTQ+ movement is also known for trying to split the LGBTQ+ community by extolling “ex-gay” groups like Liberty Counsel’s (whose leader, Mat Staver, serves on CURE’s board with George) “Change is Possible” campaign, which has promoted stories from LGBTQ+ people who claim to no longer be LGBTQ+ thanks to conversion therapy programs.[38]

Neither Kilgannon’s comment at the 2017 Value Voter Summit nor ACPed’s 2018 board meeting are the first time the divide and conquer strategy of targeting transgender rights to split the LGBTQ+ community was discussed. Earlier in 2017, it came to light that the group Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF), founded by Lierre Keith to advocate an exclusionary anti-trans interpretation of feminism,[39] had employed a media firm associated with the anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-abortion group Focus on the Family.

In 2016, WoLF received a donation from Alliance Defending Freedom to support its lawsuit against the Obama administration’s Title IX guidance advancing transgender rights in education.[40] In 2021, ADF’s largess had grown to $50,000, funding WoLF’s work related to “religious liberty.”[41] In 2022, the group partnered with the Independent Women’s Forum to author the “Women’s Bill of Rights,” a document that serves as “model legislation” to codify binary sex identity in state laws with the effect of excluding trans people from sports, public accommodations and civil rights statutes.[42] Among other politicians, the document was signed by Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt – the state where David Bullard introduced the Millstone Act in 2023.

At the 2017 FRC summit, Kilgannon cited the formation of the anti-trans group Hands Across the Aisle Coalition (HATAC) as an example of effectively weaponizing lesbian and feminist voices against transgender rights.[43] HATAC worked with WoLF and Concerned Women for America in 2019 to oppose the Equality Act in the U.S. Congress because it included protections for transgender people. In 2017, the Heritage Foundation hosted a panel called “Biology Isn’t Bigotry: Why Sex Matters in the Age of Gender Identity.” That panel featured HATAC co-founder and lesbian activist Miriam Ben-Shalom and other speakers who veiled anti-transgender comments in feminist rhetoric.

At one point during the proceedings, another HATAC co-founder, Kaeley Triller Haver, whose group Just Want Privacy Campaign was accused of exploiting a sexual assault survivor’s story to promote anti-transgender legislation,[44] seemingly spoke to the discontinuity between promoting lesbian rights and attacking transgender rights. Haver noted that Ben-Shalom is “here at the Heritage Foundation, which I’m guessing is probably not all that comfortable,” and praised the lesbian rights activist for arguing against trans rights. In 2018, the Heritage Foundation also published an article promoting division within the LGBTQ+ movement in the United Kingdom over transgender rights, celebrating that the movement was “on the brink of schism.”

Like the “ex-gay” approach, anti-LGBTQ+ groups have partnered with or co-opted the voices of LGBTQ+ people who deny transgender rights, or even that transgender people exist. In another Heritage-sponsored panel arguing against transgender rights in 2019, the group featured detransitioner Hacsi Horvath on a panel billed as feminists “from the left.”[45] The group Genspect administers a “Beyond Trans” program to pair transgender people with conversion therapists and to recruit detransitioners to write for their blog and make video content for the group.

Anti-LGBTQ+ groups are quick to platform people who are willing to use their experiences to limit the rights of others while obscuring the overwhelming evidence that supports gender-affirming health care and social acceptance of transgender people.[46] Despite the far-right platforming of anti-transgender detransitioners and the promotion of ROGD and the desistence myth, for example, transgender identification has increased following the removal of barriers to accessing care, which keeps many trans people closeted. While some people may detransition (about 13%), the experience is nowhere near the rate anti-LGBTQ+ groups imply.[47] Of those who do detransition, nearly eight in 10 say social barriers to “living authentically” inform their decision to detransition, not that they are no longer transgender.[48]

In the past three years, these aspects of the “divide and conquer” strategy continue to produce division as a budding movement of right-wing LGBTQ+-identified activists emerge online to promote the claim that transgender people and LGBTQ+ people who support them are counterfeits or threaten the rights and progress of the gay and lesbian movement.

Although anti-transgender (and anti-lesbian) ideologies have previously emerged from within left-leaning feminist movements,[49] the fervency of groups like Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF), and newer groups like Gays Against Groomers (GAG), Genspect and LGB Alliance, lend legitimacy to anti-transgender demonization and conspiracy theories especially among right-wing groups because they appear to be whistleblowers — people who are seemingly “telling the truth,“ despite pressure to ignore what they see as wrongs.

The groups push pseudoscience to advocate against gender-affirming health care and, in the case of GAG, have dubbed LGBTQ+ people who support trans rights “groomers.”

GAG’s founder, Jaimee Michell, said her anti-trans activism is intended to stem the tide of attacks on gays and lesbians. In this truly utilitarian calculation, the needs of transgender people, who are fewer in number than LGB people in the United States, can be sacrificed during a time of moral panic by more privileged LGB people who view the trans community as a threat to their rights.[50] This internalization of the “divide and conquer” perspective assumes that anti-LGBTQ+ extremists will be content to simply stop contesting gay and lesbian rights once transgender people are suppressed. Most are not.[51]

GAG has also explicitly linked their false claims to racialized fears that “transing” is targeting white children, specifically. Former GAG “ambassador” Sara Higdon, who is also sometimes listed as the communications director for Trans Against Groomers, has claimed that trans identity is likely to develop among “upper middle class white kids of progressive parents” (even though trans people are more likely to identify as Latinx).[52] Higdon also claims that “critical theory” in schools has “conditioned” these white children to believe they are an “oppressor” and that the only way to “escape” their oppressed status is to “join an oppressed class” by identifying as transgender.[53]

In a blog post published on Feb. 19, 2023, GAG Washington leader Alex Chrostowski continues this line of thought, claiming that “there seems to be a perverse race to the bottom” in which students seek to “prove their own claims about how ‘disadvantaged’ they are” by feigning mental illness and displaying “increasingly disruptive attitudes or behaviors in class.” These behaviors are brought about, Chrostowski claims, by access to information and a permissive social climate which “celebrates any divergence from the norm, ie [sic] white, straight, cisgender” and treats whiteness and heterosexuality as "if they are to be barely tolerated.”[54]

Like Louisiana’s U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, the group has also conflated drag performances, the satirical sendup of restrictive gender roles and transgender affirmation, although GAG has cited both as evidence of the sexualization of children and threats to gay and lesbian rights. Chris Barrett, the leader of the group’s Missouri chapter, testified in support of a Tennessee ban on public drag performances by claiming that “exposing children to drag” is “making gay people look bad” and “hurting our reputation.” However, events like drag story hours teach reading skills and tolerance but are frequently targeted by right-wing violence that actually endangers children.[55]

In addition to rallying with the hate group Proud Boys[56] and antigovernment groups affiliated with the Three Percenters movement, Moms for Liberty, Moms for America, Parents Defending Education and Mom Army, GAG has welcomed praise from anti-Muslim activists.[57] Media Matters has reported that GAG’s founders and staff have a right-wing pedigree of employment and affiliations, including connections to former Trump adviser Steve Bannon and groups like Turning Point USA, which boosted the profile of anti-trans personality Riley Gaines.[58]

Michell also serves on the advisory board of MOM Army with the founder of the antigovernment group Purple for Parents, and Landon Starbuck, leader of the group Freedom Forever, whose complaint about a college drag performance led one Tennessee university to ban a campus LGBTQ+ group from holding future events.[59] The report also suggests GAG’s promotion of anti-transgender rhetoric represents an attempt to profit from the “divide and conquer” strategy as much as an ideological crusade.[60]

Other groups like Genspect, LGB Alliance, Moral Revolution and its Changed Project are multinational organizations that claim to represent LGBTQ+ (and “ex-gay”) people and their interests. However, such groups disseminate anti-transgender rhetoric and pseudoscience and advocate conversion therapy, globally. For example, despite an advisory board full of anti-LGBTQ+ pseudoscientists and conversion therapists, Genspect bills itself as a “team” of parent’s groups, trans people and detransitioners, rather than a reactionary anti-trans organization with deep ties to the American Religious Right and numerous anti-LGBTQ hate groups.

Isolating Trans Allies, Targeting Trans Kids Through Policy

Social media and lobbying campaigns by anti-LGBTQ+ extremist groups, which have always relied on dangerous and defamatory rhetoric and pseudoscience to delegitimize LGBTQ+ people, are exploiting anti-trans narratives and the underlying malleability of public attitudes toward transgender people. At the same time, anti-LGBTQ+ hate groups continue to profit from the division while dismantling LGBTQ+ rights at the state and local level.[61]

That framing continued in the Promise to America’s Children, the state-level anti-LGBTQ+ policy agenda championed by the Family Policy Alliance, the Heritage Foundation and the Alliance Defending Freedom. It continued in federal legislative proposals throughout 2023. The majority-Republican U.S. House introduced spending measures to eliminate Medicare coverage for gender-affirming care, passed a bill to ban transgender athletes from competitive sports and a bill prohibiting LGBTQ+-inclusive education practices in schools including limiting the freedom of teachers to affirm their LGBTQ+ students’ identities without parental consent — a measure that would forcibly out LGBTQ+ students to potentially unsupportive parents.[62]

U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee, and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, introduced the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) in 2022 — a bill to ostensibly protect children from harms associated with social media use. In an August 2023 interview with the Family Policy Alliance, however, Blackburn revealed that the purpose of KOSA was to censor LGBTQ+-affirming content online. Claiming that American children are being “indoctrinated,” Blackburn framed transgender identity as a social contagion. She claimed kids are “hearing things at school and then they’re getting onto YouTube to watch a video, and all of a sudden this comes to them.” The senator also said a “top priority” for conservatives should be “protecting minor children from the transgender [sic] in this culture and that influence.”[63]

The coalition of groups that make up the religious right have also mobilized around anti-LGBTQ+ pseudoscience and made it a priority for any future Republican presidential administration. Project 2025, announced in 2023 and led by the right-wing Heritage Foundation, is a plan to cut the number of federal employees and replace those who remain with loyalists to far right and extremist ideologies. The influence of anti-LGBTQ+ pseudoscience is clear throughout the 900+ page handbook called the “Mandate for Leadership: The Conservative Promise.”[64]

Beginning on the first page, the more than 50 groups claim that “children suffer the toxic normalization of transgenderism.” On page 5, they define pornography as “manifested today in the omnipresent propagation of transgender ideology” and then call for such “pornography” to be “outlawed” and the people who “produce and distribute it” to be “imprisoned.” School teachers and librarians who “purvey it,” they argue, should be “classed as registered sex offenders,” while they propose government “shutter” any technology or telecommunications company that “facilitate its spread.”

The focus on anti-transgender policy also represents a strategic choice for the Christian Right, whose victory overturning Roe v. Wade in June 2022, has since mobilized their political opponents, worrying some conservative political strategists about future electoral prospects when abortion rights, alone, are on the ballot.[65] Just like the push for constitutional bans on marriage equality was viewed as an unsuccessful attempt at boosting turnout among religious conservatives in 2004,[66] the Christian Right may now be attempting to offset any political losses attributable to post-Dobbs backlash by making transgender rights a winning political issue for their preferred candidates.

While a cynical reaction to Dobbs might seem to fit the short-term pattern in anti-trans mobilization, the history and context we present in this (and the previous) chapter make it clear that targeting and isolating transgender people has been a strategic plan of the Christian Right for nearly a decade. As Arendt warned, isolation breeds terror. Research shows that anti-LGBTQ+ laws increase poverty among LGBTQ+ people; and, in places without antidiscrimination laws, LGBTQ+ people are losing health care coverage, being brutalized by extremist violence and victimized by law enforcement while the negative trends are especially pronounced among transgender people of color. [67]

As researchers Brockschmidt and Lecaque point out, if these groups genuinely cared about children or parents, they would support policies that contribute to better health outcomes for LGBTQ+ kids and their caregivers, such as affirming health care and civil rights protections.[68] Yet, the push to imprison LGBTQ+ people, teachers, doctors and librarians—as well as facilitating an environment of increased bomb threats targeting children’s hospitals, attacks on children’s reading programs and murderous attacks on LGBTQ+ spaces—show the impacts of anti-LGBTQ+ campaigns that mix pseudoscience and anti-LGBTQ+ prejudice. Consequently, these campaigns make society less democratic, less free and less safe.

Chapter 4: Manufacturing the doubt that fuels the network | Home



[2] Nelson, Anne. (2019). Shadow Network: Media, Money, and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Publishing.

[3] Wiggins, Christopher. February 21, 2023. “Gays Against Groomers is Not a Grassroots Organization: Report.” Advocate. (Accessed 8/16/2023).

[4] Barthelemy, Hélène. October 23, 2017. “Christian Right Tips to Fight Transgender Rights: Separate the T from the LGB.” Hatewatch. Southern Poverty Law Center. (Accessed 8/16/2023). Montgomery, Peter. October 19, 2017. “Values Voter Summit Panelist: ‘Divide & Conquer’ to Defeat ‘Totalitarian’ Trans Inclusion Policies.” Right Wing Watch. (Accessed 8/16/2023).

[5] Arendt, Hannah. (1951). The Origins of Totalitarianism. Schocken Books.

[6] See Lambda Legal. May 13, 2016. Press Release: Lambda Legal Applauds New Federal Guidance on Transgender Access to Bathrooms. (Accessed 8/16/2023).


[8] Cravens, R.G. June 5, 2023. “Documents Reveal ADF Requested Anti-Trans Research from American College of Pediatricians.” Hatewatch. Southern Poverty Law Center. (Accessed 8/16/2023).

[9] Shadow Network

[10] See: Lambda Legal. February 25, 2017. “FAQ: What did Obama do for transgender students and how did Trump take it away?” (Accessed 8/30/2023). Sanger-Katz, Margot, and Noah Weiland. June 12, 2020. “Trump Administration Erases Transgender Civil Rights Protections in Health Care.” The New York Times. (Accessed 8/30/2023). National Center for Transgender Equality. N.d. “Trump’s Record of Action Against Transgender People.” (Accessed 8/30/2023). Emma, Caitlin. August 18, 2018. “Transgender Students asked Betsy DeVos for Help. Here’s What Happened.” Politico. (Accessed 8/30/2023).

[11] See: Madden, Pete. October 6, 2017. “Jeff Sessions Consulted Christian Right Legal Group on Religious Freedom Memo.” ABC News. (Accessed 8/30/2023). Department of Justice, Office of Public Affairs. August 8, 2018. “Attorney General Jeff Sessions Delivers Remarks at the Alliance Defending Freedom's Summit on Religious Liberty.” (Accessed 8/30/2023).

[12] Barthelemy, Hélène. October 23, 2017. “Christian Right Tips to Fight Transgender Rights: Separate the T from the LGB.” Hatewatch. Southern Poverty Law Center. (Accessed 8/30/2023).

[13] Andre Van Mol interviewed by Aaron Baer and David Mahan. July 22, 2022. “The Business of Woke Medicine.” Center for Christian Virtue. (Accessed 8/30/2023).

[14] Garretson, Jeremiah J. 2018. The Path to Gay Rights: How Activism and Coming Out Changed Public Opinion. New York: NYU Press.

[15] See:

[16] Greenberg, Daniel, Maxine Najle, Natalie Jackson, Oyindamola Bola, Robert P. Jones. June 11, 2019. ”America’s Growing Support for Transgender Rights.” Public Religion Research Institute. (Accessed 8/30/2023).

[17] Taylor, Jami Kathleen, Donald P. Haider-Markel, and Daniel Clay Lewis. 2018. The Remarkable Rise of Transgender Rights. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.


[19] PRRI. June 8, 2023. “The Politics of Gender, Pronouns, and Public Education.” (Accessed 8/30/2023).

[20] See: Richardson, Stuart. March 23, 2022. ”Groups Opposed to Gay Rights Rake in Millions as States Debate anti-LGBTQ Bills.” NBC News. (Accessed 8/30/2023).

[21] See: Allen, Samantha. April 13, 2017. “State Legislation Targets Trans Community Like Never Before.” The Daily Beast. (Accessed 8/30/2023).


[23] The letter was signed by Paul McHugh, Michael Laidlaw, Paul Hruz, Susan Bradley, J. Michael Bailey and members of the Alliance Defending Freedom, Family Research Council, Ruth Institute, Family Watch International, Center for Family and Human Rights, American Principles Project, Liberty Counsel, International Federation for Therapeutic and Counselling Choice, National Task Force for Therapy Equality, Christian Medical and Dental Associations and the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

[24] Pauly, Madison. March 8, 2023. “Inside the Secret Working Group that Helped Push Anti-Trans Laws Across the Country.” Mother Jones. (Accessed 8/30/2023).

[25] Greenesmith, Heron. February 12, 2021. “New Anti-Trans Promise.” Political Research Associates. (Accessed 8/30/2023).

[26] Clarkson, Frederick. July 12, 2021. “Christian Right Bill Mill, Project Blitz, Hasn’t Gone Away, It’s Just Gotten More Secretive.” Religion Dispatches. (Accessed 8/30/2023).

[27] See:

[28] Mauger, Craig. June 15, 2022. “AG Dana Nessel jokes ‘a drag queen for every school,’ attacks ‘fake issues.’ The Detroit News. (Accessed 8/30/2023).

[29] Lennard, Natasha. December 31, 2022. “Liberals Rose to Fight the Assault on Abortion – but not Trans Rights.” The Intercept. (Accessed 8/30/2023).

[30] Drennen, Ari. February 8, 2023. “The New York Times helped fuel an anti-trans panic in 2022. Will 2023 be any better?” Media Matters. (Accessed 8/30/2023).

[31] Brockschmidt, Annika and Thomas Lecaque. September 23, 2022. “Inspired by Anti-Abortion Movement and QAnon, Anti-Trans Rhetoric is a Blatant Call for Violence.” Religion Dispatches. (Accessed 8/30/2023).


[33] Seidel, Andrew L. February 2, 2023. “Christian Nationalist Legislator Introduces Anti-Trans ‘Millstone Act’ Suggesting Biblical Retribution.” Religion Dispatches. (Accessed 8/30/2023).

[34] Ibid.

[35] See: AP. January 19, 2023. ”DeSantis seeks transgender university students' health care information.” (Accessed 8/30/2023). Otten, Tori. January 26, 2023. “Florida Panel Recommends Forcing Student Athletes to Give Schools Their Menstrual History.“ The New Republic. (Accessed 8/30/2023). Gans, Jared. February 4, 2023. “DeSantis files complaint against Orlando Philharmonic for hosting drag holiday event.” The Hill. (Accessed 8/30/2023). Kruesi, Kimberlee and Jonathan Mattise. June 21, 2023. “Tennessee attorney general says seeking clinic’s transgender patient records part of fraud probe.” (Accessed 8/30/2023). Hennessy-Fiske, Molly. December 14, 2022. “Texas attorney general’s office sought state data on transgender Texans.” Texas Tribune. (Accessed 8/30/2023).

[36] Abad-Santos, Alexander. March 27, 2012. “Anti-gay marriage group’s leaked docs reveal divide and conquer racial plans.” The Atlantic.

[37] Human Rights Campaign. October 28, 2022. “In Final Weeks of Election, Extremist Candidates, Anti-LGBTQ+ Orgs Funnel Tens of Millions of Dollars in Ads Attacking Trans Youth, Targeting Black and Spanish-Speaking Voters.” Press Release. (Accessed 8/30/2023).

[38] Schlatter, Evelyn. November 4, 2010. “18 Anti-gay Groups and their Propaganda.” Intelligence Report. Southern Poverty Law Center. (Accessed 8/30/2023).



[41] Between 2020 and 2021, WoLF reported a nearly 400% increase in support from such gifts — from $219,000 in 2020 to $1.09 million in 2021. ADF’s own total revenues ballooned from $78 million in 2020 to over $104 million in 2021.


[43] Barthélemy, Hélène (2017).

[44] O’Sullivan, Joseph. March 14, 201. “Golden Gardens attack survivor: My story was exploited in transgender bathroom debate.” The Seattle Times. (Accessed 8/30/2023). See also: Montana Human Rights Network. June 2018. ”Kaeley Triller Haver: Hired Gun for Anti-Trans Bathroom Bills.”

[45] Fitzsimons, Tim. January 29, 2019. ”Conservative group hosts anti-transgender panel of feminists ‘from the left.’” NBC News. (Accessed 8/30/2023).

[46] McLamore, Quinnehtukqut. January 23, 2023. ”Disarming Transphobia.” Aeon. (Accessed 8/30/2023).

[47] Ibid.

[48] Greenesmith (2023).

[49] Burns, Katelyn. September 5, 2019. “The rise of anti-trans ‘radical’ feminists, explained.” (Accessed 8/30/2023).

[50] Bollinger, Alex. August 3, 2022. “Gays Against Groomers” Jamiee Michell compares trans health care to Nazi human experiments.” (Accessed 8/30/2023).

[51] Spoto, Maia. August 16, 2022. “Same-Sex Marriage Victors Ready to Refight Battle Already Won.” Bloomberg Law. (Accessed 8/30/2023). See:

[52] See: Herman, Flores, and O’Neil. 2022. “How Many Adults and Youth Identify as Transgender in the United States?” Williams Institute. See also:


[54] See:

[55] See: Hesse, Monica. June 23, 2022. “Drag Queens are not the Ones Sexualizing Drag Story Hour.” The Washington Post. (Accessed 8/31/2023). Miller, Cassie. July 13, 2022. “Proud Boys Aid the Right-Wing Assault on the LGBTQ Community and Reproductive Justice.” Hatewatch. The Southern Poverty Law Center. (Accessed 8/31/2023).

[56] Broverman, Neal. December 4, 2022. “Gays Against Groomers Headline Anti-LGBTQ+ Rally in Ft. Lauderdale.” Advocate. (Accessed 8/31/2023).


[58] See: Gingerich, Mia. February 7, 2023. “Grifter Gays: How Conspiracy Theorists and Right-Wing Operatives Created Gays Against Groomers.” Media Matters. (Accessed 8/31/2023). Lawton, Sophie. June 23, 2022. “Right-wing clickbait pushing anti-LGBTQ ‘groomer’ smears are increasingly popular on YouTube.” Media Matters. (Accessed 8/31/2023).; See:

[59] Royse, Mary Alice. September 19, 2022. “TN Tech leaders accused of violating First Amendment amidst drag show investigation.” WSMV. (Accessed 8/31/2023).

[60] Gingerich (2023).

[61] Richardson (2022).




[65] ;; ;

[66] ;

[67] Mallory, Christy, Amira Hasenbush, and Brad Sears. 2015. “Discrimination and Harassment by Law Enforcement Officers in the LGBT Community.” Williams Institute. (Accessed 8/31/2023). Movement Advancement Project. N.d. “Anti-LGBT laws drive significantly higher rates of poverty for LGBT people.” Press release. (Accessed 8/31/2023). Williams Institute. October 2, 2020. “LGBT people nearly four times more likely than non-LGBT people to be victims of violent crime.” Press Release. (Accessed 8/31/2023).

[68] Brockschmidt and Lecaque (2022).