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Meet The Anti-LGBTQ Extremists Leading The Assault On Equality In Texas

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters for America.

When Texas’ 85th legislative session officially kicks off on January 10, anti-LGBTQ extremists in the state will be well into their campaigns to pass a slew of laws attacking LGBTQ equality.

Lawmakers in the state have already prefiled an avalanche of anti-LGBTQ laws. On the first day of the prefiling session, in November, a Republican filed a North Carolina-style bill to undermine local nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people. Another prefiled bill would require public school teachers and counselors to out LGBTQ students to parents. And on January 5, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) announced the filing of another North Carolina-style “bathroom bill.”

A number of anti-LGBTQ extremists with high-level government connections are behind these and other regressive bills that will arise over the 140-day state legislative session. They include:

Jonathan Saenz, president of Austin-based Texas Values:

  • said gay sex is a “dangerous and risky sexual activity that can fiercely jeopardize a person’s well-being”;
  • advocates for discredited and harmful “ex-gay” conversion therapy; and
  • agreed that gay activists are trying to put Christians in “concentration camp[s].”

Jonathan Saenz is the president of Texas Values, the lobbying arm of the Plano-based Liberty Institute, an organization notorious for peddling malicious misinformation to stoke fears about threats to religious liberty, including warning about a “reverse Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy for Christians in the military. Saenz gained some notoriety in 2014 after it was revealed that he founded Texas Values after his wife left him for another woman in 2011.

Saenz has high-level allies in the Texas government, including Gov. Greg Abbott’s outreach director, Ben Taylor, who called Saenz a “good friend.” A year and a half ago, Taylor emailed Saenz a copy of the governor’s statement regarding the 2015 Texas Supreme Court decision allowing a same-sex divorce, to which Saenz responded, “Maybe we need a special session to make same sex divorce illegal.”

Saenz took credit for both drafting and pushing through Texas’ “Pastor Protection Act,” which became law in 2015; it allows clergy to refuse to perform marriages that violate their religious beliefs. Previously, he was a vocal supporter of keeping Texas’ unconstitutional, defunct anti-sodomy law on the books and a proponents of denying benefits to same-sex spouses of government employees, even if the benefits were offered to opposite-sex spouses.

In addition to pushing anti-LGBTQ extremism, Saenz has lambasted evolution as a “left-wing ideology” that “any respectable scientist” should see through. He’s also a strong proponent of having Bible classes in public schools, accusing opponents of such classes of being “enemies of religious freedom.”

Dave Welch, executive director of the Texas Pastor Council:

      • called former Houston Mayor Annise Parker a “sodomite”; and
      • compared repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to letting loose a “poisonous cloud of chemical weapons” that would “release GLBTQIA activists onto our soldiers like hound dogs of hell.”

In 2003, extremist Texas pastor Dave Welch founded the Houston Area Pastor Council (HAPC), which is described as an “affiliate” of the national U.S. Pastor Council (USPC) and Texas Pastor Council (TXPC), though it’s unclear if the organizations are actually distinguishable. As HAPC/USPC/TXPC’s spokesperson, Welch routinely espouses hateful anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, including referring to gay people as a “morally depraved special interest group” and people who support LGBT rights as part of the “forces of spiritual darkness.”

In 2009, Welch joined an anti-gay smear campaign against Annise Parker, then Houston’s city controller, warning voters of a “gay takeover” of city hall. After Parker was elected mayor, Welch declared that her election, along with President Obama’s, were signs of America’s “cancer of the soul.” In a 2010 newsletter, Welch attacked Parker for supporting the city’s pride parade, calling her a “sodomite” and a leader of “amoral depravity.”

Despite his extremism, Welch’s group frequently hosts high-level politicians and policymakers in Texas. In October, Lt. Gov. Patrick held a special conference call with members of TXPC to discuss faith-based improvements to the state’s foster care system. Texas Monthly investigated Attorney General Ken Paxton’s first two years in office and found that Welch successfully lobbied Paxton’s office to file an amicus brief in defense of a bishop accused of violating campaign finance laws. Before Welch got involved, Abbott, who was attorney general at the time, declined to file an amicus brief in defense of the bishop, whose ministry is recognized as an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).

Steven Hotze, president/CEO of the Conservative Republicans of Texas:

      • warned that LGBTQ equality is part of a communist plot to take down America;
      • brandished a sword on stage while vowing to “fight the homosexuals”; and
      • made unsubstantiated medical claims that birth control makes women “less attractive” and that men who lose their testicles “have difficulty reading a map.”

Dr. Steven Hotze is the CEO and founder of the Conservative Republicans of Texas, a group that SPLC has designated an anti-LGBTQ hate group for spreading malicious lies about LGBTQ people. Hotze has been an anti-gay activist in Texas since the 1980s. After the U.S. Supreme Court made its 2015 marriage equality decision, Hotze urged Paxton to fight the “illegitimate SCOTUS ruling,” saying that the justices “hate God and want to let the Sodomites queer our country.” Hotze later kicked off his own multicity tour of Texas in protest of the marriage equality ruling by brandishing a sword to an audience while vowing to “fight the homosexuals” and the “satanic cults” that drive them.

While speaking at an anti-LGBTQ extremist conference this year, Hotze compared LGBTQ people to termites and warned that LGBTQ equality is part of a long-term communist plot to take down America. Hotze, who has a medical degree, also dabbles in questionable medical practices — a 2005 investigation into his “alternative” practices found that his literature made unsubstantiated claims that birth control makes women “less attractive” and that men who lose their testicles “have difficulty reading a map, performing math problems and making decisions.”

Despite his extremism and dubious medical practices, Hotze has long been an influential figure in the Texas conservative movement, with Republican candidates seeking his endorsement. Hotze was also touted as a hero on Fox News in 2014 for filing a lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act. Hotze also released a series of auto-tuned songs with titles like “God Fearing Texans Stop Obamacare,” one of which included the refrain “We will defeat Obama and the socialists.”

Jared Woodfill, recently appointed president of the Conservative Republicans of Texas:

      • called the word “transgender” a “euphemism, a weaker alternative, for the term pervert”; and
      • says being LGBTQ is a “wicked lifestyle.”

A board member of Texas Values Action and previous Harris County GOP chairman, Jared Woodfill currently serves as president of Hotze’s Conservative Republicans of Texas. Along with Hotze, Woodfill previously helped lead the campaign against the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO). Woodfill successfully defeated the comprehensive nondiscrimination ordinance by fearmongering and peddling the debunked “bathroom predator” myth.

This past summer, Woodfill and the Conservative Republicans of Texas launched a campaign to boycott Target for its transgender-inclusive restroom policy. The “Campaign for USA” website smears the word “transgender” as a “euphemism, a weaker alternative, for the term pervert.” It also accuses the “LGBT homosexual political movement” of wanting to make it “mandated that this wicked lifestyle be taught to children in school” so that children can be “recruited into the homosexual lifestyle.”

Conservative Republicans of Texas has infused $1.6 million into Texas elections over the last five years. While he doesn’t have the same high-level government connections as Welch and Saenz do, Woodfill is frequently featured as a guest commentator on Houston’s Fox 26, the TV station that helped fuel the repeal of HERO with its unique and aggressive peddling of the “bathroom predator” myth.

Anti-LGBTQ Junk Science And Fake News Poised To Harm LGBTQ Equality

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters for America.

Pseudoscience and lies have long been the favorite tactics of anti-LGBTQ extremists, but now that the incoming U.S. president is highly influenced by hate groups, fake news purveyors, and far-right publications that peddle such misinformation, these smoke and mirror tactics are well-positioned to harm LGBTQ equality.

For decades, junk science has been used to attack LGBTQ people as unhealthy and dangerous. Longtime LGBTQ advocate and journalist Claude Summers recently defined the purpose of anti-LGBTQ junk science as “not to persuade the scholarly community, which will immediately note its sloppy methodology,” but to “provide naïve readers some quasi-respectable justifications for their prejudices and to fuel social conservative political chatter.”

After scientific consensus rejected the “sickness theories” of homosexuality in the 1970s, “anti-LGBT professionals retreated from mainstream scientific organizations and formed their own groups,” Summers explained. These fringe splinter groups, like the deceptively named American College of Pediatricians (ACPeds) — an anti-LGBTQ hate group with about 500 members whose name is meant to be confused with the 60,000-member American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) — funnel debunked “research” to anti-LGBTQ extremist organizations like the Family Research Council (FRC), also a designated hate group. FRC and its allies peddle this misinformation as widely as possible to be used as ammunition in the fight against equality.

Right-wing outlets like Breitbart and The Daily Caller are the go-to platforms for anti-LGBTQ activists looking to push hateful lies and myths. Breitbart in particular regularly pushes pseudoscientific attacks on transgender people. Since March 2016, Breitbart authors have cited ACPeds to falsely claim that affirming transgender youths’ gender identity is a “form of child abuse” in at least 19 different articles. The talking point originated from an American College of Pediatricians “report,” which was quickly touted in other right-wing outlets like The Blaze and The Daily Caller. As The Daily Beast’s Samantha Allen highlighted, right-wing journalists published ACPed’s “child abuse” claim “without contrasting their primary source with the AAP.”

This type of anti-LGBTQ pseudoscience isn’t confined to right-wing web outlets. On Fox News, “Medical A Team” member Dr. Keith Ablow frequently pushes harmful anti-transgender misinformation. In April, Ablow speculated wildly about medical care for transgender youth, and proposed his own harmful “treatments,” akin to conversion therapy, that go against scientific evidence and professional standards from mainstream medical associations.

Even mainstream outlets like The Associated Press and NPR have allowed well-known purveyors of junk science to attack LGBTQ people.

The potential real-life impact of fake news was starting to become apparent several months before it took center stage in the 2016 election. In May, BuzzFeed spotlighted a slew of anti-transgender fake news stories that had gone viral. These fake news stories spiked largely in response to increased media coverage of so-called “bathroom bills” and North Carolina’s anti-LGBTQ law (HB 2). The measure broadly bans transgender people from using bathrooms that align with their gender identity in publicly run facilities and schools.

Many of the fake stories BuzzFeed profiled — like an “article” about a transgender women getting caught taking pictures of underage girls at Target — stem from the anti-LGBTQ “bathroom predator” myth, which purports that sexual predators will pretend to be transgender in order to exploit nondiscrimination laws and sneak into women’s restrooms. Fake news preys on long-standing misconceptions and stereotypes and exploits them to confirm unsubstantiated fears. BuzzFeed interviewed the owner of several fake news sites, who said the stories are a way to make “easy money” by capitalizing off of “the political polarization and anti-LGBT stance at the heart of HB 2.”

In the past, anti-LGBTQ hate groups were the ones spreading fake “bathroom predator” stories — and outlets like Fox News fell for it. But now, the sheer profitability of clickbait fake news means that even if hate groups aren’t peddling these stories themselves, fake news is helping to buttress anti-LGBTQ talking points by relying on misconceptions and controversy for their content. A recent BuzzFeed News survey found that fake news headlines “fool American adults about 75% of the time” –meaning that all of these fabricated stories and fact-free science could have a real-life impact on public opinion about LGBTQ people.

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, voiced her concern that these lies — one of which ended with a vigilante shooting a transgender woman — could fuel anti-transgender violence. Whether because of these fake news stories or not, 2016 has been the deadliest year on record for transgender people.

While pseudoscience and lies have long been staple tools of anti-LGBTQ extremist organization, the two tactics are now more likely than ever to be employed to justify anti-LGBTQ policies, given the incoming Trump administration. FRC — the hate group with years of experience peddling anti-LGBTQ junk science — has a growing influence on Trump’s transition team.

FRC president Tony Perkins played a pivotal role in Trump’s campaign and helped shape the Republican Party platform. During the Republican National Convention, he was successful in adding support for “ex-gay” conversion therapy, a discredited, harmful practice that falsely claims to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, and has been denounced by every major medical organization. Since the election, some of Perkins’ FRC affiliates have won spots in Trump’s transition team. Wired’s Emma Ellis spotlighted the hate group’s growing influence on the Trump administration, which includes the following members affiliated with FRC:

In addition to FRC’s influence on the administration, Breitbart’s brand of anti-LGBTQ pseudoscience has a champion in Stephen Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist and senior counselor. Bannon led Breitbart from 2012 through August of this year, when he became the chief executive of Trump’s campaign. In addition to peddling anti-gay junk science, under Bannon’s leadership the site made a “noticeable shift toward embracing ideas on the extremist fringe of the conservative right. Racist ideas. Anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant ideas — all key tenets making up an emerging racist ideology known as the ‘Alt-Right,’” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Trump’s nominees for cabinet positions also have a history of pushing harmful myths about LGBTQ people. Combined with FRC and Breitbart, individual anti-LGBTQ extremists are well-poised to gin up junk science attacks and use them to influence policy making throughout the Trump administration. LGBTQ advocates and journalists have already documented some of their fears about the potential consequences of the resurgence of anti-LGBTQ pseudoscience, including:

  • a comeback of “ex-gay” conversion therapy programs;
  • revocation of the Obama administration’s recommendation to treat transgender students in accordance with their gender identity;
  • repeal of the Affordable Care Act and its health care protections for LGBTQ people; and
  • passage of the so-called “First Amendment Defense Act,” federal “religious freedom” legislation that would permit discrimination against LGBTQ people.

Junk science can be easily debunked, as long as reporters are armed with the facts. Journalists should be prepared to counter the false narratives behind the coming attacks on LGBTQ equality.

IMAGE: REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Journalists Must Press Betsy DeVos On LGBTQ Student Equality

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters. 

After President-elect Donald Trump annouced he would nominate billionaire conservative activist and megadonor Betsy DeVos as education secretary, Politico highlighted civil rights groups’ deep concern about LGBTQ student equality under a DeVos Department of Education. While the DeVos family has a “long history” of supporting anti-LGBTQ causes, Betsy DeVos’ personal stance on LGBTQ student equality is unclear.

On November 23, news reports confirmed that Trump named conservative megadonor DeVos as his nominee to head the Department of Education under his administration. DeVos is part of the “ultra-rich, ultra-conservative” DeVos family — which routinely bankrolls education privatization, anti-choice, and anti-union causes nationwide — and her education advocacy work is an epicenter of the right-wing corporate “education reform” echo chamber. The DeVos family also has a long record of donating to anti-LGBTQ causes and organizations, including giving more than $6.7 million to the anti-LGBTQ group Focus on the Family since 1998. Focus on the Family promotes the harmful and discredited practice of so-called “ex-gay” conversion therapy and has accused anti-bullying programs in schools of “promoting homosexuality.”

Politico spotlighted those donations in a November 25 article detailing concerns about DeVos’ potential to dismantle the Obama administration’s protections for LGBTQ students. Those protections include urging schools to extend anti-bullying policies to LGBTQ students, allow LGBTQ student groups on campus, and protect transgender students’ right to use facilities that match their gender identity.

While the DeVos family’s opposition to LGBTQ equality is well-documented, Stephanie White of Equality Michigan told Politico that she believes Betsy DeVos’ personal views aren’t “accurately reflected by her family’s past donations” and said she hopes that DeVos will protect LGBTQ students. Politico also interviewed Eliza Byard, executive director for the LGBTQ student advocacy group GLSEN, who pointed out that DeVos’ support for school vouchers threatens at-risk LGBTQ students by undercutting federal civil rights enforcement and draining public funds from traditional public schools.

Notably, DeVos did not respond to a request for comment for Politico’s story. Given the critical importance of nondiscrimination and anti-bullying protections for LGBTQ students, journalists should continue to push DeVos to articulate her views on LGBTQ student equality.

From the November 25 Politico article:

Civil rights groups say they’re “deeply concerned” that the extension of civil rights protections to gay and transgender students by President Barack Obama’s Education Department will be dismantled by Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s pick to lead the department.

They note the DeVos family has a long history of supporting anti-gay causes — including donating hundreds of thousands to groups that push “conversion therapy” — raising questions about how, if at all, she would address discrimination against gay and transgender students.

[…]

Advocates point to one DeVos relationship that they say gives them hope for how she may approach LGBT issues: Greg McNeilly, a political adviser to DeVos and the chief operating officer of the DeVos family’s company Windquest Group, is gay and was one of the first to marry his same-sex partner in Michigan after the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage. McNeilly declined to comment for this story.

Stephanie White, executive director of Equality Michigan, said she believes that with McNeilly as an influence, DeVos’ views on LGBT issues have evolved. She noted that DeVos doesn’t speak out against gay rights, and even called on Dave Agema, a Michigan Republican National Committee member, to step down from the RNC in 2014 after making comments highly critical of gays.

[…]

Still, the DeVos family has a long history of supporting groups that espouse anti-gay rights views.

DeVos and her husband have given hundreds of thousands to Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian group whose founder called the battle against LGBT rights a “second civil war,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The group has also pushed so-called “conversion therapy” — discredited practices aimed at changing a person’s sexual orientation — according to the Human Rights Campaign.

DeVos’ ties to a group that pushes “conversion therapy” is “most alarming,” and DeVos needs to clarify her stance on the practice, Griffin said.

[…]

Eliza Byard, executive director of GLSEN, a group that advocates for LGBT rights in education, said her concerns extend beyond what DeVos might do with the Office for Civil Rights. She contends that DeVos’ support for measures such as school vouchers undercut civil rights enforcement and drain public funds from public schools.