Right-wing media and anti-LGBTQ groups have spent years laying the groundwork to attack the Equality Act, which will likely be taken up by the Senate early this year, particularly by spreading misinformation about trans people and their inclusion in the comprehensive nondiscrimination legislation.
The Equality Act, which passed the House in 2019 and has support from the Biden-Harris administration, would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity “in both the public and private sectors, offering civil rights protections in businesses, hospitals and welfare services,” among other areas. The measure would prevent an employer from firing or a landlord from denying housing to someone for being LGBTQ, or from a medical provider denying someone emergency care for being transgender or living with HIV, for example.
In the absence of the Equality Act, LGBTQ Americans currently have a patchwork of protections across the country, with 27 states lacking explicit protections in their nondiscrimination measures. NBC Out highlighted the predicament this poses for LGBTQ people: “An LGBTQ person moving from Virginia to Georgia, for example, would find that their right to rent a home with their same-sex partner or use a public restroom that matches their gender identity could be in jeopardy.”
Right-wing media outlets, especially Fox News, and anti-LGBTQ groups have long targeted trans equality efforts in an attempt to skew public opinion against LGBTQ inclusion, and they have specifically targeted trans people to oppose other protections in the past. As the Equality Act is considered by legislators and the public, we can expect right-wing media to continue its lies about the bill.
The right is claiming the Equality Act would destroy women’s sports
Right-wing media are portraying the Equality Act and its nondiscrimination protections for trans people as a threat to women’s sports, particularly by fearmongering about allowing trans athletes to compete.
The right has long fixated on attacking trans athletes, making them one of the most dominant narratives about trans issues online. In fact, Media Matters found that right-leaning sources posting about trans athletes made up nearly 24% of all Facebook engagement on all content about trans issues earning more than 100,000 interactions (reactions, comments, and shares) in a year time period. That right-wing content earned nearly 21.21 million interactions and made up nearly one third of all Facebook engagement on top trans-related content studied.
Trans advocate Chase Strangio has noted that trans athletes “have been competing in women's sport at every level of competition all over the world for decades” yet still not dominated high-profile athletics.
These baseless attacks on the Equality Act focused on trans athletes often take attention away from the broad nondiscrimination protections it grants LGBTQ people, who lack many basic legal protections. Outsports has explained that the Equality Act does not even mention school sports:
Although it would offer protections in a wide variety of categories that range from employment to housing to financial credit, the effect the Equality Act’s passage would have related to athletics drew the most fire from its critics on the [House Judiciary] committee.
School sports are actually not mentioned in the Equality Act, nor does it amend Title IX, which outlaws discrimination in education on the basis of sex. But the bill would change other existing civil rights laws governing educational settings. And that would provide a legal basis for transgender students to make the claim in court that they have a right to compete on teams that match their gender identity.
Despite this, conservative legislators primarily targeted trans athletes in their opposition to the Equality Act during its 2019 House Judiciary hearing, mirroring tactics from right-wing media and anti-LGBTQ groups, which have used trans athletes for years to oppose almost any progress toward LGBTQ equality and to distract from important issues facing the community, like high rates of violence and employment discrimination.
For example, after the Supreme Court decided in June 2020 that existing law protects LGBTQ people from employment discrimination, Fox News anchor Shannon Bream -- part of the network’s purported “news” side -- quoted baseless claims that the decision could lead to the “eventual destruction of all-women’s sports” and “an end to female-only sports.” The ruling, which decided that it is unconstitutional for employers to fire people for their sexuality or gender identity, had nothing to do with sports.
A different episode of Bream’s show in May 2019 featured right-wing radio host Eric Metaxas, who called the Equality Act “madness” and blatantly miscategorized the bill, saying it requires “telling women you have to compete in high school against huge men that are deluded into thinking that they are women.” Similarly, an episode of Fox’s The Ingraham Angle that month featured right-wing activist Doreen Denny, who lied that the Equality Act means “any biological man at any time” could declare he is a woman and race “against women, winning the trophies, winning the medals, possibly getting the scholarships.”
On the same day that Vice President Kamala Harris became the Democratic nominee for the role, The Daily Caller posted an article titled “Kamala Harris Co-Sponsored Bill That Would Force Schools To Let Male Athletes Compete In Girls’ Sports,” which earned more than 146,000 Facebook interactions according to data from CrowdTangle. The same outlet attacked Democratic lawmakers for sponsoring the bill in a May 2019 article, “Democrats Unanimous As House Passes Bill Forcing Schools To Let Male Athletes Compete In Girls’ Sports,” that earned over 2.6 million interactions.
Additionally, extreme anti-LGBTQ group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) lawyer Kristen Waggoner has claimed the Equality Act would deny “women fair competition in sports,” and the Heritage Foundation, which once hosted a panel advocating against trans athletes, said it would “devastate” and “ruin women’s sports.” The American Principles Project (APP) attacked Democratic candidates during the 2020 election in a series of paid political Facebook ads fearmongering about the Equality Act, claiming that it would “destroy girls’ sports.” In just over a week after the ads started to run, Facebook earned nearly $25,000 from them, and they earned more than 1 million impressions. Facebook labeled and removed some of the ads but then allowed APP to run similar ads a short time later for Georgia’s Senate runoff election.
The right is misinforming that the bill would result in young trans children making “irreversible” medical decisions
Right-wing media obsessively fearmonger and spread disinformation about best practice medical care for trans youth, including in their attacks on the Equality Act. Right-wing content about trans kids’ health care often earns high engagement and skews the public's understanding of the issue. In fact, a Media Matters study of Facebook content about trans topics earning at least 100,000 interactions during a one-year time period found that 12% of that content was right-leaning sources writing about medical care for trans youth. That content earned a total of 8.31 million Facebook interactions.
While right-wing media outlets falsely claim that trans kids are undergoing dangerous, life-altering procedures, gender-affirming health care for trans youth is widely supported by medical professionals and yields long-term mental health benefits. Furthermore, young trans and gender-diverse children are not undergoing treatments or surgery until they are older -- rather, as social work professor Katherine Kuvalanka told The Washington Post, “The only interventions for young children is affirmation and acceptance for who they are.”
Additionally, the Equality Act does not change or even address professional guidance on the care of transgender youth, nor does it prohibit parents from making medical decisions for their kids. What the bill would do is explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity in any medical care facility or service and any health insurance that involves federal funds, including Medicare and Medicaid.
Despite this, anti-LGBTQ groups and media have made these familiar attacks on gender-affirming care to oppose the Equality Act. American Principles Project’s Facebook ads against the bill also targeted best practice medical care for trans youth, lying that Democrats support “gender change treatments for minors” that also include “transgender surgeries.” It also falsely claimed affirming trans kids’ identities is “very dangerous and irreversible.” PolitiFact fact-checked the APP ads and determined that while Joe Biden “has stated opposition to discrimination against transgender people, he has not said he supports sex changes for children.”
Similarly, the Heritage Foundation falsely claimed both in a blog and on its media outlet The Daily Signal that “The Equality Act would require medical professionals to perform irreversible gender-transition procedures on minors, regardless of conscientious objection or best medical judgment.” In another blog post, the group claimed that parents “who resist” seeking affirming medical care for trans kids “could face charges of child abuse and lose custody of their children.” Heritage’s Emily Kao wrote in The Washington Examiner that the Equality Act “would sexualize your kids,” falsely said most trans kids grow out of their gender identity, and lamented that bill could prohibit the harmful and discredited practice of conversion therapy.
The Daily Wire published an article about Biden’s support for trans youth -- which earned almost 120,000 Facebook interactions -- that quoted conservative commentator Allie Beth Stuckey: “Parents—Joe Biden & the Dems’ radical stance on young children deciding upon gender transition will come at the expense of your care and authority as parents. Under the Equality Act & a packed SCOTUS, you can kiss parental rights goodbye.”
Additionally, The Hill ran an op-ed opposing the Equality Act by anti-trans Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-MO) which claimed that the bill places “children at risk of medical experimentation and bleak futures when they are given the ‘right’ to hormone blockers and sex change operations.” It also lied that “doctors will be forced to perform double mastectomies on healthy 13-year-old girls” and that parents would have to put their children through “life altering surgical procedures” if the Equality Act is passed. (Once more, children are not undergoing gender-affirmation surgeries.)
The right is claiming that trans people accessing public accommodations will endanger women’s privacy and safety
The right has spent years peddling the debunked myth that sexual predators will exploit nondiscrimination laws -- including the Equality Act, which prohibits discrimination in public accommodations -- to pretend to be transgender in order to sneak into women's restrooms and harm them. Right-wing figures have adapted this myth and claimed that allowing trans people in spaces that align with their gender identity is a threat to women's “privacy” and “safety” ; even nonaligned media falls prey to this dubious framing.
This myth has been pervasive in anti-trans discourse for years, even though law enforcement officials, school districts and universities, and sexual assault and domestic violence prevention experts have found that sexual assaults stemming from trans-inclusive nondiscrimination laws are “not even remotely” a problem.
Furthermore, women’s groups and advocates agree that the Equality Act would safeguard a variety of nondiscrimination protections for women and does not pose a threat to them. Freedom For All Americans noted in a fact check of the bill that nondiscrimination protections do not allow harassment in women’s spaces, which remains a crime:
It’s already expressly illegal under federal law to engage in criminal activity in a public space, and the Equality Act doesn’t change that. That’s why advocates for women, like the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence and the National Women’s Law Center, support the Equality Act.
Nevertheless, the Heritage Foundation has published commentary repeating these same debunked myths to attack the bill, and its media outlet, The Daily Signal, claimed that the Equality Act “would force all schools and businesses to open their women’s bathrooms, locker rooms, showers, and sports teams to boys who ‘identify as’ girls and to men who ‘identify as’ women.”
ADF has made similar claims, publishing a blog post that said, “If passed, the ‘Equality Act’ would violate women’s and girls’ privacy, safety, and dignity by opening sex-specific facilities to members of the opposite sex,” and ADF’s Waggoner has said the bill “would undermine women’s equality and force women and girls to share private, intimate spaces with men who identify as female.”
Right-wing media has pushed these same lies about the Equality Act, including Fox News, The Federalist, RealClearPolitics, and anti-trans author Abigail Shrier, who claimed the bill “sacrifices female safety in restrooms, locker rooms and even domestic-violence shelters.” Additionally, in an episode of The Ingraham Angle, Concerned Women for America’s Doreen Denny dubiously claimed that the Equality Act would allow men to say, “If today I feel feminine, yeah, I am going into the women's dressing room and just insist I am a woman.”
The right is portraying the bill as a threat to religious freedom
For years, right-wing figures have argued in favor of discrimination against LGBTQ people by saying that laws protecting “religious freedom” give people a license to discriminate if they claim it is in accordance with their beliefs. This includes denying services, employment, public accommodations, and even health care to LGBTQ people and others -- all of which would be prohibited under the Equality Act.
This is part of a longstanding strategy in which the right attempts to create a false dichotomy between people of faith and the LGBTQ community to suggest that giving LGBTQ people more rights will result in the loss of rights for religious people. However, majorities of most faith groups support LGBTQ rights, and many faith leaders support the Equality Act and agree that religious freedom does not include the right to discriminate.
Despite this, anti-LGBTQ groups and media have used so-called “religious freedom” arguments in order to oppose the Equality Act. ADF has published a report claiming that it “poses a devastating and unprecedented threat to religious freedom,” and ADF’s Waggoner has made similar claims.
Extreme anti-LGBTQ group Family Research Council (FRC) released a report and organized a coalition letter from right-wing evangelical groups to argue that the Equality Act is harmful to Christians, even claiming that “the pathway for the gospel would slowly be closed off” if it becomes law. Similarly, anti-LGBTQ group Liberty Counsel issued a press release saying the Equality Act “eviscerates freedom in general and religious freedom in particular.” Liberty Counsel President Mat Staver previously lied that the Equality Act would lower the age of consent and “open the door to pedophilia.” The Heritage Foundation’s Ryan T. Anderson and the American Family Association have also argued it is harmful to religious people.
Anti-LGBTQ outlet LifeSiteNews made similar claims, calling the bill “the biggest threat to religious freedom in US history,” and Fox News published a post that suggested the Equality Act is “antithetical” to Catholicism, earning more than 52,000 interactions on Facebook. Fox News also posted a five-minute segment online questioning whether the Equality Act was “the worst case scenario for religious freedom,” and an episode of the network’s The Ingraham Angle featured Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Ralph Reed, who called it “a dagger aimed at the heart of religious freedom in America.”
The right uses social media platforms to spread disinformation about the Equality Act to large audiences
As right-wing media perpetuates these false claims about the Equality Act, they are able to leverage social media platforms’ algorithms -- which advantage right-wing and anti-LGBTQ content -- and lax terms of service to spread disinformation and sway public opinion about the bill.
For years, anti-LGBTQ media and groups have successfully used social media to spread harmful disinformation about LGBTQ people, especially about trans issues. In fact, right-leaning content about trans issues consistently earns higher engagement on Facebook than left-leaning and nonideological content about trans issues, often having detrimental real-world implications for trans people.
The right's manipulation of the conversation around the Equality Act and protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination is particularly concerning as queer media outlets -- which have consistently provided strong and accurate coverage of these issues -- have folded and cut staff and as major news outlets often fail to adequately cover stories important to the community.
Congress is set to consider the Equality Act in the coming months, and with LGBTQ American’s equality, safety, and dignity on the line, media, and the public cannot afford to fall for years of right-wing media lies about it.