Last week, from Thursday, October 13 through Saturday, October 15 the anti-LGBT hate group Family Research Council put on its annual Values Voter Summit in Washington, DC., A prime networking event for the Christian right where anti-LGBT and anti-Muslim rhetoric is rife, this year’s summit welcomed its first sitting president as a speaker, Donald Trump.
Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway, Breitbart executive chairman Steve Bannon and former Trump deputy assistant Sebastian Gorka all addressed the crowd, thanking the Christian evangelical audience for having put Trump in power.
A three-times Values Voter speaker, Trump has long been courting the support of the Christian evangelical right. The Trump administration’s explicit hostility to LGBT rights, in the name of religious freedom, has in part earned the president the unabashed support of the Values Voter attendees.
The Values Voter Summit has historically served as a meeting place for anti-LGBT groups and individuals, and this year is no exception. On Saturday, at a panel entitled “Transgender Ideology in Public Schools: Parents Fight Back,” speakers took turns offering strategies to defeat trans-friendly measures passed by various school boards.
The panel focused on Fairfax County’s school board (the 10th largest school district in the country), and its measure to add “gender identity” to their nondiscrimination policy in May 2015. The measure soon faced roiling opposition from anti-LGBT groups across the country: it was challenged in court by Andrea Lafferty, president of the anti-LGBT hate group Traditional Values Coalition,, who was represented by anti-LGBT hate group Liberty Counsel. The case was deemed to have no standing by the Virginia Supreme Court in April 2017.
The lessons from Fairfax were at the center of Saturday’s panel, with two of the panel members affiliated with Fairfax County: the first, Elisabeth Schulz, was the lone no vote on the Fairfax County school board, while the other, Meg Kilgannon is the executive director of Concerned Parents and Educators of Fairfax County.
Passing as Progressive, Feminist, and LGB-Friendly
As Right Wing Watch also mentioned in their coverage of the same panel, a trend emerged during the session, as various speakers wrapped their opposition to nondiscrimination measures in rhetoric passing as progressive: transgender rights were depicted as anti-feminist, hostile to minorities and even disrespectful to LGB individuals. This seems to be part of a larger strategy, meant to weaken transgender rights advocates by attempting to separate them from their allies, feminists and LGBT rights advocates.
In her presentation, Kilgannon mapped out three non-negotiables in the fight against the so-called gender identity agenda, a conspiracy theory touted by anti-LGBT groups that disavows sexual orientation and gender identity. The first is to “divide and conquer. For all its recent success, the LGBT alliance is actually fragile and the trans activists need the gay rights movement to help legitimize them.” In other words, separate trans activists from the gay rights movement, and their agenda becomes much easier to oppose. As Kilgannon explained, “Trans and gender identity are a tough sell, so focus on gender identity to divide and conquer.” For many, “gender identity on its own is just a bridge too far. If we separate the T from the alphabet soup we’ll have more success.”
Kilgannon identified a wide coalition of potential allies outside the Christian Right who could confront trans friendly measures. Here’s her advice on how to draw them in:
Explain that gender identity rights only come at the expense of others: women, sexual assault survivors, female athletes forced to compete against men and boys, ethnic minorities who culturally value modesty, economically challenged children who face many barriers to educational success and don’t need another level of chaos in their lives, children with anxiety disorders and the list goes on and on and on.
The list could almost read like a manifesto for intersectionality, if it weren’t for its exclusion of some key groups, most notably transgender people themselves.
For Kilgannon, an example of effective coalition building includes the Hands Across the Aisle Coalition (HATAC), a group that unites religious and non-religious women to oppose transgender rights. The co-founders of the group are sexual assault survivor Kaeley Triller Haver and lesbian activist and radical feminist Miriam Ben-Shalom, who was discharged from the U.S. Army for declaring herself a lesbian in 1976. This started her decades-long battle against Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
In 2016, Ben-Shalom was disinvited from being the grand marshal of the Milwaukee Pride parade because of her views on trans people and support for so-called “bathroom bills,” which would deny people access to public restrooms and other facilities that match their gender identities. Ben-Shalom claimed to Fox6Now in Milwaukee that “my fight is ensuring that women are safe from the pretenders who might use the trans issue to get in and hurt somebody,” a popular talking point on the anti-LGBT right as a justification for anti-trans bathroom bills.
The group, according to Kilgannon, is mobilizing seemingly progressive rhetoric to oppose transgender rights: in the group, she says:
The feminists make eloquent arguments that gender identity really is the ultimate misogyny and the erasure of women. And lesbians in the group are concerned that trans and masculine girls is a form of lesbian eugenics.
With little transparency on its website about who and what formed the group, HATAC might simply be a secular-facing iteration of the same anti-LGBT agenda that has driven the Christian Right for decades. Hands Across the Aisle sent a letter to Ben Carson, director of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, speaking out against the inclusion of trans women at single-sex women’s shelters. Revealingly, the letter’s co-signers (which include Meg Kilgannon) also include Michelle Cretella, the current president of the American College of Pediatricians, an anti-LGBT hate group that pumps out junk science on LGBT people, including attempts to link homosexuality to pedophilia or claims that LGBT people are a danger to children.
The attempt to depict the pushback against nondiscriminatory measures that include transgender people as a feminist struggle (an ironic fact for a movement that often derides feminism) was also embraced by other panelists. Cathy Ruse and Peter Sprigg, both senior fellows for the anti-LGBT hate group Family Research Council embraced this rhetoric. Cathy Ruse, who gave the opening speech of the panel, declared:
Now what about girls? Did you know that feminists are at odds with the transgender movement? Last year a prominent feminist published a compendium of article under the title of Female Erasure. The subtitle is: what you need to know about gender politics’ war on women, the female sex, and human rights? What is the impact on girls who are bombarded with gender transition messages? In their young minds, do they hear that being female isn’t good enough?
Peter Sprigg, who peddles myths linking homosexuality to pedophilia and has hinted that homosexuality should be criminalized, also wrapped his intervention in feminist rhetoric, commenting that:
It’s particularly ironic that as our culture has developed where there is a greater range of choices, of activities, of careers that are available to men and women, boys and girls than there ever was before. And it’s really kind of ridiculous and almost retrograde to assume that we have to identify somebody’s gender identity on the basis of their activities or preferences.
In many ways, there are possible allies to this pivot toward anti-trans secular movements: trans-exclusionary radical feminists, dubbed TERFs by some activists, have made waves in recent years. Some TERFs have reclaimed the term and redubbed themselves PERFs, penis-exclusionary radical feminists. Their rationale is that people who are assigned male at birth can never experience the same conditions as women do, and still hold on to their male privilege. (The latter becomes harder to prove in the face of the discrimination experienced by trans and gender non-conforming people.) As reported by Political Research Associates, trans-exclusionary feminists “may actually be guilty of drafting [the Christian Right’s] talking points, adding fuel to the fire of this dangerous anti-trans frenzy.”
The Use of Junk Science to Advance Anti-LGBT Goals
Kilgannon’s two other non-negotiables facilitate her divisive strategy: the first is to “never ever attack LGBT people or trans people or parents of trans children.” She goes on: “don’t play into their victim narrative because in this culture war they are the bullies, not the victims.” The last non-negotiable, for Kilgannon, is to not approach the topic of gender identity with religious arguments, which are “simply not effective.” Instead, she recommends using arguments “based on biology and reason.”
Rather than obviously opposing transgender rights using moral or religious terms, the key strategy of the religious right’s opposition to transgender rights has been to couch anti-LGBT rhetoric in scientific or medical terms — a strategy long used by anti-LGBT groups. Here, Sprigg, refers to the “naturalness” argument that animates a lot of the Christian right’s anti-LGBTQ agenda, but shifts to focus on science and health:
Some of us, a lot of us in this room, might just object to the transgender movement in principle, that it’s a violation of the natural law in some sense but we would have a harder case to make in the public square if it could be shown that in fact people with gender dysphoria actually are healthier if they undergo gender transitions … But this is not the case.
Most of the panelists focused on peddling debunked pseudo-scientific falsehoods about LGBT people. To target survivors of sexual assault, for instance, panelists upheld the idea that trans women’s use of women’s restrooms could facilitate assault. In 2016, however, Media Matters published a report citing law enforcement officials and other experts in 16 states showing no uptick in sexual assault in jurisdictions that had passed trans-inclusive rules or legislation. Still, anti-trans groups have been exploiting this fear-mongering tactic (one that implies that trans women are potential perpetrators of assaults, rather than potential victims of it) and using it as a way to appeal to sexual assault survivors. Often, this focuses on sexual assault by strangers, as pointed out by program and policy director at the transgender advocacy group FORGE Loree Cook-Daniels, which obscures the fact that in eight out of 10 rape cases, the victim knows the person who sexually assaulted them, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
Some have resisted the attempt to use sexual assault survivors’ experience to advance goals oppressive to transgender individuals, many of whom already suffer from discrimination and violence. Kelly Herron, a Seattle-based sexual assault survivor vigorously opposed the attempts of Just Want Privacy, a campaign to repeal a Washington state law that allows transgender people to use the restroom that corresponds to their gender identity, to exploit her experience of assault. Just Want Privacy used Herron’s story to do fundraising to advance their anti-trans agenda (Herron was assaulted by a man hiding in a restroom at a Seattle park.) Just Want Privacy’s communication director, Kaeley Triller Haver, is the co-founder of the Hands Across the Aisle Coalition.
Many more claims made at the panel were scientifically unsound. Despite attempts to mobilize diverse voices, the religious right’s use of misleading science leaves little doubt that their secular-facing attempts to oppose transgender rights will be motivated by the same hateful agenda they have long embraced, rather than out of real solidarity for oppressed groups.