As threats against trans people, particularly trans youth, and abortion access mount, anti-LGBTQ activists are adopting decades-old media tactics from the anti-abortion movement.
2022 has marked a drastic step backward for LGBTQ rights and reproductive health. From January 1 to July 1 of this year, an unprecedented 162 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced in state legislatures, setting a new record for legislation targeting LGBTQ Americans. Similarly, state legislatures have increasingly moved to restrict abortion care, with some even pushing restrictions before the Supreme Court officially overturned Roe v. Wade in June. Those efforts have added up to 54 abortion restrictions enacted this year alone as of September 15. In addition to these statehouse attacks, recent right-wing rhetoric against LGBTQ Americans and abortion care has grown especially virulent, driving threats against providers of both abortion services and gender-affirming care.
The quickly expanding anti-LGBTQ campaign is following the same well-worn strategy of the anti-abortion movement: pushing extremist talking points to right-wing media allies, exploiting “both sides” framing to gain sympathetic coverage from mainstream outlets, publicizing personal information about opponents, using graphic imagery and discredited pseudoscience to manipulate supporters, and targeting Planned Parenthood with smears and attacks.
The media playbook employed by abortion opponents since Roe was decided in 1973 has directly contributed to a hostile culture toward abortion providers and patients. A campaign of harassment and even deadly violence culminated in Roe’s reversal, at the expense of millions who lost necessary health care. As anti-LGBTQ groups mimic these media tactics in their efforts to steamroll trans rights, right-wing and mainstream outlets are creating a more hostile environment for queer Americans, minimizing threats against the community and further emboldening anti-LGBTQ extremists.
Tactic: Pushing extremist rhetoric through right-wing media allies
Anti-abortion movement: Prime-time host Bill O’Reilly tormented abortion providers during his reign on Fox, amplifying violent rhetoric and publicly naming providers. Most notably, O’Reilly frequently targeted Dr. George Tiller for his work providing late-term abortions and repeatedly referred to him as “Tiller the baby killer.” O’Reilly’s obsession with Tiller spanned 29 segments over four years, with the host warning of Tiller’s impending “judgment day” and ominously stating, “If I could get my hands on Tiller — well, you know. Can't be vigilantes. Can't do that. It's just a figure of speech.” Tiller was assassinated in 2009 by an anti-abortion extremist, and O’Reilly continued to deny using extreme language to smear the murdered doctor up through 2015.
Anti-LGBTQ extremists: Tucker Carlson, Fox News’ most watched evening host and arguably the face of the cable network, has recently led the network’s campaign against trans people, regularly lobbing attacks against gender-affirming care. In one segment, Carlson lauded a group that launched a harassment campaign against a children’s hospital providing care for trans youth. In another instance, Carlson’s evening program lingered on a graphic of the names and photos of board members at a hospital that provides gender-affirming care to trans youth, calling out each board member by name moments after dismissing threats against them. Matt Walsh, a podcaster for The Daily Wire, further contributed to the scare campaign, demonizing LGBTQ health care and later falsely pinning blame on the left after a hospital he targeted received a bomb threat.
Tactic: Courting sympathetic coverage from mainstream national outlets
Anti-abortion movement: Before the Supreme Court reversed Roe, mainstream outlets had long treated reproductive health as a political football, trivializing the issue and embracing “both sides” framing in covering abortion extremism. For years, major national outlets parroted anti-choice talking points, amplifying harmful messaging as abortion rights became increasingly endangered. More recently, outlets such as The Washington Post have repeatedly lionized anti-abortion activism by giving its leaders flashy profiles and other uncritical coverage. Even with the national right to abortion overturned, national outlets are continuing to adopt conservative framing as millions are left scrambling for health care.
Anti-LGBTQ extremists: Anti-LGBTQ activists have also taken to mainstream outlets to spread transphobia on an even wider scale. Major TV news outlets have failed to adequately cover the legislative onslaught of bills targeting queer Americans. For instance, when an extreme anti-trans bill was introduced in Alabama, mainstream TV ignored the story, picking it up only after the legislation had passed and giving a friendly platform to the bill’s proponents. Mainstream print outlets have also promoted misinformation about gender-affirming care, further normalizing anti-trans rhetoric.
Tactic: Publicizing personal information about adversaries
Anti-abortion movement: In the 1990s, anti-abortion extremists developed an online resource known as the Nuremberg Files, distributing the personal information of over 200 abortion providers and publicizing their photos, addresses, and family members. According to Cosmopolitan, “When Dr. Barnett Slepian, an abortion provider in Buffalo, New York, was assassinated in 1998, the Nuremberg Files drew a line through his name.” Local Right to Life groups have continued the trend, publishing lists of abortion providers and their places of work and facilitating further harassment and threats. One doctor featured on a Right to Life website’s “Local Abortion Threat” list was recently forced to temporarily stop providing abortion care following a kidnapping threat made against her daughter.
Anti-LGBTQ extremists: Anti-LGBTQ extremists have launched aggressive harassment campaigns against schools, libraries, and children’s hospitals while publicly soliciting donations to sustain the momentum. Faced with these threats, hospitals providing lifesaving medical care for trans people are scrubbing their websites of valuable information to protect their patients and staff, creating barriers to access for individuals seeking gender-affirming care. Anti-trans activists also created an online database to target LGBTQ community centers, gender-affirming care clinics, and nonprofits, which was taken down from Google Maps following public outcry.
Tactic: Co-opting images for nefarious uses and promoting pseudoscience
Anti-abortion movement: In an effort to scare the public and stigmatize abortion care, anti-abortion activists have used manipulative graphic imagery and discredited studies. Anti-choice groups have often shared these unsettling images of “aborted fetuses” on social media without repercussion. Junk science has continued to spread post-Roe as anti-choice outlets rushed to discredit abortion medication and contraceptive drugs, both of which have drawn increased public interest as access to abortion clinics thins. Unscientific claims about faux fetal heartbeats have also been used to justify early-pregnancy abortion bans, despite medical consensus disputing them as “clinically inaccurate.”
Anti-LBGTQ extremists: In their attempts to delegitimize gender-affirming care, anti-LGBTQ figures are co-opting manipulative imagery and pushing junk science. Conservative media figure Matt Walsh promoted his anti-trans documentary by using a shirtless photo of a trans man without permission, leading the man depicted to ask Walsh to remove his images. Likewise, the anti-trans American Principles Project used images of top-surgery scars to baselessly fearmonger about the procedure’s safety. Deceptive pseudoscience has also been employed by right-wing media and think tanks to demonize gender-affirming care despite the reality that this care remarkably improves the mental health and well-being of trans and nonbinary youth.
Tactic: Vilifying Planned Parenthood
Anti-abortion movement: As the country’s largest provider of abortions, Planned Parenthood has experienced decades of right-wing attacks. For years, the bad-faith group Center for Medical Progress has falsely asserted that Planned Parenthood sells fetal body parts. Right-wing media have also long accused Planned Parenthood of institutional racism and supporting eugenics because the founder of the nonprofit’s parent organization, Margaret Sanger, rallied behind eugenics in the early 1900s -- even after Planned Parenthood publicly denounced Sanger.
Anti-LGBTQ extremists: Anti-LGBTQ activists launched a smear campaign against Planned Parenthood and its chain of nationwide medical clinics because of resources the nonprofit provides for LGBTQ individuals. Outlets such as The Federalist, Breitbart, and The Daily Wire have condemned Planned Parenthood’s options for gender-affirming care and LGBTQ support. Right-wing media have also pushed the unfounded narrative that Planned Parenthood is greedily providing gender-affirming services only for profit.