Betsy DeVos Is Complicit in Evangelical Right’s Assault on Trans Athletes

While the State of Connecticut inches past 40,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the anti-transgender Evangelical right-wing litigation machine presses onward. In mid-May, the anti-LGBT group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) — whose founder has served on the board of the organization behind much of the propaganda for reopening of states amid the pandemic — requested that a Connecticut judge step down from presiding over a case that ADF is litigating in the Nutmeg State.

ADF is representing three cisgender students suing Connecticut to prevent transgender athletes from participating in state-level athletics. The organization is claiming that the state athletic association’s nondiscrimination protections for transgender students, specifically transgender girls, infringed on the success of cisgender athletes. At the end of May, the Department of Education issued a memorandum holding that the athletic association’s policy violates Title IX, the federal law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex in education. It is absolutely critical to remember that the Department of Education is led by Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose family sends millions to far right and anti-LGBT organizations and causes, including the Alliance Defending Freedom. The memorandum from the Department promised to remove funding from districts that continued to implement the nondiscrimination policy.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has stepped in to represent the interests of trans athletes across the state. In April, ADF and ACLU were on a teleconference with presiding Judge Robert N. Chatigny, when the ADF attorney refused to refer to trans athletes by their gender identity, continually referencing “male athletes” instead of transgender girls. Judge Chatigny asked both parties to refer to “transgender females”:

[T]hat’s the more accurate terminology, and I think that it fully protects your clients’ legitimate interests. Referring to these individuals as “transgender females” is consistent with science, common practice and perhaps human decency. To refer to them as “males,” period, is not accurate, certainly not as accurate, and I think it’s needlessly provocative; and, for me, civility is a very important value, especially in litigation.

Rather than comply with Judge Chatigny’s request, ADF filed a “Memorandum in Support of Plaintiff’s Motion to Disqualify” on May 8, asking the judge to remove himself from the case. The firm argued that the judge’s request for civility and human decency had “created reasonable questions as to whether [he] can adjudicate the issues presented by Plaintiffs’ claims impartially.” In plain English: when Judge Chatigny asked ADF to treat transgender people with humanity, he was showing that he, too, treats trans people with humanity. And that’s a bridge too far for ADF.

Right-wing media reacted strongly against Chatigny’s request and in support of ADF’s demand for the judge’s recusal. Articles accusing Judge Chatigny of bias appeared across the right-wing news world.

Simultaneously, a more sinister campaign was in the works.

A week after the memo was filed, Concerned Women for America CEO Penny Nance wrote an op-ed for the far right online newspaper The Federalist, in which she accuses Judge Chatigny of “favoring sexual predators” throughout his career on the bench. Concerned Women is an anti-LGBT, anti-abortion Christian-right organization founded explicitly to counter feminist voices. Nance cites multiple occasions in which Judge Chatigny pronounced sentences lower than the mandatory minimum. Nance’s implication is clear, and in case you can’t read between the lines, she spells it out for us: “Once again, it feels like women lose in Chatigny’s courtroom.”

Other right-wing blogs and outlets picked up the banner:

Judge Reveals His Own Bias in ‘Transgender’ Case: A Clinton judge insists that plaintiffs call a boy a girl as he considers arguments.”

Three Girls Are Suing To Keep Boys Out Of Girls Sports. The Judge Has Rigged The Case Against Them.

Judge Who Banned Calling Trans Athletes ‘Male’ Has History of Favoring Sexual Predators.

This campaign is not merely opportunistic, it is intentional. Comparing transgender people to sexual predators is the oldest trick in the book, one that has been disproven over and over and over again. And data on disparities facing transgender people in fact shows the opposite: that transgender people — particular transgender women and girls of color like those at the center of the Connecticut case — face intense levels of violence and discrimination.

“Courtrooms are for facts and reason, not fringe sensationalism. Judges are obligated to uphold the law and treat litigants with basic dignity, including transgender people,” said Alejandra Caraballo, staff attorney at the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund (TLDEF). “At TLDEF, we see the impacts of structural inequality every day, most often faced by Black and Brown transgender people. This effort to attack courts for treating transgender litigants with respect only underscores how intent our opponents are on dehumanizing transgender lives and blocking our access to justice.”

Media Matters reports that, following ADF’s request for recusal, anti-trans outlet Daily Wire has been consistently pushing out print and audio media demeaning the two trans athletes at the center of the case, garnering over 215,000 views on YouTube and 158,000 interactions on Facebook.

“Anti-trans websites like Daily Wire, LifeSiteNews and The Federalist are essentially ADF’s extended communications arm and a crucial part of the broader anti-LGBTQ ecosystem that seeks to dehumanize trans folks through policy, in the courts and in public discourse,” Brennan Suen, the LGBTQ program director at Media Matters, told Truthout. “They have seized on the latest updates in ADF’s case against trans athletes because they can’t stand to see trans athletes referred to respectfully and accurately. It is clear that anti-trans websites and powerful groups like ADF will not shy from going after individuals, even teenagers, to further their anti-trans agenda.”

Trans students are also under attack from the ADF and allied organizations in Idaho, where newly passed legislation requires schools to invasively determine a student’s sex assigned at birth before allowing them to participate in sports. The ACLU is representing two students who are suing to stop the bill from coming into effect. In her op-ed for Teen Vogue, plaintiff Lindsay Hecox shared the following:

There is so much misinformation and misunderstanding about trans people and trans athletes, particularly the misconception that we are men and somehow taking spots away from women. But trans women are women. We have been competing in high school, college, and elite competition consistent with our gender identity for years and there is no evidence of dominance by transgender athletes at any level of sport. I, like all athletes, participate in sports for the same reasons as my peers: to challenge myself, to improve my fitness, to engage socially, and to be a part of a team. Under Idaho’s new law, I can no longer do that. By crushing my goal of competing on my college running team, it sends a message that as a transgender person I’m not worthy of fully participating in public life and social engagement.

With juggernauts like the ADF, Concerned Women for America and the Daily Wire going after trans athletes and those who would protect them, it’s even more vital that we raise the voices of trans people and organizations in full-throated support for trans liberation.