Photo depicting a diverse crowd of people holding up protest signs that read, "Trans People Belong" and "Drag Is Not a Crime" while marching down a street.

Bad Faith: Anti-LGBTQIA+ Activists Are Repurposing a Decades-Old Anti-Abortion Strategy

by Megan Burbank

As conservative legislators continue attacks on gender-affirming care nationwide, the same small group of political actors is showing up again and again to sow fear about this life-saving medical care. While the spate of attacks on gender-affirming care might seem recent, the rhetorical strategies propelling it are straight out of the Moral Majority’s anti-abortion playbook from the 1980s. The reemergence of these strategies exemplifies the obvious nexus between anti-abortion and anti-trans policy, and should prompt a look back at the true origins of the anti-abortion movement, which also relied on selective storytelling.

Last spring, The New York Times reported that despite promoting bans on gender-affirming care for all, “fewer than 10” activists were telling the stories used to justify these attacks, typically involving accounts of “detransitioning,” which data shows is rare. Selective narratives and spin proliferate in all political movements, but this tactic, like many deployed within Christian nationalism, is very old.

It’s one Rev. Rob Schenck knows intimately. As a leader in the early anti-abortion movement who has since become a dissenting voice within American evangelicalism, Schenck says personal stories played a critical role in gaining political capital, emotional and financial buy-in from supporters, and simply fame for both activists and movement leaders. “I do know, and I’m speaking principally of myself … that we used those individuals in our movement certainly to justify our position, to elicit an emotional response from our constituencies, and very little thought was really put into the true repair,” he said. Nor was much thought put into verifying or analyzing the stories themselves. “You don’t apply any critical analysis to it,” he said. “You just take it for what it is.”

The stories people told made them famous, said Schenck. They became “heroes, quasi-celebrities in the movement.” But looking back on it now, he said, he doesn’t think the people who became instruments of the movement were helped by it. “We perpetuated their suffering, because we exploited it,” he said.

And while Shenck doesn’t doubt the sincerity of many women who came forward to share stories that advanced anti-abortion policy — “They speak for themselves,” he said — that lack of incredulity has led to some profound reversals and admissions of bad faith within conservative activism more broadly.

The most infamous of these is the strange case of Norma McCorvey, aka Jane Roe, the plaintiff in Roe v. Wade, who died in 2017. In 1995, McCorvey seemingly converted to evangelicalism and renounced her support for abortion rights. She was met with community and monetary support from the anti-abortion movement. But in the 2020 documentary AKA Jane Roe, McCorvey said — in what she called a “deathbed confession” — that her anti-abortion conversion had been “all an act,” a performative hoax motivated by money. In the same documentary, Schenck corroborated McCorvey’s statement that she had been paid for her work with the movement.

More recently, Elisa Rae Shupe, who was praised by Laura Ingraham after writing a 2019 essay saying her gender transition had been fake, repudiated her anti-trans activism and leaked emails to several news outlets that showed how she’d been recruited by the Alliance Defending Freedom — and how her story had been molded and deployed by anti-LGBTQIA+ activists. “I was gradually waking up to the fact that, you know, I was just a useful idiot, are the two words I would use,” was how she described her experience to Jude Ellison S. Doyle at Xtra. “I got the vibe that they wanted me to help them, they wanted me to use them, but they wouldn’t trust somebody like me around their kids.”

As the cases of Shupe and McCorvey illustrate, the stories at the heart of right-wing politics need not be rooted in truth to cause harm. According to Mack Smith, communications manager for Planned Parenthood Great Northwest Hawai‘i, Alaska, Indiana, and Kentucky; and Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates, one major fallout is that — as with reproductive health care — patients seeking gender-affirming care now face the possibility of having to cross state lines for it, which “is not an option for a lot of people.”

Smith sees the right wing’s pivot to anti-trans bills as a reflection of how unpopular anti-abortion policies have proven to be in the absence of Roe v. Wade. “We’re seeing what anti-abortion legislation is doing to people and how unpopular that is,” she said. Polling had suggested Americans didn’t support extreme bans on abortion before the landmark legislation fell; election results confirm it.

“It’s the same legislation — the same names are attached to the anti-abortion legislation and the anti-trans legislation,” she said. “The sympathetic ears are the same.”

And so, it seems, is the rhetorical approach — one that benefits movement leaders “enormously,” said Schenck. “I can make all the theoretical arguments I want. I can make theological arguments,” he said. “But when you hear somebody tell their personal story, you don’t need any more justification than that.” Stories resonate with Catholic and evangelical audiences, he said, “So it’s a huge asset for those people to come forward and essentially loan both their credibility and their emotional power to the movement. It’s a kind of shortcut to the objective.”

Emotional appeals can paper over complexities, which exist among evangelicals as they do in any religious group. A newly vocal minority of dissenting evangelicals has grown in recent years, from the Mama Bears — evangelical mothers battling their own religious institutions to fight for their children’s lives — to organizations like Minneapolis’ Vote Common Good, which encourages evangelical voters to reject Christian nationalism.

They have stories to tell, too. But their voices aren’t the loudest in the room.

Megan Burbank is a writer and editor based in Seattle. Before going full-time freelance, she worked as an editor and reporter at the Portland Mercury and The Seattle Times. She specializes in enterprise reporting on reproductive health policy, and stories at the nexus of gender, politics, and culture.

Before you move on to the next story …
The South Seattle Emerald is brought to you by Rainmakers. Rainmakers give recurring gifts at any amount. With over 1,000 Rainmakers, the Emerald is truly community-driven local media. Help us keep BIPOC-led media free and accessible. 
If just half of our readers signed up to give $6 a month, we wouldn't have to fundraise for the rest of the year. Small amounts make a difference. 
We cannot do this work without you. Become a Rainmaker today!