A Room Of Their Own: How Anti-Trans Feminists Are Complicit in Christian Right Anti-Trans Advocacy
Since 2016, anti-transgender feminist advocates in the US have used funding and fame from the Christian Right to undermine gains made towards justice for transgender people. After 40 years of activism, anti-trans feminists have now achieved greater political clout than ever as boosters in a larger network of anti-trans organizations and thought leaders. Stemming from feminist philosophers and theologians Mary Daly and Janice Raymond’s writings in the late 1970s, through the lesbian separatist movements of the 1980s, into the exclusionary politics of the Michigan Women’s Festival and other venues, anti-transgender feminist advocacy has long found a place in (white) women’s LGBTQ advocacy.
“We know that historically the feminist movement has not been inclusive of trans women,” said Bamby Salcedo, the President and CEO of the TransLatin@ Coalition. “Then, it was white trans women who were excluded. Now with the new era of the feminist movement, I know that people like myself, a Trans, Latina, immigrant, undocumented woman is not going to fit in it until they change their racists and exclusive oppresive practices.”
Today’s anti-trans feminist advocacy in the US can be traced to three factors. First, the persistence of anti-trans feminist activism in the United Kingdom; second, the rise of the Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF), an organization staffed by volunteers with extensive legal and journalistic backgrounds; and third, the willingness of WoLF to partner openly and directly with the Christian Right to an extent not seen before.
With funding from organizations like the Alliance Defending Freedom and a platform from right-wing media networks, WoLF, other organizations, and the individuals at the head of and behind these organizations have pushed strongly against laws and policies supporting transgender justice in the United States, and for laws that would restrict access to necessary programs and services for trans people.
This article examines in detail the advocacy efforts by anti-trans feminists in the United States over the past three years, from their in-depth legal work against Gavin Grimm’s right to use the bathroom to advocacy against trans student athletes during the COVID-19 shutdowns of 2020.
We found that, in general, anti-trans feminist voices are most impactful at the regulatory and administrative levels when their stories are used to justify the Christian Right’s anti-trans advocacy. In court, despite anti-trans feminists submitting briefs and holding rallies, their arguments are less persuasive, indicating that their influence is largely through reinforcement of Christian Right advocacy, but doesn’t stand up to legal scrutiny, even by more conservative judges. In short, anti-trans feminist advocacy is not effective by itself. But as a part of the larger network of anti-trans organizations and thought leaders, anti-trans feminism provides important support.
Students, Schools, and Sports
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia currently prohibit discrimination in schools on the basis of gender identity; eleven of these laws passed in the past decade. One consequence of the increase in protections for transgender students is the spotlight thrown on trans student-athletes. Partially due to the increase in visibility of transgender athletes at the scholastic and elite levels, and partially due to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the International Olympic Committe (IOC) establishing guidelines for participating transgender athletes, anti-transgender advocates turned their eyes towards sports in the latter half of the 2010s. And right-wing media assisted, with articles about particular trans athletes in major right-wing outlets earning nearly a million Facebook hits.
Then high school student Gavin Grimm filed suit against his school board in 2016 for its discriminatory policy requiring transgender students to use “alternative private” restroom facilities. Grimm was forced by his school to use a difficult-to-access, single-stall restroom rather than just using the boys’ rooms like everyone else. With the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Grimm sued his school district for violating the Fourteenth Amendment’s mandate of equal protection under the law, and Title IX’s prohibition of sex discrimination in schools. (Title IX is the federal law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex in schools receiving federal funding.) Grimm’s case was dismissed by the district court, which also denied him an injunction to stop the school from enforcing its policy.
Upon appeal to the Fourth Circuit, Grimm’s case was thrown into the national spotlight. In May of 2016, with support from advocates across the country, the Departments of Education and Justice issued a “Dear Colleague” letter to all school districts, instructing them on how best to interpret Title IX’s protections to support transgender stufents like Gavin Grimm.
The Departments treat a student’s gender identity as the student’s sex for purposes of Title IX and its implementing regulations. This means that a school must not treat a transgender student differently from the way it treats other students of the same gender identity.
In response to this guidance, the Women’s Liberation Front sued the Departments of Education and Justice, claiming to support a young student from New Mexico and her mother who were afraid that the student “will be compelled to share such facilities with people who are biologically male.” WoLF asked a federal court to enjoin the Dear Colleague letter and find it unconstitutional.
Leaked emails to WoLF’s supporters revealed that WoLF had received a one-time $15,000 donation from the Alliance Defending Freedom to support its suit against the Departments of Education and Justice.
WoLF’s suit pended while Gavin Grimm’s case won at the Fourth Circuit and he was granted an injunction stopping the school district from enforcing its discriminatory policy. The court did not seem persuaded by WoLF’s and others’ arguments that affirming Title IX’s protections against discrimination on the basis of gender identity would endanger female students, focusing instead on how the court should defer to the administrative guidance released by the Departments of Education and Justice. The school district appealed to the Supreme Court and arguments were set for early 2017.
The Women’s Liberation Front filed two briefs with the Supreme Court in support of the school district. First, in support of the district’s request for review, WoLF argued that while “Title IX protection extends to discrimination against people (including G.G.) because they do not conform to gender stereotypes, this Court should draw the line to ensure that those remedies are not expanded in a way that strips women and girls of the rights and protections Congress expressly gave them in Title IX.” (emphasis in original.)
When the Supreme Court agreed to review the case, WoLF submitted its second brief, this time in partnership with the Family Policy Alliance (FPA), a Christian Right legal shop which works in close partnership with Family Research Council and Focus on the Family.
Pro-family Christians and radical feminists may not agree about much, but they agree that redefining “sex” to mean “gender identity” is a truly fundamental shift in American law and society. It also strips women of their privacy, threatens their physical safety, undercuts the means by which women can achieve educational equality, and ultimately works to erase women’s very existence. It not only revokes the very rights and protections Congress enacted specifically to secure women’s access to education, but does so in order to extend Title IX to cover men claiming to be women. (emphasis in original.)
In the video announcing their partnership, Autumn Leva, policy director at Family Policy Alliance, sits in front of a wood-framed fireplace and smiles at the camera. “C’mon,” she says. “How wrong does something have to be for a Christian, pro-family organization and a radical feminist organization to oppose it together?”
Leva is referring to WoLF; her co-star in this video is Kara Dansky, an attorney and WoLF board member. “Yeah, I think we disagree on a lot of things,” Dansky says. “WoLF stands unapologetically for reproductive sovereignty, for gay rights, for marriage equality, and I think that our organizations disagree on those issues.” But, she continues, “On certain issues, such as gender identity, pornography, and prostitution, WoLF finds that the Left has pretty much sold out women…. We find that gender identity, pornography, and prostitution are all harmful to women and girls, and we stand up for women and girls, and to the extent that Family Policy Alliance also stands up for women and girls on these issues, we’ll work together.”
Right before the Trump inauguration in January 2017, WoLF sent another email to supporters sharing that the board had approved a commission with fundraising contractor Imperial Independent Media, run by activist Zachary Freedman. According to the email, money raised for WoLF by Imperial would be shared between WoLF and the contractor.
Right after Trump’s inauguration, and only a few weeks before the Supreme Court was to hear Grimm’s case, Trump-appointed Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rescinded the Title IX Dear Colleague letter to school districts. Without the letter as guidance, many schools were left confused as to their responsibilities under Title IX. DeVos’s policies and politics have been a clear signal from and to White Evangelical voters that they have an agent at the head of the Department of Education.
And with the guidance rescinded, the Supreme Court declined to hear Grimm’s case, remanding it back to the Fourth Circuit for rehearing. WoLF and FPA co-authored another brief and will likely offer yet another brief opposing trans justice when the case rises to the Fourth Circuit again in summer / fall 2020.
(As an aside, Stuart Kyle Duncan, one of the attorneys who represented Virginia’s Gloucester County School Board against Gavin Grimm was appointed by Trump to serve as a judge on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Judge Duncan was then instrumental in the Fifth Circuit’s holding against the abortion providers in June Medical Services v Russo. In June 2020, the Supreme Court overturned the Fifth Circuit in June Medical Services, finding that a state requirement that doctors have admitting privileges to a nearby hospital is unconstitutional.)
While Gavin Grimm’s case has been percolating through the courts, WoLF has been active in other litigation throughout the country, to equally little effect:
- WoLF filed a brief in Adams v. The School Board of St. Johns County, Florida in support of the School Board, against a student who was being denied access to the boys’ restroom at his school. The school board appealed the District Court’s holding that equal educational activity includes access to bathrooms. A decision from the Eleventh Circuit is expected some time in 2020.
- WoLF also filed an amicus brief in Doe v. Boyertown, urging the Supreme Court to hear the case of a group of cisgender students who were suing their Pennsylvania school district for its trans-inclusive nondiscrimination policy. Once again, WoLF’s brief placed the organization on the same side as the ultra-conservative policy advocacy organization that Phillis Schlafly founded off the back of her STOP ERA win, the Eagle Forum, the anti-LGBTQ Institute for Faith and Family, anti-trans pediatrician Miriam Grossman, conservative former-secretary-of-education-turned-talk-show-host Bill Bennett, the Christian Educators Association, four constitutional law professors, and anti-trans activist Walt Heyer. The Supreme Court declined to take this case on appeal, meaning the Pennsylvania school district’s nondiscrimination policy still stands.
Simultaneously, the Christian Right, with the support of WoLF and other anti-trans feminist groups, has relied on their allies in the Executive Branch to promulgate federal regulations to narrow the application of civil rights laws when they can’t win in court.
In June of 2020, Pride Month, no less, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) both released rules that roll back protections for transgender people. Dominionist HUD Secretary Ben Carson issued a rule that permits HUD-funded shelters to discriminate against trans people when determining whom to serve. And HHS took an enormous step back when it finalized a rule that would permit health care providers to discriminate against patients on the basis of their gender identity. This change had been long promised by former Heritage Foundation staffer Roger Servino, now with the HHS Office of Civil Rights.
In 2019, the Alliance Defending Freedom filed a formal complaint against the State of Connecticut and its athletic associations, claiming that the state’s trans-inclusive nondiscrimination policy discriminated against cisgender female athletes in violation of Title IX. In early 2020, that complaint became a federal lawsuit.
WoLF submitted a letter in support of the cisgender students’ original complaint, a short two and a half pages that succinctly encapsulate their arguments against justice, equality, access, health, and safety for transgender people, while simultaneously dehumanizing and misgendering trans athletes at the heart of the case:
- “By allowing high school boys to compete on high school girls’ teams, Title IX institutions are ignoring the unambiguously-expressed intent of Congress to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex under Title IX and the Constitution.”
- “The word “sex” refers to the material and objectively-verifiable distinction between male and female. Sex is recorded (not “assigned”) at birth by qualified medical professionals, and it is an exceedingly accurate categorization: an infant’s sex is easily identifiable based on external genitalia and other factors in 99.982% of all cases; the miniscule fraction of individuals who have “intersex” characteristics are also either male or female; in vanishingly rare cases individuals are born with such a mix of characteristics that it is difficult to characterize—but they still do not constitute a third reproductive class.”
- “In stark contrast to sex, “gender” and “gender identity” refer to stereotypical roles, personalities, behavioral traits, and clothing fashions that are culturally associated with men and women, respectively. There is no credible support for the argument that “gender identity” is innate or has any biological basis, or that every human being has a “gender identity.” “Gender identity” is simply a belief system that seeks to categorize people not by sex but by the degree to which they conform or identify with sex-stereotypes.”
In February 2020, the ACLU filed a motion to support the trans athletes at the center of the case, and in March, the Trump Administration filed a brief in support of the cisgender students’ position aginst trans inclusion. And in May, the DeVos-led Department of Education held that the state’s nondiscrimination policies violate Title IX as the administration currently interprets it.
This departmental holding is not a court decision on the constitutionality of Title IX’s protections aginst discrimination on the basis of gender identity. And in fact, the Supreme Court’s ruling on Title VII is far more indicative of how a court will eventually rule on Title IX, but certainly an agency holding is influential on judges’ decisions.
Simultaneous with the Connecticut sports cases, 18 states and Congress have filed legislation that would restrict transgender student athletes from playing openly on the team that matched their gender identity. Idaho is the only state in which such a bill passed into law, and it is now being challenged by the ACLU. (Media Matters analyzed right-wing media coverage of the Idaho law, proposing that anti-trans right-wing media coverage contributed substantially to its passage.)
The Women’s Liberation Front submitted written testimony in support of the proposed bill in New Hampshire, and testified orally in support of proposed legislation in South Dakota that would have prohibited doctors or parents from providing their children with life-saving trans-affirming health care. According to the Washington Post, Rep. Fred Deutsch, the South Dakota conservative who sponsored the legislation, reached out to WoLF’s Natasha Chart on Twitter. Deutsch had attended a Heritage Foundation event at which Chart was speaking (one of four anti-trans panels Heritage hosted in 2019), and “later asked both Chart and [Kara] Dansky to testify in support of his bill in a House committee hearing. And when the bill faced a vote on the full House floor a week later, Deutsch invoked Dansky, referring to her as a “lifelong Democrat and former ACLU lawyer” who “came to testify for a Republican.”
WoLF’s testimony in New Hampshire revealed the weakness in their arguments regarding the presumed physical superiority of athletes assigned male at birth.
Second, even if men and boys did not have a physiological advantage of women and girls in sports, WoLF would maintain that women and girls should have the right, as a matter of principle, to say no to men and boys in female spaces for any reason and at any time. Women and girls should not be forced to share space or have physical contact with men and boys in sports, including locker rooms and changing rooms.
In early 2020, a number of groups published a report specifically condemning trans-affirming care for youth and instructing parents on how to advocate against trans-affirming practices and policies in their children’s schools. The organizations behind the report include the Heritage Foundation, the Family Policy Alliance, two organizations of gender-critical parents, and the Women’s Liberation Front. The American College of Pediatricians, a fringe, Evangelical-funded group of anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ doctors, was thanked prominently for “contributing their expertise to the medical content.”
The Violence Against Women Act
The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) provides the largest single source of funding for violence prevention and survivor support programs across the country. In 2013, the Act’s reauthorization included provisions that protected against discrimination on the bases of gender identity and sexual orientation, over the protests of the anti-LGBT right. In March of 2019, when the Act was up once again for reauthorization, House Republicans called Women’s Liberation Front member Julia Beck to testify against VAWA’s continued funding.
Beck has no expertise in violence prevention, survivor support, data analysis, or legislative advocacy. Her claim for qualification as a witness against federal legislation was her removal from the Baltimore City LGBTQ Commission Committee on Law and Policy for her anti-transgender advocacy. (Beck had spoken at the Heritage Foundation about her removal from the Committee and was featured on Tucker Carlson to share her story.)
During the VAWA reauthorization hearing, Republicans of the subcommittee gave Beck the space and time to share her baseless, often violently explicit anti-transgender views, without interrogation or foundation. “When “gender identity” wins, women and girls always lose,” said Beck, dispite clear evidence that 20 states currently prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity in places of public accommodation, without an increase in incidents or accidents related to those laws.
In the ensuing committee report, House Republicans cited Beck’s testimony to justify their opposition to the bill.
Ms. Julia Beck, the Republican witness at the Committee’s March 7, 2019 hearing on VAWA reauthorization, stated, ‘‘Violence against women is a non-partisan issue, but ending violence against women requires bipartisan energy. ’’We agree, which is why we are concerned that H.R. 1585 further politicizes VAWA.
H.R. 1585 further expands language related to ‘‘gender identity’’ from the 2013 reauthorization. As Ms. Julia Beck stated, ‘‘Another unfortunate outcome of the 2013 reauthorization of VAWA is the dissolution of all sex-based protection for women and girls through the introduction of ‘gender identity.’’’ H.R. 1585 continues that trend and carries it further.
The bill passed the House. The Senate has not yet heard a vote on the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.
The Equality Act
In April 2019, House Republicans called back self-proclaimed “radical lesbian feminist” Julia Beck as one of two Republican witness against the Equality Act, legislation that would update U.S. civil rights legislation to reflect what federal courts and state laws have been saying for decades: federal law prohibits discrimination on the bases of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Beck’s testimony was shocking, even compared to her testimony against the Violence Against Women Act:
Male rapists will go to women’s prisons and will likely assault female inmates, as has already happened in the U.K. Female survivors of rape will be unable to contest male presence in women’s shelters. Men will dominate women’s sports. Girls who would have taken first place will be denied scholastic opportunity. Women who use male pronouns to talk about men may be arrested, fined, and banned from social media platforms. Girls will stay home from school when they have their periods to avoid harassment by boys in mixed-sex toilets. Girls and women will no longer have a right to ask for female medical staff or intimate care providers, including elderly or disabled women who are at serious risk of sexual abuse. Female security officers will no longer have the right to refuse pat-down or intimate searches of males who say they are female, and women undergoing security checks will no longer have the right to refuse having those searches performed by men claiming a feminine identity.
Beck, and the Republicans who called her as a witness, were using a rhetorical technique called the Gish Gallop. The term is named after creationist Duane Gish, who would argue for creationism with a barrage of arguments, regardless of their veracity or provability, with the express intention of forcing his opponents to take time to address each of his absurd claims, diverting the focus from the real conversation.
On the floor of the full House, during the debate before passage of the bill, Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-AZ) repeated Beck’s conspiracy theories:
Madam Speaker, H.R. 5, the so-called Equality Act, should really be called the “Forfeiting Women’s Rights Act.”
According to multiple experts, lawyers, and organizations, H.R. 5 would indeed prohibit, in all circumstances, under penalty of Federal law, any acknowledgement of the reality of biological sex; would allow anyone at any time to declare that he or she identifies as the opposite sex, without any medical or psychological diagnosis.
It would erase women and girls’ rights by requiring facilities, such as schools, churches, dormitories, domestic violence shelters, homeless shelters, to allow biological males who identify as women in women’s bathrooms, women’s and girls’ shelters, women’s and girls’ showers, and in women’s locker rooms.
This will indeed violate women’s privacy and can ultimately violate their safety.
The danger to women when biological men seek to claim female identity should seem obvious, but it is being ignored by proponents of this bill.
Other members of Congress rose to testify against the Equality Act on the grounds that it would undermine women’s and girls participation in sports.
Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) quoted directly to Beck’s testimony.
H.R. 5, in the words of the Women’s Liberation Front leader, nullifies “women and girls as a coherent legal category, worthy of civil rights protection.” It would endanger millions of American women and undermine fundamental American rights to faith in both religion and science, and actively put children at risk by medicalizing them in harmful and permanent ways without parental involvement.
The Equality Act passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 236 to 173, with 23 members abstaining. Eight Republicans joined their Democratic colleagues in supporting the bill.
Senate Republicans have refused repeated attempts to bring the companion legislation to a vote on the Senate floor. In June 2020, Senator James Lankford (R-OK), cited J.K. Rowling’s screed against justice for transgender people in order to explain his reluctance.
To say it in the words of J.K. Rowling this past week where she wrote, ‘‘All I’m asking—all I want—is for similar empathy, similar under-standing, to be extended to the many millions of women whose sole crime is wanting their concerns to be heard without receiving threats and abuse.’’
Three other Senators cited athletics as their justification for blocking the needed legislation.
During the official legislative actions on the Equality Act, Women’s Liberation Front members were also very active in Evangelical-Right front-facing actions. In January of 2018, Julia Beck and Jennifer Chavez from WoLF joined anti-trans lecturer Hasci Hovarth on stage at the Heritage Foundation with Ryan T. Anderson to talk about the dangers of the Equality Act. At another Heritage Foundation panel in April 2018, WoLF’s partnership with Concerned Women for America was raised as an example of bipartisan opposition to the Equality Act. In May, Kara Dansky joined Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo), at a press conference in opposition to the Equality Act. And in October of 2018, Women’s Liberation Front attended yet another summit at the Heritage Foundation, co-hosted by the Family Policy Alliance. And WoLF, Concerned Women for America, and sister anti-trans feminst group Hands Across the Aisle authored an “Impact Summary” of the Equality Act, claiming that “This bill will end sports programs and scholarships set aside for women and girls.”
Harris Funeral Homes
Just as the federal prohibition of discrimination in schools is under attack from anti-transgender advocates, so too is the federal prohibition of discrimination in employment. Aimee Stephens represented transgender people across the United States when she sued her employer Harris Funeral Homes for firing her when she came out to them as transgender. The ACLU represented her in her suit, with Alliance Defending Freedom representing her former employer in their pursuit of a legal right to discriminate against transgender employees.
Stephens’ case, with its high-powered legal representation on both sides, and its wide-ranging potential implications, attracted attention from across the country. Nearly fifty amicus briefs were submitted to the Supreme Court in support of Aimee Stephens (and the other two employees whose cases were consolidated with hers). And over forty in support of the employers who wished to retain the ability to discriminate against their workers.†
The Women’s Liberation Front filed a brief in support of Harris Funeral Homes, arguing “If, as a matter of law, anyone can be a woman, then no one is a woman, and sex-based protections in the law have no meaning whatsoever. The ruling below effectively repeals the sex-based protections in Title VII – a ruling that Congress surely did not intend.”
On the day of the oral arguments in the consolidated cases that included Aimee Stephens’, the Women’s Liberation Front held a rally outside of the Supreme Court—a rally they co-organized with Concerned Women for America (CWA). According to their own website, CWA “protects and promotes Biblical values and Constitutional principles through prayer, education, and advocacy.” And listed in their Statement of Faith is that they “believe marriage is between one man and one woman, that sexual activity outside of that marriage is sin, and that God created the human race male and female” and that “life begins at conception and is to be protected from conception to natural death.” As in their partnership with the Family Policy Alliance, WoLF must have had to deeply compromise their values in order to partner with CWA. Multiple members of WoLF identify as lesbians, and the organization “fights for fast-disappearing abortion training for medical students.”
WoLF’s and CWA’s statements were strikingly different in their rhetoric, but each emphasized a danger they said women and girls would face if the Court held for Aimee Stephens’ right to work without fear of discrimination.
The rally itself became a showcase for anti-trans rhetoric writ-large. The mother of one of the cisegender girls from Connecticut spoke. Sarah Perry, Director of Partnerships at Family Research Council, repeated conspiracy theories about transgender people harming children with autism.
† Aimee Stephen’s case against Harris Funeral Homes was decided on by the Supreme Court on June 15, 2020 as part of a consolidated case Bostock v. Clayton County, GA. The Supreme Court ruled that Title VIII, the federal law prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of sex (and other characteristics like race and color), should be interpreted to include sexual orientation and gender identity under the definition of “sex.”
Over the past two years of legislative, regulatory, and litigation activity, the impact of anti-trans feminist advocacy has become clear: the Women’s Liberation Front is a useful mouthpiece of the larger Christian Right anti-transgender advocacy machine, a mouthpiece that might catch the ear of people not used to listening to the Christian right, like JK Rowling, or Hillary Clinton.
Mallory Moore is a trans activist and advocate in the United Kingdom. She told PRA that “the recent trans controversy has a much different character to long running previous tensions between radical feminists and trans activists. While we have always had these tensions (as inter feminist and LGBT civil rights rivalry), over the last 4 years they are suddenly recruiting large numbers of ‘concerned parents,’ seem to have large amounts of money to run meetings all over the country, and both propaganda and political connections with overseas religious conservatives as part of an international anti ‘gender’ network.”
In their bid to reach as many Americans (and, frankly, people) as they can, the Christian Right is used to picking up any tool they can find. And right now, anti-trans feminists are proving themselves to be the perfect tool to access those hard to reach places.