Note: The following is a repost of my most recent article at Autostraddle.
On October 10, the California-based right-wing law firm Pacific Justice Institute issued a press release on its website titled “Nightmare: Teen Boy Harasses Girls in Their Bathroom, Colo. School Tells Girls They Have No Rights.“
Like a page out of the right-wing playbook on trans issues, the press release read, in part:
Attorneys with Pacific Justice Institute (PJI) sent a strongly-worded letter this afternoon to school officials at Florence High School, warning them against squelching student privacy and speech rights in order to cater to the wishes of a teenage boy who has been entering girls’ bathrooms on campus…
Parents at the school, located near Colorado Springs, became irate when they learned that a teenage boy was entering girls’ bathrooms and, according to some students, even making sexually harassing comments toward girls he was encountering. When the parents confronted school officials, they were stunned to be told the boy’s rights as a self-proclaimed transgender trumped their daughters’ privacy rights. As the controversy grew, some students were threatened by school authorities with being kicked off school athletic teams or charged with hate crimes if they continued to voice concerns. The parents became aware of PJI’s Notice of Reasonable Expectation of Privacy and contacted PJI for help.
Brad Dacus, President of PJI, was quoted as saying:
“We’re not going to stand by and let 99.7% of our students lose their privacy and free speech rights just because .3% of the population are gender-confused. LGBT activists are sacrificing the safety and sanity of our schools to push an extreme political agenda. This battle is no longer confined to California or Colorado; it is spreading to every part of the nation. It is crucial that we act now to prevent a crippling blow to our constitutional freedoms.”
From here, the situation quickly exploded over the next few days as the story began to appear in local news before breaking in several high-profile tabloids and right-wing news sites, including the UK’s Daily Mail.
The problem with all this, of course, is that the story is largely fabricated. This fact is strongly hinted in the press release itself, in fact. Notice that not a single parent or student of Florence High School is quoted in the text, and no description is given whatsoever of the supposed “harassment” that a trans teen committed in the washroom.
There is, however, a very real young trans girl (we’ll refer to her as Jane Doe) who was the target of the PJI press release; she found out that she was supposedly guilty of “harassment” when the news media showed up one day outside of her school.
From here, I’m afraid, the story goes quickly from ugly to uglier. The good news is that, thanks to some tough reporting from Cristan William’s over at the TransAdvocate, the truth about the issue came to light very quickly. She contacted the school’s Superintendent Rhonda Vendetti, who reported that,
“We do have a transgender student at the high school, and she has been using the women’s restrooms. There has not been a situation. All the students of these parents who say they feel uncomfortable just about the fact that the student is allowed to go into the restrooms at the high school, into the stalls – they don’t believe that that’s appropriate, so that’s where it stems from. There has not been an incident of harassment, or anything that would cause any additional concern.”
Hence what we apparently have is another incidence of adults needlessly sexualizing a child’s visitation to the washroom, reminiscent of the previous media storm over six-year old Coy Mathis, another Colorado trans girl.
As a result of Cristan’s reporting and her pushing hard on the news outlets that ran those stories, several of them retracted their pieces, including the Daily Mail and Examiner.com (the latter of whom issued an apology). The story of course still appears almost as originally published over at FOX News (once the Daily Mail story it originally sourced was deleted, FOX quietly changed the link to a right-wing Christian site).
In response to the pushback, PJI was compelled to reveal the nature of the harassment that had supposedly occurred. While their initial press release clearly insinuated that specific incidents of sexual harassment had occurred, PJI later changed their story and claimed that a trans teen using the women’s washroom itself constituted harassment.
While that revelation largely kept the fabricated story from spreading further in major media, the damage was done, and continued to spread in other ways. The comments that immediately appeared underneath virtually all of the “news” pieces in Conservative media were simply vile and murderous. And while PJI has vaguely pretended that it would never have outed the trans kid in question by name (and at least acknowledged that doing so would be morally reprehensible), the fact of the matter is that for a small town in Colorado, there is in reality no doubt about who is being singled out in international media and on what basis (apparently Jane Doe is the only out trans child in her school).
And in any case, it doesn’t matter because PJI and their conservative allies managed to attract support from someone with even lower standards: anti-trans radical feminists, one of whom relayed messages from PJI and then publicly outed the young girl by name anyways.
Keep in mind that the Pacific Justice Institute is a far right organization that publicly supports anti-gay “reparative therapy” and has in the past conflated support for gay and lesbian rights with pedophilia and incest. Given that many radical feminists claim to speak universally on behalf of lesbian cis women, there is certainly irony in the fact that they are parroting the same kind of sexualized smear rhetoric that so many in the LGBT community have been fighting from the right-wing for decades.
There is further irony noting that Jane Doe herself is being raised by lesbian parents. One of her mom’s recently spoke out against the tremendous pressure that outside forces are pushing onto her family, and spoke of the anxiety attacks that her daughter has been experiencing since the anti-trans harassment campaign broke out.
“My wife and I were visiting my sister who was in the hospital while my daughter was in school. The principal called to inform me that a newscaster was at the school and wanted to interview me about my daughter’s ‘bathroom rights’ – this was the first I’d heard about any of this. From what I understand, the school didn’t even know. …I know my daughter. She’s a shy and timid person. It was upsetting. As a matter of fact, before we moved to this town, she was afraid that she would be bullied at school. She had a fear that if she went to this new school, something would happen and she wouldn’t be safe. I reassured her. I told her that everything was going to be fine and to not worry… We’re going through a lot.”
She also stated:
“My daughter was the one who learned about the Pacific Justice Institute. She saw it online. She was upset. It made her panic. She saw where their story had become international news and she saw what people were saying. It gave her anxiety attacks.”
Her mother also unequivocally denies that Jane Doe has harassed anybody.
For years, many in the feminist movement have accused transphobic radfems of professing ideas that closely mirror conservative ideology; however, not until this recent incident have I actually seen their actions align in such a clear manner.
I’ll make an honest comment that in the past I have sometimes thought some (not all) of the reaction to the anti-trans radfem campaigns has been a bit overblown. They’re hateful people who do really inappropriate things, but I don’t think their tactics very effective with the outside world (and I am saying that as someone whom they have publicly targeted in the past). I think many of the anti-trans activists who claim to be feminists fail to effectively make connections in feminist communities because of their misanthropic principles before you even take their transgender (or sex work) politics into account, and I think even a lot of cis people pick up on that. In my view, the anti-trans radfems generally aren’t worthy adversaries for us (and more than a few of their campaigns are just hilariously incompetent anyways).
However, the situation at hand is very stark. In this case, the anti-trans radfems have teamed up with an anti-family right-wing organization to smear a vulnerable teenager in the public realm, and have done so in the midst of numerous calls for violence and hate. I think that a very clear line has been crossed. (Not the first time that line has been crossed, for sure, but the dynamics are very clear and well documented in this case).
How to respond to that takes some thought, in my view, and is probably a long-term question. Personally, I do not think the answer is to engage in endless Twitter wars or to blast phrases like “die cis scum” all over the internet. I don’t think this does anything to empower us as a community over our opponents. For one thing, it just energizes the opposition by giving them more things to yell at us about. That might be fine if they at least only yelled at the trans activists who also joined in with the yelling, but they don’t; they take it out on everybody. For another thing, when we continually raise the red alert over every ridiculous thing a radfem troll says or does on the Internet, it just makes it harder to draw attention to the really important stuff, like the situation Jane Doe is facing in Colorado.
I don’t think the goal of anti-trans radfems is to actually win arguments with us anyways. On the contrary, I think their goal is just to reduce the entire conversation to the lowest common denominator possible. Then outside observers are left with the impression of two warring factions, both of whom are utterly unrelatable, and hence they just give up entirely on trying to make sense of it. That helps anti-trans activists maintain the status quo in which cissexism and trans-misogyny are considered socially acceptable.
I think part of the long-term goal for us is to expose the hateful ideology that all anti-trans activists represent, but doing so in a way that relies more so on direct appeal to the hearts and minds of the masses and steps back from direct confrontations with anti-trans activists (unless necessary or in circumstances that clearly benefit our side of the debate).
As part of exposing the opposition forces for who they really are, let’s briefly return to the Pacific Justice Institute, and their press release that was one of the first pieces in all of this, as the last paragraph of that release reveals their cynicism:
“Earlier this year, PJI led the opposition in California to AB 1266, the most sweeping legislation yet to assert transgender rights in schools. That law, which is set to take effect January 1, 2014, is currently being targeted by a citizen referendum drive. Californians who have not yet signed a petition should visit www. privacyforallstudents.com to get involved.”
Here the organization reveals an ulterior motive, and suddenly it makes perfect sense why PJI went straight to the press instead of making a serious attempt to take the issue up with the school in private. Ultimately, PJI targeted a trans teen in Colorado at least in part to fuel its referendum campaign attempting to derail California’s recently-passed Transgender equality law AB 1266.
While this does expose how desperate they must be in their challenge to trans equality, it also reveals how cynical they are in their attempts to publicly malign a trans child and to interfere in the affairs of her school, her town, and her family. This is why I refer to the Pacific Justice Institute as what they are: an anti-family organization that has no problem disrupting the lives of any family with whom they cannot or choose not to identify. And similarly I think it’s also time to recognize their radfem allies for the anti-woman “feminists” they really are.
Fortunately, many of Jane Doe’s schoolmates and fellow Florence citizens have spoken out in her defense, in defiance of Brad Dacus’s false claim that “99.7% of … students lose their privacy and free speech rights” when trans equality is recognized.