Tucker Carlson hosted a coalition of anti-trans advocates from the evangelical right and a fake feminist group
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ADF allies had positions of influence in Congress, federal agencies, state and federal courts, city and state governments, and local school boards — and we only know a fraction of its network
This is the second part of a two-part investigation into ADF's network of allies in the government. Read the first part here and click here for Media Matters’ database of more than 100 ADF allied attorneys, Blackstone Legal Fellows, and current and former staff who held a government position in 2018.
In 2018, extreme anti-LGBTQ group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) had allies in more than 100 positions throughout local, state, and federal government, according to a Media Matters analysis of a fraction of its network of thousands of lawyers.
ADF allies in government have positions in multiple federal agencies, the U.S. Congress, state legislatures, school boards, city councils, and even federal courts. For years, ADF said it would work to “reclaim our nation’s judicial system” and advance its right-wing, anti-LGBTQ legal agenda through its staff and allies, including a vast allied attorney network, its Blackstone Legal Fellowship, and other training programs for conservative Christians interested or working in the legal profession.
ADF has a troubling lack of transparency about its network of attorneys, which is particularly concerning given that so many of its allies hold influential positions in the government. To shed some light on ADF’s government influence, Media Matters has identified over 100 former ADF employees, allied attorneys, or participants in its Blackstone Legal Fellowship who held government positions in 2018. They likely represent only a fraction of the total number, as ADF claims to have thousands of allies in its networks whose associations with the group are difficult or impossible to track down.
Media Matters determined each individual’s ADF affiliation based on news reporting, ADF’s website and press releases, archived ADF newsletters, self-reporting on LinkedIn or in professional bios, university materials and pamphlets, and other publicly available sources. This research also benefited from the Rewire.News database of over 100 ADF Blackstone Legal Fellowship alumni. Media Matters has previously identified over 50 ADF alumni who served as government officials in 2017, and in February, we reported nearly 300 allied attorneys that ADF identified in dozens of press releases and other posts on its website.
ADF has allies working in state or local government positions in more than 25 different states and across the federal government, including the judiciary. Below is a selection of notable ADF allies from our database who hold several types of positions in government.
The Trump-Pence administration has enacted many of its worst anti-LGBTQ policies through federal agencies. For example, the Department of Health and Human Services has implemented policies making it easier for health care workers to refuse care to LGBTQ people based on religious beliefs; the Department of Defense has barred transgender service members from serving; and the Department of Education has rolled back guidance protecting transgender students, just to name a few. All of these departments employ ADF allies who may be able to affect and interpret LGBTQ-related policy changes.
Several ADF allies have notable positions in federal agencies:
Kerri Kupec, former ADF legal counsel and director of communications, serves as director of the Office of Public Affairs at the U.S. Department of Justice, where she has defended the Trump-Pence administration’s policy of prohibiting transgender people from serving in the military. While at ADF, Kupec praised the current administration for rescinding the Obama administration’s guidance for trans-inclusive school facilities. Kupec held several positions in the DOJ Office of Public Affairs before becoming its director. She also served as a White House spokesperson helping with confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. During that time, the White House briefed ADF President Michael Farris with private information about the FBI investigation into reports that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted professor Christine Blasey Ford while they were in high school.
Former ADF senior legal counsel Matt Bowman currently works as deputy general counsel for the Department of Health and Human Services, which has notably been employing prominent right-wing religious activists under the Trump-Pence administration. The department started a conscience and religious freedom division and recently finalized a “Protecting Statutory Conscience Rights in Health Care” rule, both of which make it easier for health care providers to deny services to LGBTQ people, among others. In fact, Bowman reportedly helped craft HHS regulations rolling back the Obama administration’s mandate requiring health insurance plans to cover birth control under the Affordable Care Act. While at ADF, Bowman represented the anti-abortion group March for Life in a 2014 lawsuit against the Obama-era mandate. Also during that time, Bowman wrote an op-ed arguing that the Obama administration’s LGBTQ-inclusive HHS regulations posed an “urgent threat against the rights of many Christian and pro-life institutions and individuals regarding their beliefs about the sanctity of human life and sexuality.”
The Trump-Pence administration has nominated at least seven ADF allies for federal judgeships, and several federal courts include ADF allies as law clerks. ADF-affiliated judges are part of the Trump administration’s broader effort to “reshape the American judicial system” by filling the courts with conservative judges.
Five federal judicial nominees with ties to ADF have been confirmed under the Trump-Pence administration:
Allison Jones Rushing was confirmed to the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in March 2019 even after LGBTQ and civil rights groups highlighted her previous internship with ADF. In her Senate Judiciary Committee nomination questionnaire, Rushing also noted her participation in speaking engagements for ADF as recently as 2017.
Allied attorney Kyle Duncan on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit. Prior to his judicial appointment, Duncan was involved in several LGBTQ-related cases, including “defending Louisiana’s ban on same-sex marriage” and representing a Virginia school board in its case against a transgender high school student who wanted access to facilities that aligned with his gender identity.
Former Blackstone fellow Joseph Toth serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. His presence could impact LGBTQ veterans -- particularly transgender veterans who already face difficulty accessing necessary medical benefits -- now that the Trump-Pence administration has recently implemented its ban on transgender service members.
Jeremy Kernodle serves as a federal judge for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas after he was confirmed in 2018. Kernodle identified himself as an ADF allied attorney during the confirmation process but later asserted that he was not aware of his listing as an allied attorney until he began preparing for his nomination.
The 2017 federal judicial nomination of ADF allied attorney Jeff Mateer was withdrawn after some of his extreme anti-LGBTQ comments were uncovered. He remains the first assistant attorney general in Texas. ADF allied attorney and former ADF senior counsel Thomas Marcelle is still awaiting Senate confirmation after his January re-nomination.
Outside of federal courts, there are also at least two state Supreme Court justices with ADF connections:
Blackstone Legal Fellow Brian Hagedorn was elected to the Wisconsin Supreme Court in April after previously serving on the state’s Court of Appeals. Hagedorn has an extensive history of anti-LGBTQ positions, such as arguing that “the idea that homosexual behavior is different than bestiality as a constitutional matter is unjustifiable. There is no right in our Constitution to have sex with whoever or whatever you want in the privacy of your own home (or barn).”
There were at least seven ADF-affiliated lawmakers in the U.S. Congress and state legislatures in 2018:
In Congress, allied attorney and former ADF lawyer Mike Johnson represents the 4th District of Louisiana in the U.S. House of Representatives. Johnson was previously a state representative and sponsored a religious exemptions bill that would have made it easier to discriminate against LGBTQ people.
Arizona's J.D. Mesnard is concurrently working as both a state senator and a regional director for ADF’s Church Alliance. As part of the Church Alliance, Mesnard has to agree to ADF’s statement of faith which includes rejecting transgender people, same-sex relations, and sex outside of marriage. Prior to becoming a state senator in 2019, Mesnard served as a state representative for eight years, including two years as speaker of the House. While speaker, Mesnard released a workplace harassment policy for the state House that did not include protections for LGBTQ representatives.
Former senior counsel and allied attorney Steve O’Ban serves as a Washington state senator, a position he has held since 2013. ADF’s website noted that his time on staff there overlapped for several years with his time as a legislator. As a state senator, O’Ban voted against a bill protecting LGBTQ youth from the harmful and discredited practice of conversion therapy. In 2016, while both serving as a state senator and working for ADF, O’Ban sued the U.S. Department of Education on behalf of a school district that did not want to implement trans-inclusive facilities. He also argued in favor of suspending the Iowa Civil Rights Act for including protections based on gender identity.
ADF allied attorney Matt Shea has served as Washington state representative for over a decade, and he touts his ties to ADF in both his campaign and government biographies. Shea is also a co-founder of the Washington Family Foundation, which is an anti-LGBTQ organization that later merged with the Family Policy Institute of Washington. The group is affiliated with the Family Policy Alliance and extreme anti-LGBTQ group Family Research Council. During his 2018 reelection campaign, Shea acknowledged that “he had distributed a four-page manifesto titled ‘Biblical Basis for War,’” which included violent language about people who flout “biblical law,” stating, “If they do not yield - kill all males.” It also condemned abortion and same-sex marriage. As a state representative, Shea has voted against multiple bills promoting LGBTQ equality, and he sponsored several anti-LGBTQ bills, including one defining marriage as between a man and a woman and another that would limit access for transgender people to facilities consistent with their gender identity. His extreme views expand beyond anti-LGBTQ rhetoric; Shea also has a history of working with anti-Muslim and militia groups.
The mandate of a state attorney general varies by state, but they are generally considered the state’s top legal official and “advise and represent their legislature and state agencies and act as the ‘People’s Lawyer’ for the citizens.”
ADF has at least two allied attorneys serving as state attorneys general:
Alaska Attorney General Kevin Clarkson has been tied to ADF for more than two decades, attending its first training program in 1997 and ultimately providing ADF with more than 10,000 hours of pro bono service. Notably, Clarkson served as local counsel alongside ADF in an ongoing case in Alaska regarding a women’s homeless shelter that denied entry to a transgender woman. He withdrew from the case the day after being appointed to his current position. As attorney general, Clarkson has broad powers to advise the governor and represent the state in legal matters, “including the furnishing of written legal opinions to the governor, the legislature, and all state officers and departments,” which can include supporting and defending anti-LGBTQ bills. In a 2019 interview with Clarkson, ADF wrote that he "remains committed to ADF ideals" as attorney general.
Montana Attorney General Timothy Fox is also an ADF allied attorney. Fox worked alongside ADF as local counsel on behalf of a church that was accused of violating state election law after congregants signed petitions for an amendment to the state constitution limiting the definition of marriage between a man and woman. Fox has used his office to fight against LGBTQ rights such as same-sex marriage and trans-inclusive facilities.
Many states appoint solicitors general to oversee “the appellate operation in state attorney general offices.” State solicitors general can oversee the “preparation of legal opinions and appellate litigation,” determine whether the state should write or join amicus briefs, and even argue before the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of their state, as ADF ally and Montana Solicitor General Dale Schowengerdt has done.
ADF affiliates served as solicitors general in Montana and Nevada in 2018:
Former ADF senior counsel Dale Schowengerdt serves alongside state Attorney General Tim Fox as Montana’s solicitor general. As senior counsel for ADF, Schowengerdt was involved in several anti-LGBTQ cases, including representing a florist who refused to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding and a church that promoted an anti-LGBTQ ballot initiative. Schowengerdt has also repeatedly advocated against same-sex marriage.
Lawrence VanDyke, who served as Nevada’s solicitor general from January 2015 through January 2019, is a former allied attorney and Blackstone Legal Fellow. In 2014, VanDyke lost his election for Montana Supreme Court justice despite financial support from anti-LGBTQ group the Family Research Council, ADF allied attorney and president of the Liberty Institute Kelly Shackelford, Blackstone Legal Fellow and current Texas Deputy Attorney General for Legal Counsel Ryan Bangert, ADF attorney Gary McCaleb, and current HHS Office of Civil Rights Director Roger Severino. VanDyke is now a deputy assistant attorney general for the U.S. Department of Justice.
In addition to these positions, ADF affiliates also staff attorneys general offices in states across the country, including Alaska, Arizona, Montana, Nevada, and Texas. In fact, there are four ADF affiliates in both the Arizona and Texas attorneys general offices:
ADF allies Evan Daniels, Joseph La Rue, Angelina Nguyen, and Esther Winne all work in Arizona’s attorney general office. The office has submitted briefs in support of ADF clients Jack Phillips, Breanna Koski, and Joanna Duka in cases working to overturn LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination policies.
ADF allies David Hacker, Heather Hacker, Jeff Mateer, and Austin Nimocks all worked in Texas’ attorney general office in 2018, though Nimocks has since left. Additionally, ADF Blackstone Fellow Ryan Bangert moved from the Missouri attorney general office to the Texas attorney general office in January 2019. The office has supported Texas’ anti-LGBTQ “bathroom bill,” which would have required transgender people in the state “to use bathrooms in public schools, government buildings and public universities” that do not align with their gender identity. It also joined 10 other states in suing the Obama administration over guidelines protecting trans students, and it filed legal briefs in support of the Trump-Pence administration’s discriminatory position against trans-inclusive bathroom policies. The office also submitted an amicus brief in support of ADF’s client Phillips alongside Arizona and several other states.
Additional research by Brennan Suen and Rebecca Damante.
ADF’s network of allied attorneys and Blackstone Legal Fellows affects policy at all levels of government
Update (5/20/19): On May 20, Media Matters published the second installment of this two-part investigation into ADF's network of allies in the government. The additional report includes a database of more than 100 ADF allied attorneys, Blackstone Legal Fellows, and current and former staff who held government positions at the local, state, and federal levels in 2018. The full database can be found here
Extreme anti-LGBTQ group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) is stunningly opaque about its large network of affiliated lawyers, what positions of influence they hold, and what beliefs they must agree to in order to be officially tied to the group.
ADF's lack of transparency is multifaceted. For one, many members in its network do not publicize their relationship with the organization. Additionally, on several occasions, ADF has claimed affiliations with individual attorneys or officials who have disputed their ties, or removed references to affiliations with individual attorneys or officials following reports that exposed those connections.
Through its Blackstone Legal Fellowship and allied attorney program, the number of ADF affiliated lawyers could be as high as 5,000 -- and many of those attorneys also have influential positions in government, ranging from local school boards to federal agencies. This legal network is one of the key tools in ADF’s arsenal that allows it to affect policies that impact LGBTQ people across the country, but journalists and the public have very little information about it.
ADF is one of the largest and most influential anti-LGBTQ groups in the world, and it takes extreme positions on nearly every aspect of LGBTQ equality. The group has supported Russia’s so-called “gay propaganda” law, defended the discredited and dangerous practice of conversion therapy, advocated against adoption and foster care by LGBTQ people, and supported policies that ban trans people from using facilities that align with their gender identity, as well as dozens of other positions that are dangerous to LGBTQ people.
ADF uses its revenue of more than $50 million per year to advance its mission of “advocating for religious liberty, the sanctity of life, and marriage and family” through direct litigation, grant funding for other cases, and legal training programs. Since its founding in 1994, ADF has played a role in over 50 Supreme Court decisions, including cases regarding abortion and LGBTQ issues.
In the last few years, ADF has been involved in several high profile court cases in which it argued in favor of legal discrimination against LGBTQ people. Last June, the Supreme Court narrowly ruled in favor of ADF client Jack Phillips, a baker who refused to serve a gay couple, in the Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case. The Supreme Court has taken on another ADF case for its upcoming term, R.G. and G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which could determine whether civil rights protections in employment extend to LGBTQ employees.
Outside of its own staff and litigation, ADF seeks to influence the legal landscape by providing funding and training opportunities to create a large network of lawyers sympathetic to ADF’s mission. ADF’s Blackstone Legal Fellowship has been around since 2000, and the group reports that it “has trained more than 2,100 law students from more than 225 law schools in 21 different countries.” ADF has written that the program seeks to train Christian law students “who will rise to positions of influence as legal scholars, litigators, judges, and perhaps even Supreme Court justices.”
The Blackstone fellowship is a nine-week summer program that includes three weeks of training seminars and six weeks in legal internships, including in government entities. ADF says that “those selected to become ‘Fellows’” at the end of the program “receive ongoing training, resources, and support through an international community,” and the group boasts that its alumni “are serving on law reviews, securing clerkships, joining major firms, working in the government and nonprofit sectors, and accepting positions in academia and the judiciary.”
ADF spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on its fellowship program; in 2019, expenses per person include $6,300 in scholarship funding, several flights, lodging, and weeks of meals for its interns. But as a result, the organization reaps the benefits of fostering a large network of potentially influential conservative lawyers at the onset of their careers. ADF has additional training programs for young legal professionals or students and recent graduates “on a path to future leadership in law, government, business, and public policy.”
In addition to its training programs for law students and new attorneys, ADF has created what it calls a “powerful global network” of over 3,300 “allied attorneys.” Attorneys in the network receive opportunities for funding, access to ADF’s legal resources, and additional training programs; in return, allied attorneys provide pro bono service to ADF, such as litigation, amicus briefs, media work, “legal services to churches & religious non-profits,” and “research assistance, legal advice, and drafting of bills for legislators, policy makers, administrative agencies, etc. relating to religious liberty, sanctity of life, and marriage & family.”
ADF can activate these allied attorneys when it learns about LGBTQ-related events to quickly get involved in cases down to the local level. In turn, these attorneys can also alert ADF to LGBTQ-related matters in their localities and bring the force of a national group to their backyards. ADF has written that it “depends upon its network of attorneys and others to bring appropriate matters to our attention.”
ADF notes that its allied attorneys must agree to a statement of faith as part of their application. In the past, ADF’s FAQ page about the program linked directly to an 11-point statement on its website that opposes trans identities and same-sex marriage and lumps in “homosexual behavior” and “acting upon any disagreement with one’s biological sex” with bestiality and incest as “forms of sexual immorality” that are “sinful and offensive to God.” However, after a detailed report on the program and its influence by Sarah Posner in The Nation, ADF said that allied attorneys “do not have to agree to the same statement of faith as employees” and removed links to the statement.
ADF specifically encourages government attorneys to join the allied attorney program. On its FAQ, ADF notes that government attorneys who are “prohibited from doing private pro bono litigation” can instead provide ADF with “legal research, educational presentations, or other types of work related to Alliance Defending Freedom mission areas.”
Between its allied attorneys and Blackstone fellows, ADF has a network of legal allies that reach across the globe and hold an unknown number of U.S. government positions.
ADF is extremely opaque about its programs and has worked to keep details about them from the public, such as removing mentions of its allied attorneys’ statement of faith after The Nation’s investigation. It also does not release a comprehensive list of people who participate in its programs, and many of its participants and alumni do not publicly identify their relationship with ADF. A noncomprehensive Media Matters review of allied attorneys mentioned on ADF’s website found only 300 of its reported 3,300 members, many of whom were mentioned on pages that are now archived. Additionally, it is unclear whether allied attorneys remain counted in the network for life, or whether the 3,300 number includes former allied attorneys, some of whom could have cut their official ties with the group with no public record. The number of allied attorneys could thus be larger than the 3,300 claimed by ADF.
Additionally, it seems that some participants in these programs are unaware of their status as allied attorneys or may have avoided publicizing it during judicial nomination processes. For example, confirmed federal Judge Jeremy Kernodle submitted answers to the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary during his nomination stating that he served as an allied attorney with ADF on a 2017 case. But in a later questionnaire, he asserted that he “did not apply or request to be an ‘allied attorney’ with ADF” and first “discovered that ADF had listed [him] as an ‘allied attorney’” when he began preparing responses to the questionnaire for his nomination. Kernodle continued that he only worked with ADF on one case and was “not certain when” he first became an allied attorney.
Another now-confirmed federal judge, Kyle Duncan, reported participating in several speaking engagements for ADF but did not report his status as an allied attorney in his nomination questionnaire or in follow-up questions to the Senate Judiciary Committee. ADF, however, previously documented his affiliation as an allied attorney while Duncan served in the Louisiana Department of Justice.
Other reporting discrepancies further underscore the opacity surrounding ADF’s networks. Posner’s report in The Nation identified Noel Francisco, the Trump-Pence administration's solicitor general, as an ADF allied attorney, citing two different ADF press releases explicitly stating that Francisco is one of “more than 3,000 private attorneys allied with ADF.” After publication, however, ADF “contacted The Nation, claiming that Francisco has never been an allied attorney.” According to the attached editor’s note, ADF called the press releases “our mistake” and claimed that its “media dept. got it wrong.” ADF promptly rewrote its press releases but did not issue corrections on either of them.
In another instance, Media Matters identified an attorney at a major law firm as an allied attorney based on another ADF press release, but his law firm reached out to say that was incorrect and due to a typo in the ADF press release that named him as such.
Though ADF makes it clear that government employees can join its allied attorney program, it does not publicly specify which positions might make participants ineligible to remain in the network. However, it does appear that judges may have to cut ties with the group. For example, after Jamie Anderson was appointed as a county judge in Minnesota, ADF wrote that she will “no longer participate as an Allied Attorney for obvious reasons.” Additionally, Steve Christopher’s LinkedIn profile says that he stopped being an ADF allied attorney in March 2013, the same month he became a judge in Hardin County, Ohio.
Between its Blackstone Legal Fellowship and allied attorney program, ADF’s network could include more than 5,000 lawyers. A 2017 Media Matters review of just a few hundred of those attorneys found that at least 55 had government positions, and the number in 2018 was at least twice that.
In addition to its role in promoting anti-LGBTQ policies through the courts, ADF also directly shapes legislation at the state level, such as anti-trans “bathroom bills” and sweeping religious exemptions laws that make it easier to discriminate against LGBTQ people. Its allies sit in federal agencies and on federal courts, among other influential places, and have countless ways to affect policy. Many journalists do not have the information they need to draw the connections between these decision makers and the national group driving much of the anti-LGBTQ policies in the country.
In Wisconsin, journalists and advocates have published several articles about a state Supreme Court justice-elect who received thousands of dollars for speeches to ADF and was a Blackstone Legal Fellow. Journalists, policymakers, and the public need to know about ADF’s network of allies in government in order to ask them how these associations affect their decision making and whether they stand by the extreme anti-LGBTQ beliefs of the group. Understanding ADF’s programs and network is crucial to knowing the full scope of its influence on LGBTQ-related policies at every level of governance.
This is the first part of a two-part investigation into ADF's network of allies in the government.
Additional research by Brennan Suen
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AFA runs a right-wing evangelical media apparatus that includes a website and radio network and has endorsed dangerous anti-LGBTQ positions
Extreme anti-LGBTQ group the American Family Association claimed to have met with “senior executives” at Walmart to discuss its objections to the company’s Valentine’s Day advertisement that featured two men going on a blind first date at a Walmart.
On May 9, AFA announced that “senior executives with AFA met with senior executives at Walmart where our objections to the video ad were strongly and respectfully articulated.” AFA wrote that it “shared our plea that Walmart remain neutral on the promotion of homosexuality,” asserting that it had a “forthright and engaging discussion about the matter.”
AFA launched a petition urging Walmart to remove the advertisement in February, complaining that it “normalizes homosexual relationships.” AFA dubiously claimed that the petition garnered “over 190,000 signers.” However, reporter Nico Lang noted that the petition was “likely bogus,” as it contained no security or verification measures. Lang wrote that users were able to sign the petition an unlimited amount of times using “transparently counterfeit” emails and “from the same IP address while using the same web browser.” Despite the questionable authenticity of its petition, Right Wing Watch’s Jared Holt reported on April 3 that AFA had secured the meeting with a representative for Walmart CEO Doug McMillon.
In addition to its anti-LGBTQ advocacy work, AFA also runs a substantial right-wing evangelical media apparatus. It uses its American Family Radio network (AFR) and news website OneNewsNow to push extreme anti-LGBTQ narratives and misinformation to various types of audiences. Posts on its news website have claimed that Texas legislation would “ban Christianity” and pushed the debunked “bathroom predator” myth, which have received significant engagement from their audience.
On AFR’s Janet Mefferd Live, host Janet Mefferd has linked homosexuality to child sexual abuse, suggested that LGBTQ-inclusive Christianity will destroy churches, and advocated for the harmful and discredited practice of conversion therapy. On AFR’s Focal Point, former AFA spokesperson and host Bryan Fischer has condemned gay men to hell, claimed that gays were responsible for the Nazi Party, and said that “any practitioners of any other religion other than Christianity,” such as Muslim and Jewish people, “do not have First Amendment rights.”
In 2013, AFA endorsed Russia’s anti-LGBTQ “gay propaganda” law, which “effectively legalizes discrimination based on sexual orientation” and led to an increase in homophobic rhetoric and violence in the country. The group has also said that “gay sex is a form of domestic terrorism.”
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Panelists included “trans-exclusionary radical feminists” and anti-trans medical professionals who pushed flawed research and advocated for conversion therapy
The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that has railed against LGBTQ equality for decades, hosted its fourth anti-transgender panel of the year on April 8. Each of the four panels focused on a different aspect of trans equality, such as comprehensive nondiscrimination measures, affirming medical care for transgender youth, trans inclusion in international policy, and trans participation in athletics. The panels also featured biased anti-trans figures -- whom Heritage characterized as subject experts -- who pushed right-wing narratives about transgender people.
Heritage’s surge in anti-transgender events and its increased attempts to shape public discourse about trans rights come at a strategic time as Congress considers expanding federal civil rights laws to include critical protections for trans folks. The Equality Act, introduced on March 13, would add “gender identity” and “sexual orientation” to existing nondiscrimination protections in “employment, housing, public accomodations,” and other areas. The measure was quickly met with opposition and fearmongering from extreme anti-LGBTQ groups and right-wing media. Heritage’s panels echoed many of the anti-trans talking points pushed by these groups and outlets.
On January 28, the vehemently anti-LGBTQ activist Ryan T. Anderson hosted so-called "trans-exclusionary radical feminists" (TERFs) and self-proclaimed liberals in a panel focused on railing against the inclusion of gender identity in the Equality Act. TERFs refer to themselves as “gender-critical” or “radical feminists”; they generally do not associate themselves with the term TERFs, but they are anti-trans activists who have historically opposed trans-inclusive measures and denied trans identities.
One of the panelists, adjunct lecturer at the University of California, San Francisco Hacsi Horvath, says he formerly identified as transgender. During the panel, he encouraged the audience to misgender trans folks -- an act that is considered harassment and that can stigmatize trans people, lower their self-esteem, and erase and invalidate their identities.
Another panelist, Julia Beck, appeared on Fox’s Tucker Carlson Tonight after participating in the Heritage panel and pushed the same anti-trans points about the Equality Act. Beck was removed from Baltimore’s LGBTQ Commission in 2018 after other members became aware of her anti-trans animus.
The two other panelists, Kara Dansky and Jennifer Chavez, are board members of the TERF organization Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF), which has supported the clients of extreme anti-LGBTQ group Alliance Defending Freedom in an ongoing court case that seeks to dismantle a trans-inclusive policy at a Pennsylvania high school.
On March 20, Heritage co-hosted another anti-trans panel: a “side event” with the Permanent Observer Mission to the Holy See at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). The U.N. CSW is “the principal global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women.” During the panel, participants claimed that “gender ideology” -- a “theory drummed up by hard-right religious activists, who present it as a gay- and feminist-led movement out to upend the traditional family and the natural order of society” -- is a threat to women’s rights around the world.
One panelist, Dr. Monique Robles, who brought a veneer of credibility to the panel as a medical doctor who focuses on pediatric care, pushed the unvalidated hypothesis of rapid-onset gender dysphoria (ROGD). The theory posits that trans teens are coming out as such due to “social contagion,” and a study promoting the concept was reevaluated and corrected following complaints about its research and methodology. The correction noted that the study only “serves to develop hypotheses” and that the concept has not been validated. Robles also seemingly praised the discredited and harmful practice of conversion therapy, remarking:
A better treatment option would be to address the underlying mental health issues and concerns that are likely leading to these children in adolescence to identify as transgender or gender diverse. There are therapists who are taking on the role as compassionate companions and are spending time with their patients and their parents working through histories, experiences, and addressing the whole of the individual. In this form of therapy, the body, mind, and soul can be brought together in a unified manner in which they were created.
Panelist Emilie Kao, director of Heritage's Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion & Civil Society, argued that including “gender identity” in international policy and in U.N. resolutions is a threat to the progress of women’s equality. She said, “If the word ‘woman’ can be redefined to mean everyone, then it will change or even erase the true meaning of woman in international human rights law, in economic development efforts, and in efforts to increase access to social protection systems.” Framing transgender rights as at odds with women’s rights is a tactic conservatives have increasingly employed that also mirrors talking points from TERFs.
Heritage’s Anderson continued that trend, also claiming trans rights are detriments to women's equality, safety, and privacy. Another panelist, Mary Rice Hasson, a fellow at the Catholic Women’s Forum, echoed these sentiments and claimed that affirming trans identities has a “dehumanizing effect on women, where women are no longer acknowledged as persons” and that “the result is that real women are being displaced.”
On March 28, Anderson hosted a third anti-trans panel, titled "The Medical Harms of Hormonal and Surgical Interventions for Gender Dysphoric Children,” featuring medical professionals who used flawed research to fearmonger about and attack trans-affirming medical care. These claims are in direct opposition to the positions of leading medical associations such as the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, and the American Psychiatric Association, which "agree that gender-affirming care are the most effective treatment for gender dysphoria,” according to CNN.
During the panel, “ex-trans” activist Walt Heyer, a darling of anti-LGBTQ groups and right-wing media, railed against affirming trans identities, calling it “child abuse,” “destructive,” and “damaging.” He also encouraged the use of conversion therapy for transgender people.
Other panelists included Dr. Michael K. Laidlaw, a vocal anti-trans advocate who has also been featured in right-wing outlets, and a mother of a trans child who wished to remain anonymous, who they called “Elaine.” Elaine is also a member of a new anti-trans advocacy group for parents of trans children called The Kelsey Coalition. During the panel, Elaine criticized laws that protect LGBTQ youth from conversion therapy, and Laidlaw advocated against the use of puberty blockers, calling them “a chemical conversion therapy.” Puberty blockers “are medicines that prevent puberty from happening” in order to help transgender youths’ bodies “better reflect who [they] are.” Studies have shown that they are effective and safe and recommend their use on transgender youth who decide to use them with the help of medical providers.
For its fourth anti-trans panel in 2019, Heritage co-hosted an event on April 8 with anti-LGBTQ group Concerned Women For America, which seeks to “bring Biblical principles into all levels of public policy.” The panel advocated against allowing trans athletes to compete in gender-segregated sports that align with their gender identity. Heritage’s Kao hosted the panel, opening by reciting a quote that the Equality Act would be “the end of women’s sports.”
The panel began with a video featuring panelist Bianca Stanescu’s daughter, a student athlete who lost a track meet that made headlines when two trans athletes earned top prizes. Right-wing media, including Fox News’ Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson, have touted this story as a reason to not allow transgender athletes to compete in gender-segregated sports. Media Matters’ Parker Molloy previously wrote about how figures like Carlson regularly seize on local stories like this to fuel the identity politics-driven culture war, and Heritage has similarly focused on this rare incident (transgender athletes are not dominating sports on a wide scale) to justify widespread discrimination.
Another panelist, National Review’s Madeleine Kearns, repeatedly misgendered trans athletes and showed pictures of trans athletes before and after affirming medical care to fearmonger about their physical abilities. There is ongoing debate on the standards for trans inclusion in athletics, much of which is led by the International Olympic Committee. In 2016, the IOC updated guidelines on transgender athletes, leaving “no restriction for a trans man … to compete against men” and removing “the need for women to undergo gender-reassignment surgery to compete.” IOC has several restrictions for transgender women to compete in the Olympics, including demonstrating a certain level of testosterone for at least one year, and it is continuing to fund research into this area. As Outsports noted, “Despite the guidelines, no publicly out trans athlete has competed in the Olympics. Ever.” This stands in contrast to right-wing claims that trans athletes are dominating their field due to competitive advantages.
A third panelist, Jennifer S. Bryson, is the founder of a sports advocacy organization called Let All Play that argues against pride jerseys celebrating LGBTQ Pride Month on sports teams. Bryson criticized the pride jerseys issued by the U.S. Soccer Federation and said requiring players to wear the jerseys was “a form of coerced speech requiring players to wear a political symbol.” She went on to call transgender people “a threat to soccer itself for girls and women,” adding that “the U.S. Soccer Federation should not require players to wear a symbol of a movement that is trying to harm soccer.”
Additionally, Concerned Women for America’s Doreen Denny announced during the panel that the organization has partnered with TERF group WoLF to lobby against the Equality Act even though they “disagree on many things.” Denny also misgendered trans athletes during the panel and at one point corrected herself to intentionally misgender a female athlete after using the correct pronoun the first time, saying, “She has taken -- he, excuse me.”
Heritage’s panels are just one aspect of its work against trans equality. Heritage’s Anderson organized an anti-trans conference reportedly attended by 250 attendees at the Franciscan University of Steubenville from April 4 to 5. The conference was called “Transgender Moment: A Natural Law Response to Gender Ideology,” and it focused on so-called “corruption and flawed science driving an increase in gender ‘transitioning’ and ‘reassignments’” and compared transgender equality to the dystopian novel 1984.
Additionally, Heritage’s Monica Burke penned an April 10 anti-trans op-ed for the Chicago Tribune, and the group’s work this year has been consistently picked up and parroted by several right-wing and evangelical media outlets. And though mainstream and queer outlets have written about Heritage’s January 28 TERF panel, the right-wing has dominated coverage of the rest of the anti-trans panels.
Despite its record, Heritage somehow enjoys some mainstream credibility. Earlier this month, Google disbanded its Artificial Intelligence ethics board after “little over a week” because it selected Heritage President Kay Coles James as one of its board members. Google employees and others protested her inclusion because of her and Heritage’s positions against trans equality.
Though the Heritage Foundation’s practice of hosting anti-trans advocates and pushing anti-trans narratives is not new, the frequency and breadth of its events this year are alarming. Heritage’s attempt to shape public discourse on the Equality Act and the transgender community is another example of the right’s attempt to position trans rights as counter to those of women and to fracture the LGBTQ movement by excluding trans folks from it. Such groups deploy a similar "divide and conquer" strategy to create a false dichotomy between people of faith and LGBTQ rights, despite the fact that most faith groups support LGBTQ inclusion.
Black Maternal Health Week spotlights a dire health disparity in the United States
During the second annual Black Maternal Health Week, media outlets at the state and national level ought to take notice of the growing racial health disparity in the United States that has gone under-reported for far too long.
According to an investigation by USA Today, America is the “most dangerous place to give birth in the developed world.” Even worse, as an April 2018 fact sheet from National Partnership for Women & Families noted, “black women are three to four times more likely to experience a pregnancy-related death” compared to their white counterparts, regardless of education or wealth. Although media have occasionally highlighted this issue in the context of celebrities’ birth experiences, Black maternal mortality is a serious issue deserving of broader coverage year-round.
Here's what media needs to know about Black Maternal Health Week and the Black maternal health crisis in the United States:
Black Maternal Health Week (April 11-17) was first launched in 2018 and is led by the Black Mamas Matters Alliance to raise awareness of the status of Black maternal health in the United States. The Black Mamas Matter Alliance was established in 2013 as part of “a partnership project between the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) and SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective.”
These organizations produced and submitted a collaborative report to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination that focused primarily on Southern Black women’s experiences attempting to access quality maternal health care -- experiences which often resulted in poor maternal health outcomes and persistent racial health disparities. For example, the report noted that between 1990 and 2013, the rate of maternal mortality in the United States more than doubled, and it highlighted that in some parts of the country, “the rate of maternal death for women of color exceeds that of Sub-Saharan Africa.”
Approximately 4 million women in the U.S. give birth each year, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported in 2017 that the rate of "severe maternal morbidity ... has been steadily increasing in recent years and affected more than 50,000 women in the United States in 2014.” Severe maternal morbidity impacts include enduring dangerous, traumatic, life-threatening complications that can leave people wounded, financially devastated, and for some, without the ability to bear more children. The CDC has estimated that roughly 700 women die each year as a result of pregnancy or childbirth complications, with Black women bearing the brunt of those maternal deaths. To illustrate the impact of this vast racial health disparity, a 2017 ProPublica investigation found that a Black woman “is 22 percent more likely to die from heart disease than a white woman, ... but 243 percent more likely to die from pregnancy- or childbirth-related causes.”
How do media typically cover Black maternal health?
Although the severity of America’s Black maternal health crisis is deserving of far broader coverage, the topic often only breaks through in the context of celebrity birth experiences. For example, in 2018 two high-profile stories involving Serena Williams and Beyoncé exemplified the dire circumstances of the Black maternal health crisis, underscoring that even prominent and traditionally successful Black women are not immune from its impacts.
Speaking to CNN, Williams brought attention to the racial health disparity by sharing her birth experience, stating that she nearly died in childbirth. Williams highlighted the disparities in access to care for Black women and stressed that, “every mother, everywhere, regardless of race or background deserves to have a healthy pregnancy and birth.” In Vogue's September 2018 issue Beyoncé candidly shared the story of her own dangerous birthing experience. As she explained, “I was 218 pounds the day I gave birth to Rumi and Sir. I was swollen from toxemia and had been on bed rest for over a month. My health and my babies’ health were in danger, so I had an emergency C-section.”
Williams’ and Beyoncé’s experiences further demonstrated that when it comes to America’s worsening Black maternal mortality crisis, no amount of wealth or status can protect a Black woman from experiencing dangerous and potentially fatal childbirth conditions.
Although celebrity experiences more consistently generate media coverage, there have been instances in which stories about Black women’s birthing experiences or stories surrounding the status of Black maternal health break through. In March 2019, USA Today published an investigation of maternal deaths at Touro Infirmary in New Orleans -- a facility which was branded as one of the most dangerous hospitals for Black women in the area to experience labor. According to USA Today, Touro Infirmary was one of 120 hospitals across the country where mothers suffered severe childbirth complications or death at far higher rates than other U.S. hospitals. In response to the piece, the hospital blamed its area’s “medically vulnerable” population, citing, “Lifestyle diseases, the high cost of healthcare, delaying or non-compliance with medical treatment, limited care coordination, poor health, high rates of poverty and high rates of morbidity are all realities of our State and community.” As USA Today noted, this was a particularly troubling response given that “a majority of women who deliver at Touro are black.” Beyond highlighting dire health conditions -- which are unfortunately representative of many Black women’s childbirth experiences -- USA Today’s report also exemplifies the importance of listening to Black women and allowing them the space to share their personal maternal health experiences.
In 2018, USA Today highlighted the experience of YoLanda Mention, who tragically died following childbirth as a result of hospital and emergency room staff ignoring numerous “warning signs." After giving birth, she was discharged despite having dangerously high blood pressure that only increased once she returned home. When a severe headache landed Mention in the emergency room 15 hours after she was initially discharged, she was forced to wait for hours and ultimately left unattended until suffering a stroke. As USA Today concluded, this negligence is all too common:
YoLanda didn’t die from some unforeseen childbirth complication. What killed her didn’t take any expensive, high-tech equipment to detect and treat. Just a blood pressure cuff, IV medication that costs less than $60 a dose and a hospital adhering to best safety practices.
In a 2018 congressional hearing on maternal mortality, Charles Johnson testified about his wife Kira -- who he said, “just wasn’t in good health, she was in exceptional health” -- and her death due to complications that were ignored after childbirth. Kira Johnson gave birth to their son Langston at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, a hospital well-known for its superior medical care. But her reports of pain in her abdomen post-cesarean delivery were ignored, as were her husband’s repeated requests for a CT scan to assess the problem. Hospital staff reportedly told Johnson that his “wife just isn’t a priority right now” and instead waited “more than 10 hours” after delivery before they finally examined her and found “three and a half liters of blood in her abdomen.” She was ultimately unable to recover from so much internal bleeding. Although tragic, Kira Johnson’s story received local and national attention, highlighting the importance of giving narratives like Johnson’s a platform to bring visibility to those impacted by the Black maternal mortality crisis.
According to reporting from Austin, TX, television station KXAN, “Black women in Texas are at the greatest risk” of dying as a result of childbirth or related complications, “an alarming rate … on par with developing countries.” The station shared the experience of Cheryl Perkins, who watched as her daughter Cassaundra Perkins became progressively more sick after giving birth to twins via emergency caesarean. As KXAN explained, “An autopsy revealed that doctors left behind pieces of placenta after surgery, causing a deadly infection.” Both state and national news outlets covered Perkins’ case to demonstrate Texas’ Black maternal mortality crisis. After becoming aware of Perkins’ death, Democratic Texas state Rep. Shawn Thierry announced that she would introduce legislation to direct attention to the state’s disparate rates of Black maternal mortality.
Each of these examples from media outlets amplifies the experiences of Black women who suffer as a result of disparate maternal health care in the United States. Black maternal mortality should be a story year-round, but during Black Maternal Health Week, it is especially important for media to center and highlight the lived experiences of Black women when discussing maternal mortality. With the founding of a new Black Maternal Health Caucus in the House, media have yet another opportunity to cover this topic. Black women are at the forefront of this specific health crisis, and it would be a disservice for the media not to center their voices during Black Maternal Health Week.
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