Alliance Defending Freedom: the Right-Wing Lawyers Fueling Transphobia in Schools

About Cole Parke

Co-authored by Gabriel Joffe

In the past year—a year in which Caitlyn Jenner graced the cover of Vanity Fair and Raffi Freedman-Gurspan became the first openly transgender White House staffer—at least 23 transgender people have been killed in the United States. This is a significant uptick from the 12 reported murders in 2014 and these somber totals only include individuals whose deaths were recorded and whose identities were accurately reported. These are not individual, random acts of hate. A majority of those killed were transgender women of color under the age of 25, a reality that makes evident who experiences disproportionate and extreme acts of violence…who is considered most disposable by a society that was built, sustained, and continues to grow on the structures of heteropatriarchy, misogyny, and white supremacy.

With 2015 coming to an end, we reaffirm our commitment to continue investigating the roots of right-wing, anti-trans violence as we remember:

Papi Edwards, Lamia Beard, Ty Underwood, Yazmin Vash Payne, Taja Gabrielle DeJesus, Penny Proud, Bri Golec, Kristina Gomez Reinwald, Keyshia Blige, Mya Hall, London Chanel, Mercedes Williamson, Shade Schuler, India Clarke, Ashton O’Hara, Amber Monroe, Kandis Capri, Elisha Walker, Tamara Dominguez, Kiesha Jenkins, Zella Ziona, K.C. Haggard, Jasmine Collins, and those whose names we do not know.

All across the country, resistance to and backlash against incremental advancements in transgender equality is cropping up in courtrooms, legislatures, churches, and school boards. Anti-discrimination protections for transgender citizens have been blocked at the city, state, and federal level and the New York Times recently reported that since 2014, more than two dozen religiously affiliated colleges and universities in the U.S. have obtained exemptions from Title IX (the 1972 federal law that was intended to eliminate discrimination in schools on the basis of sex). The previously rare applications for such exemptions, “have increased sharply in the years since the federal government began to interpret the law as prohibiting discrimination against transgender people.”

Mixed with the systemic ingredients of anti-trans violence, which put trans women of color especially at the life-threatening nexus of white supremacy, heterosexism, and misogyny, is a cadre of Christian Right actors who are effectively fueling the fire through policies and legal campaigns. These campaigns directly result in discrimination and exclusion, and cultivate a culture that permits oppression, violence, and even death for transgender and gender-nonconforming people. One of the driving forces behind this national (and increasingly international) trend is the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF).

Alliance Defending Freedom is a right-wing Christian legal group based in Scottsdale, Arizona,

Alliance Defending Freedom is a right-wing Christian legal group based in Scottsdale, Arizona

ADF, a right-wing Christian legal group based in Scottsdale, Arizona, counts more than 3000 “allied attorneys” on its roster, all of whom are working to “preserve and defend” their definition of religious freedom, which they consider “our most cherished birthright.” ADF self-reports that its army of Christian Right lawyers has racked up 47 victories at the U.S. Supreme Court since it was launched in 1994, and has played a role in “hundreds of international legal matters affecting religious freedom.” It is also a rapidly growing organization, with annual contributions and grants received increasing from 14.7 million in 2001 to 38.9 million in 2013.

As part of ADF’s multi-faceted effort to advance its anti-LGBTQ agenda through legal means, the organization began a new initiative in 2014 with longtime partner Focus on the Family (FOTF) to promote a “Student Physical Privacy Policy” for schools. The policy provides model guidelines for schools to supposedly protect students in areas such as bathrooms and locker rooms. In reality, “physical privacy rights”as outlined in these policies clearly do not apply to all students; instead, they encode trans-exclusionary guidelines and subject transgender students to being further scrutinized, put on display, and interrogated when it comes to their privacy. (The bathroom can already be a  site of major anxiety for transgender youth as it is a location where they may experience ridicule or assault, and where issues can occur that “out” their identity to the school community.)

In reality, “physical privacy rights”as outlined in these policies clearly do not apply to all students; instead, they encode trans-exclusionary guidelines and subject transgender students to being further scrutinized, put on display, and interrogated when it comes to their privacy.

ADF’s anti-LGBTQ meddling in schools dates back to at least 2005, when it launched the “Day of Truth” campaign “to counter the promotion of the homosexual agenda and express an opposing viewpoint from a Christian perspective.” The program (now run by FOTF with ongoing legal support from ADF) aims to counter the annual “Day of Silence,” in which students use intentional silence to protest and spread awareness about the effects of anti-LGBTQ bullying and harassment.

More recently, ADF has begun been making targeted attacks on school districts that introduce trans-inclusive gender identity guidelines. In March 2014, the Tucson Unified School District passed a bathroom policy allowing students to access the bathroom of their affirmed gender. ADF responded to the new TUSD policy with their own anti-trans proposal, assuring that it didn’t violate Title IX and offering free defense against any potential legal repercussions. In October 2014, ADF submitted a similar letter to the Sparta Area School District in Wisconsin after the district’s school superintendent introduced trans-affirming gender identity guidelines.

ADF shifted this district-by-district reactionary approach to an all-out offensive in December 2014, with the release of a statement subtitled “model policy provides solution for public schools.” In this statement ADF announced that it had emailed public school superintendents nationwide to preemptively “advise them of a recommended policy and letter that protects the physical safety and privacy of students in restrooms and locker rooms while providing a solution for school officials concerned about students struggling with their sexual identity.” The email also included a warning that any school district supporting trans-inclusive policies “would clearly expose itself—and its teachers—to tort liability.”

The response was almost immediate. Within weeks, the Gloucester County School Board in Virginia adopted ADF’s model policy. The policy was subsequently used to deny Gavin Grimm, a transgender male student at Gloucester High School, access to the boys’ restroom. The ACLU is now representing Grimm in an ongoing legal dispute that has the potential to set a dangerous precedent. The policy has also shown up on other public school websites such as the Wellston Public School in Oklahoma, which adopted the privacy policy in January.

In addition to aggressive email outreach, ADF’s model policy is also being disseminated through “True Tolerance,” an FOTF project. The project website provides a “Tell a School” tool that allows visitors to share ADF’s Student Physical Privacy Policy with their local school board. The form is pre-populated with a message calling on administrators to protect children’s “innocence” and respect values, “especially regarding sensitive subjects concerning sexuality and family issues.” The message refers administrators to the linked Student Physical Privacy Policy while a sidebar reassures the sender: “Don’t worry if you don’t see the links to the information mentioned in the email. They automatically appear in your school official’s email once the message is sent.” In this way, ADF’s model policy can be sent through FOTF’s website without the sender even reading it.

Thanks to the ADF and FOTF’s joint effort, it’s likely that countless other schools have quietly adopted trans-exclusionary policies.

Thanks to the ADF and FOTF’s joint effort, it’s likely that countless other schools have quietly adopted trans-exclusionary policies, writing oppression into their student handbooks and thus ensuring the right to discriminate against transgender students who seek to access facilities that align with their affirmed gender identity.

In addition to the experience of Gavin Grimm in Virginia, we’re already seeing further examples of anti-trans policies motivating anti-trans actions. This past August, 150 students staged a walkout at a Missouri high school, parroting ADF’s rhetoric in their protest of a transgender classmate, Lila Perry, using the girls’ restroom. A coalition of organizations including the Transgender Law Center and GSA Network responded by holding a #LiftingUpLila rally with local supporters. Ka’Milla, a youth organizer from Missouri GSA Network, addressed the crowd saying, “Young people like Lila and myself are being pushed out of the very schools we have been told we have to attend. The policies and practices that push students out of school and away from their education is real. It holds up the cycle of socialization and stops us from reaching liberation.”

More than 100 people joined in support of Missouri transgender high-schooler Lila Perry Friday at the #LiftingUpLila rally. Photo courtesy of Revolution News.

More than 100 people showed up to support Missouri transgender high-schooler Lila Perry at the #LiftingUpLila rally. Photo courtesy of Revolution News.

Beyond the immediate material implications for trans and gender-nonconforming students, the language contained in these policies fuels social stigma and reflects one of the Right’s oldest and most powerful weapons in opposing LGBTQ civil rights: bathroom scare tactics. Most recently, Houston voters repealed the city’s Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) in November, after opponents (ADF among them) thoroughly saturated the airwaves with fear-based ads warning that HERO would allow male sexual predators to sneak into women’s bathrooms by claiming to be transgender. This myth-turned-campaign-tactic exploits fear of sexual violence in the complete absence of factual evidence or meaningful conversation about what sexual violence actually looks like in our society. Although this trope is riddled with inaccuracies, it has proven to be a devastating obstacle to LGBTQ justice—most especially for trans and gender-nonconforming people.

Bathroom scare tactics also rely on notions of both gender and biological sex that are unfounded and outdated. In the case of the Student Physical Privacy Policy, ADF bases the policy solely on their definition of “sex”—one that completely erases the existence of intersex people (statistically 1 in 2000 births) and is inconsistent with definitions provided by the medical community. Further, it is more likely that transgender students are being targeted on the basis of their gender expression rather than at the level of their genitalia or chromosomes, but  definitions of gender and gender identity are not provided in the policy. (This is an important distinction because as we learned in a 2011 national transgender discrimination report, K-12 students who expressed a transgender identity or gender non-conformity reported “alarming rates of harassment (78%), physical assault (35%) and sexual violence (12%); harassment was so severe that it led almost one-sixth (15%) to leave a school in K-12 settings or in higher education.”)

With these “privacy” policies, ADF and other right-wing organizations are blocking the critical conversation around human gender diversity from moving forward in our schools and communities. Their intentional erasure of real bodies and authentic identities promotes the idea that this is a world where trans people shouldn’t exist—an idea that ends with extreme violence towards our community.

About the Authors:

Gabriel Joffe is the program coordinator at Political Research Associates. 

L. Cole Parke is PRA’s LGBTQ & Gender Justice Researcher, and has been working at the intersections of faith, gender, and sexuality as an activist, organizer, and scholar for the past ten years. Raised in a military family and a conservative Christian world, Cole studied theology at Texas Lutheran University, earned their Master’s in Conflict Transformation at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice & Peacebuilding, and traveled throughout the country advocating for LGBTQ justice at conservative religious schools and institutions as a part of the 2008 and 2012 Soulforce Equality Rides.

L. Cole Parke is PRA's LGBTQ & Gender Justice Researcher, and has been working at the intersections of faith, gender, and sexuality as an activist, organizer, and scholar for the past ten years. Raised in a military family and a conservative Christian world, Cole studied theology at Texas Lutheran University, earned their Master’s in Conflict Transformation at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice & Peacebuilding, and traveled throughout the country advocating for LGBTQ justice at conservative religious schools and institutions as a part of the 2008 and 2012 Soulforce Equality Rides.