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The Christian nationalist boot camp pushing anti-trans laws across America

Sarah Posner   

The Christian nationalist boot camp pushing anti-trans laws across America

This article was produced in partnership with Type Investigations, where Sarah Posner is a reporting fellow.

In April, Robin Lundstrum, a Republican lawmaker in the Arkansas House of Representatives, traveled to Missouri to testify in support of a bill that would ban doctors from providing or referring transgender and gender non-conforming minors for gender-affirming health care. Citing the Women's Liberation Front, a radical feminist group that opposes trans rights, Lundstrum suggested that trans kids think they are trans just because they are not fitting in with their peers.

"Maybe these kids just need time to grow up. Adolescence stinks. Nobody wants to go back to junior high, I've never met a single person in my entire life that says let's go back to junior high," Lundstrum told lawmakers. "It doesn't mean you're transgender, it doesn't mean anything, it just means you're going through adolescence."

The Missouri bill was modeled on the Arkansas Save Adolescents from Experimentation Act, or SAFE Act — Lundstrum's signature achievement, which helped make her a minor celebrity on the Christian right. Last year, Lundstrum shepherded the bill to passage in just six weeks, including an override of a veto by the state's Republican governor, Asa Hutchinson. (A temporary federal court injunction has prevented the SAFE Act from going into effect.) Nineteen other states have taken up similar bills aimed at banning gender-affirming care.

As a high-profile evangelist for these laws, Lundstrum has been part of a growing cohort of right-wing lawmakers and Christian nationalist groups that are working to pass some of the most extreme anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion measures in the nation. These bills are often based on false claims that gender-affirming care is a ghoulish medical experiment that causes lifelong harm to kids, when in fact doctors and professional medical organizations have established that such treatment is vital to supporting the health and well-being of trans kids.

Lundstrum, who did not respond to requests for an interview for this story, was first elected to her northwest Arkansas seat in 2014. She presents herself as an empathetic and energetic small business owner, wife, and mother who is committed to keeping her community and its children safe. She is staunchly opposed to abortion and has sponsored numerous anti-abortion bills, including Arkansas' trigger law that made nearly all abortions in the state illegal when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade earlier this year. In 2021, she sponsored an unsuccessful bill banning COVID vaccine requirements, and tweeted in support of a controversial doctor who had given people incarcerated at an Arkansas jail the discredited COVID treatment Ivermectin. Lundstrum, an evangelical Christian and member of an influential Southern Baptist Church, has said that "it's our duty as Christians to take care of our Christian nation" and "our Constitution came out of the Bible."

The SAFE Act flies in the face of how doctors treat their trans patients. The health care Lundstrum and her acolytes seek to outlaw, including gender-affirming mental health care, puberty blockers, and hormone treatments, represents the established standards for minor patients experiencing gender dysphoria, or a disconnect between their gender identity and their sex assigned at birth. These standards of care have been adopted by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, and other mainstream medical organizations. Despite the consensus of the medical community, SAFE Act proponents persist in falsely claiming these treatments are "experimental" and that they "disfigure" children. The SAFE Act also purports to ban gender-affirming surgeries, but doctors do not perform such surgeries on minors in Arkansas, and the American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend such surgeries on patients under the age of 18 anywhere.

In a heated exchange during the hearings on Lundstrum's Arkansas bill, Dr. Gary Wheeler, then the president of the Arkansas chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, testified that it was extraordinary for politicians to decide whether well-established medical procedures should be allowed. Lawmakers had limited the testimony of respondents to two minutes, and Wheeler used his time to call out the bill's supporters for relying on "misinformation." The American Academy of Pediatrics issued its own statement condemning attempts to ban gender-affirming care as having "the sole purpose of threatening the health and well-being of transgender youth."

But Lundstrum's bill didn't take the views of these medical experts into account. Instead, the bill relied on two powerhouses of Christian nationalist political advocacy: the Family Research Council and the Arkansas affiliate of the Family Policy Alliance, the political arm of Focus on the Family. Founded in 1977 by the anti-LGBTQ psychologist James Dobson, Focus on the Family has worked to shape the views of tens of millions of U.S. evangelicals on sexuality and gender—and how they should engage politically in order to ensure that that government be guided by a "biblical worldview."

This religious view—which does not represent all Christians, and only a minority of Americans—maintains that the law must be consistent with sex and gender strictures ordained by God. It has shaped the decades-long assault on abortion rights, culminating in the Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade, and a growing backlash against contraception and LGBTQ rights. The Christian right has targeted trans rights in particular because they contend—contrary to established medical and scientific evidence—that a person cannot deviate from "God's design" for men and women. In rejecting the medical establishment in favor of this anti-scientific religious ideology, Lundstrum's SAFE Act represents an escalation in Republican legislative attacks on trans kids, ramping up from barring them from bathrooms and sports consistent with their gender identity to making the basic health care they need illegal. It is a template for how Christian nationalist organizations and lawmakers plan to drastically restrict the rights of trans people in states across the country, and one they are increasingly intent on making into law.

Training state lawmakers to implement this ideology has become a top priority of the Family Policy Alliance, which has hailed the SAFE Act as a critical step to protect children from "dangerous medical experiments" that amounted to "manipulation, malpractice, and abuse."

In 2016, it launched the Statesmen Academy, a program which "provides pro-family legislators early in their career with the training, mentorship, support and coordination necessary for effective, Christ-centered public service," according to its website.

Lundstrum is one of the Academy's most celebrated graduates, and she's part of a growing network of right-wing Christian legislators around the country who are tapping into the group's resources.

The Family Policy Alliance does not publish a complete list of Statesmen Academy alumni, but Insider and Type Investigations were able to identify 55 alumni of the program based on Family Policy Alliance blog posts and other public statements, social media posts, and lawmakers' public disclosure records. The alumni include far-right members of state legislatures around the country who have sponsored or co-sponsored controversial anti-trans legislation, including health care bans and prohibitions on trans athletes participating in school sports consistent with their gender identity.

To gain admission to the Statesmen Academy, applicants are urged to obtain a reference from their pastor, and they must agree to a statement of faith. The week-long program features media training, worship and devotions, and lectures by figures well-known to the evangelical right. Speakers have included Joe Kennedy, the former high school football coach who this year won a Supreme Court case holding that his on-field prayers did not violate the separation of church and state; and Matthew Spalding, a professor at the far-right Hillsdale College who served as executive director of President Donald Trump's roundly criticized 1776 Commission, which asserted that America's heritage was under attack by "identity politics" which "sees politics as the realm of permanent conflict and struggle among racial, gender, and other groups."

Afterwards, graduates "receive ongoing training and resources including model legislation, talking points, research and polling, and media interview preparation," according to the Family Policy Alliance website. "A private Facebook page, monthly e-newsletters, policy calls and periodic alumni events help facilitate this community."

The Statesmen Academy elevates the profiles of these legislators and helps them promote legislation rooted in baseless distortions of science and medicine, particularly with regard to reproductive and trans rights.

Amanda Banks has been the Academy's director since 2019. At an online conference hosted by the Family Policy Alliance last October, she lauded Lundstrum's role in authoring the SAFE Act, calling it "groundbreaking" legislation that "we hope will be replicated in many states in the coming year." This July the organization awarded Lundstrum its Coburn Statesmen Award, named for the late, ultraconservative Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who was a frequent speaker at the Academy's training programs.

Banks has said that the Statesmen Academy trains roughly 30 legislators each year. "That is going to multiply into effective policies, God-honoring policies," she said in a promotional video. "If they're all pursuing those biblical values through the work that they do, I think ultimately God is going to be honored, and His will is going to be done on earth as it is in heaven." The Family Policy Alliance did not respond to interview requests about the Statesmen Academy.

Banks is the wife of the hard-right, pro-Trump Congressman from Indiana, Jim Banks, who previously served in the Indiana legislature and is an alumnus of the Statesmen Academy. Jim Banks has also worked as a National Field Director with Focus on the Family. Amanda Banks' own legislative experience was serving in the Indiana statehouse for one year when her husband was deployed to Afghanistan in 2014, and working as a federal policy analyst for Focus on the Family.

Five Statesmen Academy alumni—Reps. Derek Merrin and Jena Powell of Ohio, Rep. Sara Walsh of Missouri, Rep. Scott Allen of Wisconsin, and Sen. Jeff Raatz of

Indiana—sponsored or co-sponsored anti-trans health care bans in 2022, along with other legislation seeking to limit abortion access and LGBTQ rights.

Both Merrin and Powell, of Ohio, were co-sponsors of a controversial 2022 bill, which passed the Ohio House, that would ban transgender girls and women from participating in girls' and womens' sports at Ohio public schools and universities, and require an invasive investigation of the athlete's genitals and hormone levels if any other participant questioned their gender. This would mean that, if the bill were to become law, students could be forced to submit to demeaning medical examinations against their will if they wish to play sports, based on nothing more than the suspicions of teammates, opposing players, parents, or anyone else who wanted to interfere with the student's ability to participate in athletics. Ohio Democrats denounced it as "extremist" and "state-sanctioned sexual abuse."

Powell also authored and introduced another bill authorizing citizens to snitch on others. It declared "unborn persons" to be "created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," and would allow any person to sue, for minimum damages of $10,000, anyone who "aided or abetted" an abortion, including paying for it "through insurance other otherwise."

Walsh, who co-sponsored the Missouri bill that Lundstrum traveled to Jefferson City to endorse, has also co-sponsored or supported legislation that, if passed, would create a Rush Limbaugh Day; ban the use of the 1619 Project, The New York Times' award-winning exploration of the legacy of slavery in America, in schools; allow people to carry firearms on public transportation; and prohibit vaccine mandates. (Walsh's husband, who, like her, was not vaccinated against COVID-19, died after contracting the disease last year.)

As a congressman, Jim Banks, one of the Academy's first alumni, has used his wider platform to disparage trans people. Last year, Twitter temporarily suspended his account after he misgendered Dr. Rachel Levine, the Assistant Health and Human Services Secretary who's a pediatrician, a four-star admiral in the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, and the first trans person to hold a Senate confirmed position in the federal government. After the Senate confirmed her, Banks wrote on Twitter, "The title of first female four-star officer gets taken by a man." Levine had been critical of the wave of anti-trans bills in state legislatures. In an appearance on MSNBC, Levine specifically cited bills that prohibit access to gender-affirming care—like Lundstrum's SAFE Act—as "the most egregious." Trans kids who "are supported and nurtured and receive evidence-based, state of the art medical care, do really really well," she said. "These bills are actually going to harm people."

In June, Banks introduced a bill titled Empower Parents to Protect Their Kids Act of 2022, which would strip school districts of their federal funding if they were found to have facilitated a child's "social gender transition" without their parents' consent—based on the idea, according to the legislation, that public schools, "pressured" by "powerful teachers unions and activist organizations," are encouraging children to change their gender. The same day, Banks introduced another bill, the Protect Minors from Medical Malpractice Act of 2022, which would create a private right of action, with a 30-year statute of limitations from the time the plaintiff turns 18, to allow patients to sue a doctor who provided them gender-affirming care—an attempt to make the law characterize the consensus standard of care within the medical community as "malpractice."

The legislation that the Statesmen Academy's alumni have championed largely runs counter to the religious and political beliefs of most Americans. Recent polling by the Pew Research Center found that "White evangelicals are the only religious group analyzed in which a majority say that society has gone too far in accepting transgender people," and are far more likely than other Christian groups to say that their religion influences their views on whether someone's gender can be other than that assigned at birth. White evangelicals make up just 15 percent of the population, according to the Public Religion Research Institute.

The Pew researchers found white evangelicals are more likely than the general population and even other Christian groups to oppose trans rights. Sixty-eight percent of white evangelicals support requiring trans people to use the bathroom corresponding with the sex they are assigned at birth, compared to 41 percent of the general population, and 40 percent of Catholics, and just 36 percent of Black Protestants. Similarly, white evangelicals are the group most favoring making it illegal for elementary schools to teach about gender identity, and banning trans student athletes from participating in school sports corresponding to their gender identity.

Compared to other religious groups and the general population, white evangelicals are the demographic "least likely to be comfortable knowing people in their community are transgender," with just 22 percent saying they are very or somewhat comfortable with transgender people, according to polling by the Public Religion Research Institute. And they are the least likely demographic to accept having a transgender child, with just 30 percent telling pollsters they would respond that way.

To advance these laws, proponents of the health care bans like Lundstrum's promote outdated and debunked science, including claiming that transgender and nonbinary people experience higher rates of mental illness and suicide—when the reality is that they experience those outcomes when they are stigmatized and denied care. The Arkansas Psychological Association, the state chapter of the American Psychological Association, criticized Lundstrum's SAFE Act as "dangerous," because it suggests that transgender people "are inherently mentally ill," when in fact it is "generally understood that transgender people are at greater risk for mental health concerns because of the stigma and oppression they experience, rather than as a result of their gender identities."

Refuting the claim that transgender and gender-nonconforming youth are at higher risk of suicide, the APA wrote that "Access to gender affirming care in adolescence actually decreases the risk of suicide."

When trans children and their parents challenged the constitutionality of the Arkansas SAFE Act in court, 19 medical, mental health, and educational organizations took their side in an amicus brief. The professional groups explained that the consensus of the medical community is that gender is not binary, and that for a patient experiencing gender dysphoria, gender-affirming care, including mental health interventions, puberty blockers, and hormones to prompt development consistent with a patient's gender identity, "is the only effective treatment."

The SAFE Act, they wrote, prohibits this needed care, "distorts the facts around gender dysphoria," and "endorses an outdated 'treatment'—which is in fact an intentional decision not to treat—that the medical community has long since repudiated." Banning this health care, the medical experts argued, would harm transgender youth.

Sabrina Jennen, a teenage trans girl who is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, says in a statement on the ACLU's website, "I know first-hand that gender-affirming care is life-saving care. I can't imagine going back, or being denied care that my doctors and parents agree that I need."

Last July the judge issued a preliminary injunction barring implementation of the law pending a full trial on its constitutionality, scheduled for October.

But Arkansas' top law enforcement official, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, has vowed to fight the injunction and amplified the falsehoods promoted by SAFE Act supporters. At an event hosted by the Family Research Council last year, Rutledge spoke on a panel titled "Keeping Kids SAFE from Radical Gender Ideology," and suggested that parents who get their kids gender-affirming care are abusive.

"Being a child is tough. But being a child with parents who don't love you as parents are supposed to love you makes it even tougher," Rutledge said. "But fortunately for those young people there are folks like you all, like our legislators in Arkansas, and attorneys general like me, willing to stand up and fight for those children, and to protect them, because we know how God created that child and the future that God intended that child to have."

Even after the injunction, Lundstrum has continued to promote the SAFE Act. She appeared at a Family Research Council-sponsored dinner at a gathering of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a powerful right-wing group that crafts and promotes model legislation in state legislatures. On a podcast hosted by the Parental Rights Foundation, a rightwing group that says it advocates for the rights of parents to raise their children free of government interference, Lundstrum repeated the unscientific falsehoods underlying the law, called being trans "a social contagion," and claimed that it is just a trendy fad for teenagers. "You'll have the popular, in-thing — where 25 girls decide to transition together," she said. She said she was working with legislators in other states to help them pass their own versions of the law.

The Statesmen Academy's plan is that copycat bills of the SAFE Act will come before more state legislatures in the future, despite the mounting medical and legal criticism. Two more states—Alabama and Arizona—have enacted bans on trans health care. Bills that would outlaw trans health care have been introduced in 19 more state legislatures. In Ohio, a SAFE Act that is making its way through the House of Representatives is nearly identical to Lundstrum's Arkansas bill.

"I have spoken with Rep. Lundstrum," Rep. Gary Click, a pastor and lawmaker who introduced the Ohio SAFE Act, wrote in an email interview. "I looked at a few bills, including hers, and studied the issue before landing on the final version. She has done a fantastic job and is an excellent resource. I had worked on one or two drafts prior to the final version and ultimately decided not to reinvent the wheel but rather adjust our version based on the AK model." Click said he was not familiar with the Statesmen Academy.

Arizona's Children Deserve Help Not Harm Act, which became law this year, contains nearly identical language to Lundstrum's SAFE Act about children with gender dysphoria being inherently more mentally ill and suicidal. Similar bills failed to pass in Mississippi and Louisiana, but the Louisiana legislature used that same discredited language in a resolution requesting the state Department of Health "conduct a study focused on the risks associated with gender reassignment surgeries and procedures for minors."

Before introducing her bill in Missouri, state representative Suzie Pollock hosted Lundstrum to speak to lawmakers and activists at the Missouri Baptist Convention about the SAFE Act in early February. Pollock described gender-affirming care to the group's newspaper, The Pathway, as "a growing trend, at an alarming rate. And we have to get education out there for people about how dangerous (these sex-change procedures) really are." It is important, she added, "that the church be prepared to handle this situation." The next day, Pollock introduced the Missouri SAFE Act in the House, and on behalf of the Missouri Baptist Convention, the organization's director of public policy Don Hinkle supported the legislation in written testimony to lawmakers. Hinkle did not respond to an interview request. Pollock declined to be interviewed for this story.

The day after Lundstrum testified in support of the Missouri legislation, she appeared on the influential radio program Washington Watch with Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council. "We need Missouri folks to be calling" their legislators, Lundstrum told Perkins, who cast the bill as an essential antidote to "experimental gender transition procedures" that would "damage the lives of the next generation." Three days later, Missouri lawmakers voted the bill out of committee, where it remains in limbo after the legislative session adjourned.

Even with the Arkansas SAFE Act temporarily on hold, trans youth, their health care providers, and their parents live with an ongoing sense of "unnerving fear and a complete loss of a sense of security," said x freelon, the executive director of Lucie's Place, an LGBTQ advocacy non-profit in Little Rock. Parents fear they will be accused of child abuse, and their adolescent kids fear they will have to detransition if they lose access to gender-affirming care, they said. For parents of young trans kids, the prospect of not being able to access the care their child will need when they approach puberty is devastating. Another plaintiff in the lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the SAFE Act was Brooke Dennis, who was nine years old at the time of filing. Her mother, Amanda Dennis, says in a statement on the ACLU's website, "this law stands in the way of our child getting the medical care she will desperately need."

Even if the law is eventually struck down as unconstitutional, trans advocates say the lawmakers' promotion of it has adversely influenced public discourse on trans issues. "People who have never even met a trans person, to their knowledge, that have no expertise at all started regurgitating a lot of inaccurate and hurtful language," said Courtney Frierson, a Little Rock therapist who was one of the health care providers who testified against the SAFE Act. "Because as it becomes a topic in the legislature, news is beginning to cover it, using similar language to what the legislature was using, and then there's the social media reaction to the news."

The push by the Statesmen Academy for Christian legislators to enact "God-honoring" policies has already led to isolation and harm to trans kids, advocates say. Cathryn Oakley, State Legislative Director and Senior Counsel at the Human Rights Campaign, said that a slew of anti-trans laws over the past several years have had a negative cumulative impact on trans children and their families. These laws include banning trans girls and women from participating in sports, bathroom bills, and the medical care bans, which all have the effect of separating children from their coaches, teammates, counselors, doctors, and parents.

"These are attacks on children," Oakley said, "trying to take away all of the social supports that will allow these children to succeed and thrive."

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