If the current anti-trans tactics sound familiar, that’s because they’re borrowed from anti-abortion campaigns.
“On Feb. 13, 2021, I was online and somebody sent me a message saying, ‘Hey, there’s this project where they’re harassing hormone therapy clinics, and they’re using a map,’” said transgender rights advocate Erin Reed. “‘It kind of looks like yours.’”
A year earlier, Reed had put together a map of informed-consent clinics—doctors who provided hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to trans people without requiring an approval letter from a therapist. She’d identified more than 700 locations. Now, her map had been stolen by the Gender Mapping Project run by anti-trans extremist Alix Aharon, who claimed that the map shows addresses of clinics that help children transition.
“It didn’t even support the point they were trying to make,” Reed said—in the U.S., most youth programs operate on a youth-assent, parental-consent model.
Nonetheless, harassment followed. Some clinics were targeted with phone calls in which anti-trans activists posed as potential patients and asked leading questions about youth transition. Other locations saw crowds of angry picketers gathering outside.
If these tactics sound familiar, they should: They’re identical to extremists’ targeting of abortion providers, including the years long harassment campaign that preceded the assassination of Dr. George Tiller.
Brandishing someone’s name and face in front of an enraged public and accusing them of “harming” children is a reliable way to incite violence.
Ky Schevers, a researcher who tracks anti-trans activity, has been following anti-trans protests since Valentine’s Day in 2021. “We noticed that they started protesting outside of places all over the country,” Schevers said. “There were protests in L.A.; Chicago; Philadelphia; Dallas; Hartford, Conn.; and Ontario.”
The protests tend to center on specific doctors, who are targeted in wildly inflammatory terms: “[Protesters bring] signs with their faces on it, calling them ‘butchers,’ accusing them of being part of a predatory gender industry,” Schevers said. “One of their chants is ‘children can’t consent,’ which I think is intentionally trying to bring weird sexual predator stuff into it.”
Brandishing someone’s name and face in front of an enraged public and accusing them of “harming” children is a reliable way to incite violence—which may be why the vast majority of doctors I reached out to for this piece did not return comment.
“I have certainly gotten some hate mail,” said Diane Ehrensaft, director of mental health at the University of San Francisco’s Child and Adolescent Gender Center, and a developmental and clinical psychologist who pioneered the gender-affirming model of child therapy. “There are some people who have really feared for their safety.”
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Ehrensaft’s harassment mostly occurs online; she gets angry emails and tweets in which anti-trans extremists vow to “come for” her. She’s currently helping to redesign the World Professional Association for Transgender Health’s (WPATH) standards of care for transgender people, and anti-trans activists have tweeted their desire to coordinate a campaign to sabotage that redesign by flooding WPATH with hostile comments. Still, she considers herself to have gotten off easy.
“Somebody who was running a hospital-based program received threats and also had the front of their house defaced,” Ehrensaft told me. “They were really, really concerned about any act of violence toward them, and they happened to look very much like their partner. So the person in question cut [their] hair.” The thinking was that if anti-trans extremists tried to assassinate someone in that house, at least they wouldn’t kill the wrong person.
If the tactics are familiar, the targets are too. Reed estimates that Planned Parenthood is, by far, the largest provider of informed-consent treatment on her map. Aharon has spun out some truly bizarre conspiracy theories regarding the organization—for instance, using the fact that Tumblr founder David Karp was on the board to argue that, in Schevers’s words, “Tumblr is somehow part of this grand plot to funnel quote-unquote teenage girls into Planned Parenthood, where now Planned Parenthood is supposedly making money transing the kids.”
Known malefactors in the anti-choice sphere—the Heritage Foundation, the Alliance Defending Freedom—have become increasingly involved in anti-trans organizing and legislation.
It sounds bizarre, but so did the theory that Planned Parenthood sold “baby parts,” which eventually inspired Robert Lewis Dear Jr. to shoot up a clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 2015. QAnon sounded bizarre until it inspired people to take up arms and riot on the Capitol. My sources tell me they see increasing evidence of a connection between anti-trans activism and the far-right world of conspiracy theorizing.
It’s less clear how these groups might be connected to mainstream anti-abortion activism, but researchers told me that known malefactors in the anti-choice sphere—the Heritage Foundation, the Alliance Defending Freedom—have become increasingly involved in anti-trans organizing and legislation. Movement conservatives apparently view trans- phobia as a useful tool to draw people to the right. Doctors bear the cost of this politicking. Ehrensaft told me that trans healthcare providers already deal with harassment. Adding coordinated and politicized terrorism to the mix is simply too much for many smaller providers.
“An individual provider who has a wolf at the door? It has led some people to say ‘I’m just not doing this work anymore,’” she said. “We are losing providers, good providers.”
Most notably, the GENECIS clinic in Dallas—the epicenter of several protests, as well as the highly publicized and politicized Luna Younger case—recently dissolved. Trans healthcare clinics are still rare outside of major cities; Reed, for example, had to drive three hours for her first appointment. This makes every closure devastating to the trans community.
The situation, Ehrensaft says, is one she’s seen: “I was very involved in the 1970s in terms of abortion rights. I went to college in the time when everybody had to go to New York or out of the country to get an abortion, because it was by state. I remember when Roe v. Wade passed, I thought, ‘Oh, well, we took care of that!’”
In 2022, Roe is far from taken care of—and trans healthcare, along with abortion, is something people have to flee to safe states to access.
“We’ll make sure that we open our California clinic to anybody coming from Texas, in the same way we’ll do that with abortion,” Ehrensaft said. “But we’ll continue to fight. Not just fight, but really do the work.”