“Gender ideology” took center stage at this weekend’s Values Voter Summit (VVS) in Washington, D.C. And side stage. And student mixer. In each instance, it was used as a handy catchall: Objecting to “gender ideology” allows Christian conservatives to consolidate all their objections to treating LGBTQ people with dignity into one scary talking point.
VVS is the annual conference of the Family Research Council, Tony Perkins’ conservative advocacy and \ lobbying organization with the White House’s ear. President Donald Trump has spoken at the summit in the past, as has Steve Bannon. This year, Vice President Mike Pence gave the keynote address following evangelical and conservative darlings like the Benham Brothers (house flippers and sons of Operation Save America’s Flip Benham), Michele Bachmann, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, David Daleiden (of Planned Parenthood hit-video fame), Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, HUD Secretary Ben Carson, Masterpiece baker Jack Phillips, and many others.
The turn to “gender ideology” marks a change for this conference and for conservative talking points in general, which in the past have focused more directly on bathroom bills and specious fears for the safety of children. If you’re not familiar with the term, that’s not surprising. More popular with European conservatives, “gender ideology” as a conservative rallying cry has only grown in domestic U.S. circles in the past year or two. Among conservatives, “gender ideology” encompasses a broad range of horrors: LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination laws, transgender-inclusive school and ID-document policies, and comprehensive sex education, to name a few.
To many evangelical Christians, who composed the majority of the audience at the evangelical-led Values Voter Summit, “gender ideology” contradicts Biblical complementarity, the idea that God made man and woman to serve their own roles and to fit together, literally and figuratively. Speakers also mentioned “teleology,” the philosophy that a phenomenon can be explained by the purpose it serves, in this case twisted into a pseudo-scientific justification to oppose same-sex marriage because it defies the “purpose” of marriage: to procreate. At the student mixer on Friday night, Chelsea Patterson Sobolik, author of Longing for Motherhood, spoke about her story of struggling with childlessness in a culture that prizes fertility. She told the young people in attendance that every one one of our cells is coded as XX or XY; there are no other options.
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Rather than ginning up support around specific topics, the broader lens of “gender ideology” allowed speakers to talk about a range of theoretical harms to religious freedom if politics are permitted to be overrun by the “new secular orthodoxy” of sexual orientation and gender identity, as Emilie Kao of the Heritage Foundation called it during her presentation on religious liberty. Kao also warned us of “LGBT extremists” and mentioned that “some radical feminists” are speaking out against LGBTQ nondiscrimination laws because they believe these laws will result in the “erasure of women and girls.” Kao is referring to the small group of very vocal activists, largely online, who fight trans-affirming and trans-inclusive laws and policies.
On the main stage during the morning plenary on Saturday, moderator Peter Sprigg—researcher at FRC and author of many a blog about LGBTQ people and policies—introduced the panelists to talk about “How Gender Ideology Harms Children.” First up was disreputed former head of Johns Hopkins Department of Psychiatry head Dr. Paul McHugh. In 1977, Dr. McHugh ended Johns Hopkins’ groundbreaking trans-affirmative medical program. Johns Hopkins reversed the ensuing decades of anti-trans pseudo-scientific rhetoric in 2017, when it reopened its Center for Transgender Health. At VVS, Dr. McHugh gave the same speech he’s been giving at conservative conferences since his retirement, comparing transgender people to people with eating disorders: “We work not to affirm their belief [that they are transgender], but to correct it.”
Throughout his remarks, Dr. McHugh cited discredited research, misrepresented data on trans children, and flat-out lied. He (and other speakers) cited the recently-published-and-discredited research on “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria” (ROGD). ROGD is a nonscientific term for the phenomenon of young people appearing to suddenly develop a transgender identity. The term was recently popularized by the paper published in August—whose authors did not interview transgender youth, but rather interviewed parents on three blogs for parents openly skeptical of their children’s transgender identities. The paper unsurprisingly concluded that youth are being “influenced” by friends and media to assert they are transgender. After receiving significant criticism from the medical community for its research methods and conclusions, the paper is now under review by the journal in which it was published. Dr. McHugh legitimized this false and dangerous research by citing it, and I heard many attendees in the plenary murmur in agreement with its misleading conclusions.
Next up at the plenary was Dr. Michelle Cretella, executive director of the American College of Pediatricians (ACP). The ACP, a conservative anti-LGBTQ advocacy group, is not to be confused with the far more reputable American Academy of Pediatrics, which released a policy statement last week recommending that pediatricians strongly support and provide comprehensive care for trans and gender-diverse youth. In 2017, Dr. Cretella wrote her own paper, claiming that “transgender ideology” was tantamount to “child abuse.” The Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine responded to Dr. Cretella’s piece, rejecting her claims outright as “an argument based on medical omissions, circumstantial facts, hateful interpretation, and peripheral context.”
Elizabeth Johnston, known for her Activist Mommy blog and her campaigns against comprehensive sex education, was the last to speak from the stage on Saturday morning. Johnston is a fiery speaker who was the perfect closer for an audience primed to hear her lies and misinformation. Schools are teaching our kids “gender confusion” and how to have oral and anal sex, she claimed. She described comprehensive sex education as “sexual abuse and grooming.”
The week before last, a similar panel was held at the World Congress of Families, in Moldova. Peter Sprigg was there too, giving a PowerPoint presentation on “Five Myths of Gender Identity.” Sprigg was joined by several European anti-transgender activists, and the talking points they shared were very similar to those sprinkled throughout VVS on Saturday.
The similarity is no coincidence: Right-wing and Christian conservatives have been trading tactics and talking points across the ocean for several years now as they try to fight the gains made by the LGBTQ community. And the broadening of their rhetoric is also not a coincidence: Framing support for the LGBTQ community as “gender ideology” allows anti-LGBTQ activists to scare, confuse, and galvanize their voters as we move into an important election season here in the United States, and into a crucial moment in political history across the world.
Activist Mommy Elizabeth Johnston was invited back on to the stage at the end of the day to finish the speech that had been cut short so that the vice president could keep his schedule. “It’s going to take all of us to push back against the radical Marxist agenda to confuse and sexualize our children,” said Johnston. The crowd gave her a standing ovation.