Tennessee’s anti-LGBTQ bills supported by national conservative groups

One group is labeled a hate group while others, like the Heritage Foundation, enjoy mainstream political success

(Anne-Marie Miller/Getty Images)
(Anne-Marie Miller/Getty Images)

With dozens of anti-LGBTQ bills introduced this legislative season around the U.S., human rights groups and nonprofits have been busy fighting discrimination—perhaps only surpassed in productivity by the vast and well-funded networks of nonprofits that lobbied for, and helped write, discriminatory bills in the first place.

Three of the heaviest hitters have been the Heritage Foundation, Family Policy Alliance and Alliance Defending Freedom. Smaller state associations like FACT TN and fringe organizations like the American College of Pediatricians work with the larger groups and are branded together or mentioned in the same anti-LGBTQ literature. Together, they take in millions of dollars in donations, coach lawmakers on passing discriminatory legislation, testify in Congress and distribute misinformation at live events, in brochures and literature and on national television. Their actions have resulted in Tennessee passing the most anti-LGBTQ legislation in the nation, including a bathroom bill and a ban on transgender kids participating on the right sports team.Heritage Foundation logo

On Feb. 23, the Heritage Foundation—created in 1973 to “combat the liberal agenda,” according to a marketing email sent to supporters—held a virtual event with many of its partners called “Promise to America’s Children.” Advocates say it kicked off this year’s onslaught of discriminatory legislation. The event’s host was Emilie Kao, who appeared on far-right channel Newsmax as recently as May 11 to spread disinformation about transgender healthcare. She was joined by Missouri Representative Vicky Hartzler and many of Heritage’s partners, including Family Policy Alliance vice president of strategy Autumn Leva and Greg Baylor, senior counsel for government affairs at the Alliance Defending Freedom.

“Some of the ideology is allowing males to compete in girl’s sports,” Leva falsely claimed during an interview with Representative Hartzler. Leva purposely misgendered tran girls in that statement. 

The hour-long event included multiple speakers disseminating misinformation and campaigning against the Equality Act. At the end of the session, parents were told they could download a free “resource guide” about engaging with schools or legislatures to push LGBTQ discrimination. Listeners were also told they could sign a promise showing their commitment to discriminatory policies and legislators and state officials were encouraged to sign their own “promise” and visit the Promise to America’s Children website.

That site provides model legislation lawmakers can download after giving their name, district and organization. It also points to “examples of good legislation” that include religious exemptions from child medical care services introduced in South Carolina, anti-LGBTQ sports bans introduced in Florida and Utah, transgender youth healthcare bans introduced in California and Kansas, and another bill which prevents taxpayer funds going toward youth health care.

While their signature list doesn’t currently include Tennessee lawmakers, Human Rights Campaign state legislative director Kate Oakley says the majority of these bills are nearly word-for-word copy and paste.

“While there are some differences between bills we’ve seen, they’re all about 98% the same,” Oakley says.

However, Oakley says it can be hard to get lawmakers to admit publicly they’ve received coaching or model legislation because it reveals their bills aren’t addressing actual problems constituents are experiencing, and are simply conservative talking points they’re fed. Not only does the Promise to American Children offer model legislation, but the Family Policy Alliance, founded in 2004 to push for a theocratic government in which policy, legislators and society are governed by Christianity, offers a “Statesmen Academy.” Their site claims the training will help lawmakers pass bills oriented to Christian theology. In their 2020 annual report, the Heritage Foundation claims that half of all newly elected members of Congress attend their new member orientation.

To determine how many lawmakers in Tennessee had contact with or coaching from the Heritage Foundation, Family Policy Alliance or the many smaller organizations they work with, the Lookout emailed 54 senators and representatives who sponsored anti-transgender and anti-LGBTQ bills this legislative session. Fewer than five responded and said they had not attended any Heritage events.

Sen. John Stevens, R-Huntingdon (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Sen. John Stevens, R-Huntingdon (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

Tennessee state Sen. John Stevens said he sponsored SB0228, a ban that prevents trans students from participating in sports teams that affirm their gender, to protect his daughters who play sports. However, he did not respond to a follow up email that asked him to point to a single incident at his daughters’ school or at any school in the U.S. in which trans youth presented a problem. He also said using the phrase “anti-LGBTQ” was biased, but did not respond when asked if he knew what the “T” in LGBTQ stands for, nor whether he had ever spoken to a real trans nonbinary or gender diverse constituent. Instead, Sen. Stevens said he also based his decision on some tweets he found written by an anti-trans advocate.

On the corresponding House bill that prevents trans youth from playing sports on the team corresponding with their gender, David Fowler, president of the Family Action Council of Tennessee and a former Tennessee state representative, says he provided “legal wordsmithing” to Rep. Scott Cepicky. Fowler said Cepicky, a sponsor of the bill, relied on legal advice from other sources. The Family Action Council of Tennessee  (FACT TN) is dedicated to repealing marriage equality, and experts like Oakley worry anti-transgender bills are a slippery slope to passing more discriminatory and extreme legislation. FACT is promoted on Family Policy Alliance’s website as an expert on repealing equality and features interviews with Fowler, who says he cannot remember the extent to which he interacted with Rep. Cepicky.

“We may have spoken by phone, but I really don’t remember,” Fowler said in an email statement. “[He emailed me that] he had run the issue by legal services and decided to go with their terminology.”

Although Rep. Cepicky initially responded to the Lookout and said “no and no” to questions about his interactions with the Heritage Foundation and Family Policy Alliance, he did not respond to questions about whether he supports the repeal of marriage equality or his relationship with FACT TN, which is at least loosely affiliated with the other two.

Rep. Scott Cepicky (Official photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Rep. Scott Cepicky (Official photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

Because so many lawmakers didn’t respond, even though some opened email requests as many as 30 times, it’s hard to say how many attended Heritage events, read model legislation or received legislative coaching. However, Sen. Mike Bell told the Lookout in an email statement that Rep. Jason Zachary introduced the sports ban and told him he knew about other bills being passed around the country.

“He did mention to me that similar bills were being introduced in other states,” Sen. Bell said. 

Rep. Zachary did not respond to repeated requests for comment. 

Still, Oakley says bills across the country are all nearly the same, and GLAAD regional communications director Serena Sonoma says these groups were also responsible for disastrous “bathroom bills” passed around the country in 2016.

“Once they saw these bathroom bills were not working they needed a new tactic,” Sonoma says, who also says many anti-transgender bills are rooted in racism because Black women’s bodies “have been seen as something to gawk at” and have been unfairly described as too masculine. 

The Heritage Foundation seems relatively experienced at passing discriminatory bills. According to their marketing materials, their “Mandate for Leadership” report was required reading for all members of President Ronald Reagan’s cabinet. Heritage claimed it had 70 staff and alumni employed in federal government positions and helped President Donald Trump write dozens of policies, although it’s unclear how many may still be employed under the Biden administration. Oakley says the group selected dozens of federal judges under Trump, all of whom now have lifetime appointments. 

“After President Donald J. Trump’s inauguration, there were a number of conservative policy victories and The Heritage Foundation played a role in all of them,” their website states. “In just its first year, the Trump administration embraced nearly two-thirds of the policy recommendations.” 

This may be in part to the massive amounts of funding Heritage takes in each year and spends on programming. According to their 2020 financial report, Heritage had more than $329 million in total assets. They took in more than $51 million in contributions and spent more than $60 million on research, education and media and government services. Family Policy Alliance is smaller, reporting donations of just more than $1.1 million in 2017. They spent just more than $4 million in 2017, $3 million of which went to programming. Tennessee Lookout could not find newer financial statements. In 2020, the Alliance for Defending Freedom reported more than $52 million in total assets and spent more than $48 million on grants, legal advocacy, education and strategic relations training. 

These millions help pay for events like “Promise to America’s Children” as well as the literature the groups put out, like the guide mentioned at the Feb. 23 seminar. Many of the claims in this guide create misleading fear of trans people, but experts say these groups have little data to back their claims. In the guide, Family Policy Alliance and their network of collaborators claim that trans people who receive gender-affirming care are 20 times more likely commit suicide in order to argue against affirming care, but neglect to mention real trans experiences that show the benefits of like hormone therapy, nor the effects discrimination has on trans people’s mental health their entire lives regardless of care.

 According to a CTV News report, at least four young people attempted suicide after Arkansas passed a bill banning appropriately affirming care for youth. Sonoma says every major medical association supports gender-affirming care, and that research shows affirming a young person’s pronouns and names reduces the risk of suicide and suicidal ideation. The same CTV article also says transgender youth often go through months, or years, of therapy and are closely monitored by doctors. 

  After President Donald J. Trump's inauguration, there were a number of conservative policy victories and the Heritage Foundation played a role in all of them. In just its first year, the Trump administration embraced nearly two-thirds of the policy recommendations.   – Heritage Foundation website

The Family Policy Alliance guide also claims that “men are taller” than women and say men have performance advantages over women, claims they use to justify policies that experts say have more to do with removing trans children’s bodily autonomy and less to do with protecting women’s sports. It’s important to note that in all these claims, Family Policy Alliance misgenders trans girls and uses the term “men” to imply an older adult, rather than the young school age children they’re talking about. In one Family Policy Alliance video, an Alaskan teenager claims it’s unfair that she was forced to compete against a trans athlete, yet in the same video she says she “honestly didn’t know” the competitor was trans. She beat the trangender girl in the race, too, further debunking the claims that trans girls have an advantage. In that video, Family Policy Alliance also singles out the trans athlete, highlighting her face and making her easy to identify, all apparently without her permission. Sonoma and Oakley both pointed out that trans women are allowed to participate in the NCAA and the Olympics. 

The Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled the American College of Pediatrics, which provides many “statistics” justifying discriminatory laws, as a fringe anti-LGBTQ hate group.

Oakley says these claims are cherry picked, misleading, and that no organization or legislator has been able to provide examples of times trans kids presented a threat or problem to cisgender kids, who identify with the gender assigned them at birth. Oakley says trans girls are just like all girls in that some may prefer performing in the school band instead of sports, some may be short or clumsy, and not particularly good at sports. Regardless, she says, sports are an important activity for kids that allow them to learn something new and challenging, and that sometimes winning, and sometimes losing, is a part of the school and youth experience. 

“This isn’t about sports,” Oakley says. “The groups putting bills don’t have a history of supporting women’s sports. Where are they on equal pay in women’s sports? Where are they on speaking out against abuse against athletes in women’s sports? They’re nowhere on those issues.”

In addition, many of these “statistics” were provided by the American College of Pediatricians, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled a fringe anti-LGBTQ hate group.

This group is not a legitimate medical organization,” Sonoma says.”They were formed to combat laws allowing LGBTQ people to become parents.”

Sonoma says lawmakers’ claims that being transgender sexualizes children, which speakers also claimed during the “Promise” event, are false. In fact, many bills included a “genital check” clause that concerned Oakley quite a lot, because if a cisgender girl were to be extremely competitive and do well at sports, these bills allow anyone to challenge that girl’s gender and subject her to a genital check or biological sex verification. In Tennessee’s bill, if a child’s birth certificate doesn’t indicate sex, the bill requires children too “verify their sex” in another way, although it doesn’t say how. The cost of this invasive and traumatizing process is also to be paid by the child’s family.

“Why are we having discussions about children’s genitals?” Sonoma says of sports bans that focus on children’s reproductive organs. “It’s the lawmakers who are forcing these sexual politics and perversions.”

When asked about their efforts to pass anti-LGBTQ bills, the Heritage Foundation did not respond to requests for comment. Family Policy Alliance sent a statement which again misgendered trans youth. 

When males are allowed to play in female-only sports divisions, they can and have taken away championships, scholarships, and other elite opportunities meant for females,” Meridian Baldacci, policy and communications strategist for Family Policy Alliance said in an email statement.

As Oakley says, gender policing harms all children, and these bills also have vast implications statewide. Sonoma also says that above all, trans women and girls should have bodily autonomy and agency, which any anti-trans bill strips them of. In addition, previous Tennessee Lookout reporting found Tennessee will lose millions in business revenue as businesses and conferences pull out of the state.

Oakley says it’s important for concerned citizens to call their representatives and governors, who have veto power on discriminatory legislation. She says South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem vetoed an anti-LGBTQ bill after learning constituents didn’t support it, and that her deviation from conservative nonprofit talking points caused the groups to turn on her. 

“It’s worth continuing to call legislators even if they seem to be in the pockets of these folks,” Oakley says. “These are very niche groups pushing these lies. Let legislators know there will be repercussions, because The Alliance Defending Freedom and Heritage, they don’t care about Tennessee. They only care about winning their issue.”