Hostile Takeover

How Big Money and Big Religion are Attacking Trans Youth in Louisiana

“Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the party… it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me… these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them.”

Barry Goldwater, 1964 Republican Presidential Nominee

Anyone who watches enough right-wing media knows it’s not uncommon to see the far-right frothing at the mouth about something; most often a half-imagined, half-exaggerated boogie-man. One of many over the past decade has been trans kids.

The animosity towards trans people runs adjacent to the parental rights movement, mostly because far-right propagandists like Christopher Rufo, the man who spread the anti-CRT (critical race theory), anti-LGBTQ fervor to Florida, have told parents that educators are trying to turn their kids gay or trans through what he referred to on The Megyn Kelly Show as “gender ideology.” According to Rufo’s film, The Transgender Empire: How the Trans Movement Conquered American Life, “Activist teachers have converted classrooms into propaganda” and “doctors are cutting up kids in the name of gender-affirming care.” Rufo works for the Manhattan Institute, an extremely conservative think tank.

These accusations are in line with the Louisiana state legislature’s recent anti-trans rhetoric. Louisiana’s House Bill No. 466, for example, bans mention or discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in all public school classes and extracurriculars, from kindergarten through 12th grade, and allows faculty to ignore a student’s preferred pronouns due to “religious or moral convictions.” According to The Louisiana Illuminator, Rep. Dodie Horton (R-Haughton) stated that HB466 was in response to what she said was a “growing trend.” Horton was also quoted elsewhere saying, “Unfortunately, some teachers are interjecting their own lifestyle choices into the classroom.” When asked, she could not state an instance of indoctrination occurring in Louisiana schools.

There were two more anti-trans bills outside of HB466 that were introduced in Louisiana’s 2023 Legislative Session: HB81, which allowed teachers and students to misgender students; and HB648 (previously HB463), which, according to Louisiana Trans Advocates, “would ban gender-affirming care for minors and would not allow exceptions for parents to give permission.” According to the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, trans people make up 0.5% of U.S. adults; 1.4% for ages 13 to 17; and 1.3% for those 18 to 24. Despite the small population, according to Axios, there’s been a 2,489% increase since 2015 in anti-trans legislation across the entire country, mostly propagated by a handful of outside groups.

What about the rights of trans youth and their parents? “They’re not referring to me as a parent… the reason I don’t make the cut is because I have a queer child,” Evette Randolph of Abita Springs told me. “I think they are talking about straight parents who view their children as property… I want what’s best for my child and that means him being able to be his best self.”

Randolph’s son’s name is Ezra. He is 17 and trans and dreams of being an animator one day. Randolph and Ezra live in St. Tammany Parish, a current battleground over books dealing with LGBTQ perspectives and issues. In response to the pro-censorship fervor, Ezra created a sign that said, “Ban hate, not books,” which featured a smiling cartoon child holding a book. Then in early April, St. Tammany’s fire department received three calls from motorists that something was on fire onside of Highway 59—Ezra’s sign. Randolph didn’t know it was burnt until around 7 the next morning, when her brother called and told her. This was devastating. In 2018, Randolph lost her son Magnum to spina bifida at 17 years-old, and a memorial sign was created in his honor. Magnum’s memorial sign was underneath Ezra’s sign, and it burned away along with it.

Groups accused Randolph of burning down her own sons’ signs. “There were a lot of false accusations and ugliness coming from the [St. Tammany Parish] Library Accountability [Project] and other people,” said Randolph. Accountability Project is a “parental rights” group, which has inspired more than 100 challenges against the St. Tammany library system, costing the system $400 per challenge, with dozens of challenges coming from Connie Phillips, one of the group’s organizers.

Months have passed since the arson and the slander that followed, but Randolph told me that the Accountability Project is still spreading misinformation. One comment left on Facebook by a woman named Brittany Kathleen Morettini stated, “What I don’t understand is why you people who promote and defend these agendas get so upset when good people fight against your propaganda and pornography… Move to NOLA and bask in the destruction your ideology creates. Why do you have to destroy other people’s children? …God help you all… we’re gonna fight this evil all the way.”

According to a Facebook post by Connie Phillips, Phillips emailed St. Tammany Library Director Kelly LaRocca a warning: “Tonight… I will be meeting discreetly with people who can affect change… we are going to have other laws that oversee your actions enacted after [Louisiana Attorney General] Jeff Landry is elected [Governor]… God always wins and if you underestimate me you do so at your own peril.” Phillips added, “I have God on my side.”

Photo: Angela Calonder

Benjamin Franklin High School students gather on March 31 outside of their school as part of a walk-out demonstration to protest anti-LGBTQ and anti-trans bills being introduced to the Louisiana State Legislature.

In mid-June, Donald Trump gave a speech at a rally in North Carolina, promising he would ban men from women’s sports. Afterwards, he remarked: “It’s amazing how strongly people feel about [trans people]… you see I’m talking about cutting taxes and people [mimics clapping unenthusiastically]… talk about transgender and everyone goes crazy.” He then added that just some years back, no one had ever heard of trans people.

Louisiana Rep. Mandie Landry (D-New Orleans) echoed these sentiments about some of her colleagues, stating that they “likely never heard of the term ‘transgender’ prior to a few years ago.” During one of the hearings, according to Gambit, Rep. Kenny Cox (D-Natchitoches) admitted he didn’t know what LGBT stood for.

This newfound hyper-awareness of trans people is funded in large part by powerful multimillion-dollar organizations. According to Axios, “the sudden flood of state-level efforts to restrict transgender rights is being fueled by many of the Christian and conservative groups that led the charge against Roe v. Wade” and they are “behind a multimillion-dollar effort targeting LGBTQ rights through ‘parents’ rights’ bills.” These groups include but are not limited to: Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the Family Research Council, Liberty Counsel, and the American Principles Project (APP). Another group is the Heritage Foundation, who wrote the legislation for recent voter suppression laws in Georgia. Mother Jones published leaked footage of one of their members bragging about it.

Former President Trump, when asked in 2016 how he felt about trans people using the bathrooms they identify with, said trans people should be able to use whatever bathroom they wanted. Around 2015, North Carolina’s state government introduced HB2, a bill banning trans people from using public restrooms that align with their identity. But North Carolina backtracked after the backlash from citizens and businesses cost the state an estimated $3.7 billion. Terry Schilling, the president of APP, told Time Magazine in 2022, “[Trans bathroom bans] was viewed as a losing issue… no one wanted to touch it.”

But things have changed. In 2022 Louisiana Rep. Gabe Firment (R-Pollock) introduced a bill banning gender-affirming care with support from Matt Sharp, a Georgia-based lawyer for ADF. Firment claimed that children were being subjected to reckless and unethical treatments, and claimed the “gender industry” was trying to turn kids trans. ADF is one of the most powerful and influential groups on the Religious Right, and one of their favorite targets is the LGBTQ community. One of ADF’s founders, Alan Sears, in his book, The Homosexual Agenda, accused “radical” homosexuals of attacking the church, and stated that they are “targeting children in public schools to accept, affirm, and be recruited into homosexual behavior.”

ADF was founded by 30 leaders of the Christian Right decades ago, as a legal advocacy group that often fights for “religious rights.” ADF rejects the notion that the founders meant for the church and state to remain separate, and according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, ADF’s goal is to eradicate that separation, and “graft its version of conservative Christianity onto the legal profession and the culture,” with its stated aim to “recover the robust Christendomic theology of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries.” They’ve trained 2,500 young lawyers, and their tendrils reach all the way to the halls of power in Washington DC and Baton Rouge. ADF’s most recent win before the Supreme Court was for 303 Creative, the case that ruled that it was OK for a web designer to not make a wedding website for a gay couple. The “gay couple” in question never existed, and the plaintiff, Lorie Smith, primarily makes websites for right-wing politicians, not weddings. But the Supreme Court ruled in her favor, setting precedent that people can discriminate against queer people on the grounds of religious freedom. According to The Guardian, ADF has been funding groups involved in efforts to ban books and abortion. Open Democracy states that ADF is part of a $280 million international network of Christian Right organizations spending money on influencing anti-LGBTQ policies in places like Africa, with ADF spending more than $21 million around the world since 2008. According to Mother Jones, ADF defended state-sanctioned sterilization of trans people in Europe.

John Bel Edwards vetoed the bill (HB648) ADF helped craft, along with the other two anti-trans measures (HB81 and HB466) proposed in Louisiana this year. In his veto letters, Edwards spoke of the cruelty and baseless reasons for them. He added that from 2017 to 2021, no children received surgical procedures in Louisiana; in 2021, 465 kids of nearly 800,000 enrolled in Medicaid were diagnosed with gender dysphoria; and 57 were considered candidates for puberty blockers or hormone replacement therapy. He noted that in 2021, only 12 providers statewide prescribed puberty blockers or hormone replacements.

In response to the vetoes, the legislators voted to have a veto override session. The Capitol was tense on the day of the session. Rep. Mandie Landry was booed by onlookers in the packed House gallery as she gave a speech about a friend whose 10-year-old trans child attempted suicide.

The House voted 75-23 to override the veto on gender-affirming care. Seven Democrats broke party lines to override the veto in the house: Reps. Robby Carter of Greensburg; Travis Johnson of Vidalia; Roy Daryl Adams of Jackson; Pat Moore of Monroe; Chad Brown of Plaquemine; Mack Cormier of Belle Chasse; and Dustin Miller of Opelousas. The Senate vote was 28-11, with two Democrats voting with the Republican majority, and one lone Republican, Sen. Fred Mills (New Iberia), voting against the ban. The gender-affirming care ban bill was passed. Mills received national backlash from right-wingers after his initial vote to block the ban back when it was still in committee, stating that there was no evidence of the “mutilation” many of the advocates for banning gender-affirming care claimed. According to The Louisiana Illuminator, far-right politician Rep. Alan Seabaugh (R-Shreveport) promised to add as many amendments as possible to Mills’ bills in order to send a message. Gov. Edwards on his radio show said many members of the legislature were scared to vote against the ban. Rep. Mandie Landry told me via email that some colleagues feared getting primaried because it happened “so much nationwide in the last couple of decades… It’s not hard for an outside group to come in and dump a relatively small amount of money into some of these rural house races.

Andrew Seidel, Vice President of Strategic Communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), told me that none of what these groups are doing is about parental rights, but is instead about “imposing their narrow doctrine on the rest of the country… There’s a billion dollar shadow network that is pushing white christian nationalism… it’s just a small network of billionaires.”

Christian Nationalists have attempted to influence American society from the shadows before. There was Project Blitz: a coordinated, secret scheme by religious groups across the country to infiltrate the public sector in order to merge church and state. The organizations shared ready-made bill templates so they could bombard state legislatures with them, which is a technique that has been used in recent anti-trans legislation, hence the 2,400% increase. Project Blitz’s aim was to start small with easy-to-pass legislation, like putting “In God We Trust” in public buildings, then work their way to more ambitious goals that would further entangle government with their version of religion.

I asked Seidel about the conservative backlash we’ve been witnessing. “Conservative White Christians’ status as a dominant group within our society is under threat [and] has been under threat for some time. They are losing the ‘Culture War’ …sociologists and political theorists know that when a dominant group feels threatened in a society, they react or overreact.”

The SCOTUS rightward shift also plays a role in states attacking trans rights. Seidel told me that decades ago Christian Nationalists realized their public policy opinions were unpopular and decided that since they couldn’t win at the ballot, they’d have to take the courts. He said “Christian nationalist” networks have spent “upwards of 540 million dollars to stack the courts… from blocking Merrick Garland” to “shotgunning [the appointment of] Amy Coney Barrett.” This was spearheaded by Leonard Leo, co-chairman and former executive vice president of the Federalist Society, who chooses justices based on what Seidel called an “ideological purity test.” Clarence Thomas once joked on stage at an event that Leo was the third most powerful man in the world. Leo’s dark money network is funding several “parental rights” orgs all across the country. Now, after decades of backroom dealing, Roe v. Wade has been overturned, and SCOTUS is working their way down a wishlist of Evangelical demands in an attempt to reshape society.

Seidel explained why the Christian Nationalist attacks on trans people are coming in such aggressive waves. He said that the existence of trans people “just drives home [Christian Nationalists’] loss in power.” That is, many on the Right have a simmering disdain for the slow diversification of the country.

According to Pew Research, roughly eight in 10 Americans agree that trans people face some discrimination, and 64% say that trans people deserve protections from discrimination. However, about six in 10 Americans believe trans people should be forced to compete on teams of their birth sex. This is where the GOP found their footing.

In 2018, two trans girls, Andraya Yearwood and Terry Miller, won Connecticut state high school championship track titles. ADF immediately filed a lawsuit on behalf of four of the cisgender competitors. Right-wing state legislators used them as reasons why anti-trans youth bills were necessary. But according to The Associated Press, many of those lawmakers couldn’t cite an instance in their region where trans youth participation in sports caused problems. Rep. Laurie Schlegel (R-Metairie) said years ago, according to FOX40, that it was only a “matter of time” before trans athletes in Louisiana dominated female sports.

According to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), as of May 23, over 520 anti-LGBTQ bills were introduced across the country, with 220 of those targeting trans or non-binary people, and upwards of $50 million was poured into the 2022 midterm elections, specifically targeting trans youth in conjunction with parental rights. One group, Independent Women’s Voice, spent $6 million on anti-trans campaigns across several states.

“People are more likely to be struck by lightning” than to be harmed in any way by a trans person, said Quest, of trans-rights advocacy group Real Name Campaign. But the mainstream media doesn’t frame it that way. Violence against trans people has risen, but that has rarely been reported. In 2021, according to a study reported by The Hill, “just 19 television news segments [in 2021] addressed anti-transgender violence for a total of 43 minutes of coverage.” Those numbers did get higher in 2022, according to Media Matters, with more than 89 segments totaling six hours of coverage on violence against trans people, though it is noted that 91% of that coverage was due to the Club Q mass shooting, which was a targeted attack on queer people. Fox News didn’t spend any time mentioning the growing violence against trans people. But, in just three weeks alone in 2022, they aired 170 segments on trans people, with one of them titled “Doom and Groom.” Over a quarter of those segments were spent on trans athlete Lia Thomas alone, as they constantly referred to her as a man. Fox News also changed the wording of 19 articles from Reuters and The Associated Press to state “sex change” instead of “gender-affirming care.”

The two are not the same. Gender-affirming care is as little as allowing a child or teen to transition socially, via going by a different name that matches their gender identity, and/or dressing according to their identity. In fact, according to the International Journal of Transgender Health, prepubescent children are not eligible for medical intervention. Puberty blockers are reversible, and surgical procedures are beyond rare on minors and very uncommon in general due to financial constraints. According to Yale Medicine, in very specific cases there is risk of infertility associated with hormone therapy while it is ongoing, but the effect is anticipated to be reversible if medication is discontinued.

But groups like ADF recruit a small number of people who regretted transitioning to back their cause. “There are several of the same people over and over nationwide who publicly talk about regretting their transition… say they were forced into it… It’s always the same handful of people touring… and they usually have some holes in their story,” said Rep. Landry. According to The Associated Press, only 1% of trans people on average expressed regret. The most prominent of the de-transitioning activists is Chloe Cole, who, along with Prisha Mosley, testified in Louisiana’s gender-affirming care hearings. A trans-ally activist, Ash, told me that much of the testimonies had to do with procedures like double mastectomies, which were not performed on minors in Louisiana between 2017 and 2021 to begin with.

Things have gotten so bad that the Human Rights Campaign has declared a state of emergency for the LGBTQ community, and states that aren’t planning on lodging anti-LGBTQ bills are becoming designated as trans refugee states.

The anti-trans attitudes have permeated the national right-wing bubble and seeped into Louisiana’s political and social discourse. In a letter that was published by The Times-Picayune/The Advocate, the writer criticized the paper for using the preferred pronouns in an obituary for a trans teen who was killed in a bus accident. According to The Louisiana Illuminator, Louisiana Gov. candidate Hunter Lundy blamed a Nashville school shooting on “transgender indoctrination.”

The people who will be hurt the most by the hostility are trans youth. According to The Spokesman-Review, a trans teen in Montana attempted suicide while watching the debates in their state Legislature. During these debates, a lawmaker insinuated they’d rather their child kill themselves than transition. Children and teens in Louisiana, who should be busy in school and making friends, are staging school walkouts in protests of the legislation. Ben Franklin High School students lodged a protest on International Transgender Day of Visibility, and as they spoke, hundreds of bills were being filed before the 5 p.m. cutoff. A 15-year-old trans teen, Wyn, told WWNO, “We’re still living human beings. We haven’t done anything wrong to anybody. We’re just trying to get through the day and it’s just not fair.” Wyn, who lives in St. Tammany, stated that he was used to being bullied by kids daily. But when he put a flier for a rally online, it wasn’t just kids bullying him anymore. It was now parents too who hurled slurs at him.

Dr. Ryan Pasternak, professor of pediatric medicine at LSU, told Louisiana lawmakers banning gender-affirming care would cause “permanent harm.” He added, “it will lead to more suicide attempts.” According to one study, over 80% of trans youth have considered suicide; 56% have attempted it. The American Medical Association notes gender-affirming care lowered odds of depression by 60% and suicidality by 73%. In one hearing, Rep. Larry Bagley (R-Stonewall) cut off someone’s microphone after they said that passing the bill was a vote for suicide. Clifton Mixon, a psychiatric pediatrician, begged lawmakers, “Please don’t make my patients die because of this bill.”

I asked Evette Randolph a while back, prior to the gender-affirming care ban being passed, if she saw herself staying in Louisiana. “This is my eternal battle. I want to fight to make things right in my home state. The battles that we can affect are the ones in our backyard. But as a parent, my first thoughts are for the health and safety of my child. I don’t want Ezra to live in fear… If these laws pass here, we will have to find someplace else to live.

The gender-affirming care ban will go into effect in January 2024. Randolph is putting their home, which has been in their family for five generations, up for sale.

The basis for which the state legislature tried to override, and in one case did override, the governor’s anti-trans vetoes is based entirely on pseudoscience and propaganda. ADF is one of the largest sources. One of the sources often cited that argues being trans is a “social contagion,”—a term used throughout most of the hearings in this past Louisiana legislative session—is a study by Lisa Littman that looked at Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria, a controversial diagnosis. But her study didn’t poll trans people; it polled parents of trans people, from three websites “known for telling parents not to believe their child is transgender.” The author of the critique, Arjee Restar, further noted that the sample was not diverse, but “rather a sample of predominantly white mothers who have strong oppositional beliefs about their children’s trans identification.”

The baseless claims of far-right activists may be their downfall. A Florida judge’s ruling may set a precedent in which the ban could be overturned. U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle wrote in his ruling that the state of Florida wrote the legislation based on “a biased effort” and added that the state “conducted a well-choreographed public hearing that was an effort not to gather facts but to support the predetermined outcome.” Governor Edwards stated his belief that the federal courts will overturn the ban. Rep. Landry stated, “It’s clear gender discrimination in violation of the 14th amendment’s equal protection clause… our new law says hormone therapy is illegal for trans health care but not for anything else.” As an example, she added “top surgery is banned, but breast implants are not. The difference is the intent.”

Seidel, of AU, told me that the more the far-right overreaches, the more the masses mobilize against them. One recent example is the Wisconsin Supreme Court race, where a group based in Virginia—largely funded by far-right billionaire Dick Uihlein, who, according to HRC, gave them 80% of their donations—funded targeted ads attacking trans people in order to elevate a far-right judge. The judge lost the race. In conjunction with restricting abortion rights, a high focus on anti-trans policies cost the Michigan GOP all three chambers of government in the midterms.

In the wake of Ezra’s sign being burned down, a lot of people reached out and asked for stickers and t-shirts with the character from the sign on them. Randolph added, “it’s made him feel supported… he is excited about moving forward as an artist.” She added that he was wary, but that he knows he has a support system through the group Queer Northshore and from people all over our state.

I asked Quest what they would say to those who think kids are far too young to make decisions about their identity. They said that kids and teens need to be able to talk about what they’re experiencing without shame, especially with “adult guardians, mentors, and health care providers.” They added that when dialogue is open, “[trans youth] can come to conclusions about their identity just like adults can.”

Ash told me she would want them to sit down with Louisiana families with trans youth receiving gender-affirming care and discuss the bills with them in depth, and to listen to their feedback and ask questions. “All these families want is to do what’s best for their children.”

illustrations by Anneliese DePano


Verified by MonsterInsights