The Anti-Trans Movement Is Coming For A Deep-Blue State

On March 16, a broad coalition of conservative organizations joined forces at Glory Church, a large Korean church in downtown Los Angeles. Inside the former boxing arena, Pastor Richard Shin took the pulpit.

“America was a dream country to most Koreans, including me, 40 years ago. It was a country of freedom, a country of peace,” Shin said in a video recording of the event. “Now America has changed a lot. Our child discusses about transgender with counselors, but parents do not know it. When parents know their children’s transgender operation plan, and they try to stop it, their child could be taken away … Behind this, there is the devil who controls this to take our children away from God.”

Leaders from a variety of faith-based organizations and groups that support so-called “parental rights” addressed the sparse congregation about the ills of “gender ideology.” In the parking lot outside, a handful of right-wing organizers clad in black, including some Proud Boys, stood guard, according to video footage posted on social media. 

The goal of the gathering, known as the Time to Stand Rally, was to collect signatures for a series of anti-trans initiatives that many conservatives hope will make it on the California ballot in November. The three initiatives, which conservatives collectively refer to as the Protect Kids Act, would ban gender-affirming care for transgender youth statewide, bar transgender girls from participating in girls’ sports and using the girls’ restroom or locker room, and require schools to notify parents if a child says they are transgender. 

A pastor at the rally told attendees that it was their “divine obligation” to sign a petition.

Each initiative needs 546,651 signatures by the end of April for the proposals to qualify as ballot measures in the November general election. It is unclear how many signatures each initiative currently has, but the Students First California Committee, which is sponsoring all three initiatives, had raised $82,629 as of January, according to records from the California secretary of state. 

Supporters of the initiatives have espoused familiar — and false — rhetoric leveraged by many other conservatives across the country, including baselessly claiming that children are secretly undergoing transition at schools without parental knowledge. 

“You cannot wait until it is your child being ripped away from your arms by the California government, so get out there and promote the Protect Kids ballot measures and speak up,” Chloe Cole, a 19-year-old who came to regret undergoing gender-affirming care after transitioning as a minor, said at the rally this month. Cole, who was raised in California’s Central Valley, has become a darling of the anti-trans movement and, with financial backing from a billionaire political donor, has flown across the country to testify in support of anti-trans legislation. 

The anti-trans initiatives are a long shot in deep-blue California, which has some of the nation’s strongest civil rights protections, including specifically for LGBTQ+ people and people seeking gender-affirming care and abortion from out-of-state. But there are red pockets across the state, and California conservatives, like conservatives all across the country, are increasingly focusing on rolling back rights for LGBTQ+ people — and making their home state less safe for members of that community in the process.

‘Everybody Is A Potential Target’

The effort to push anti-trans issues at the state level comes shortly after conservatives in Southern California saw major losses in local school boards. Across the country, school boards have become the latest battlegrounds for culture war fights over LGBTQ+ inclusive books and classroom materials.

Jordan Henry, a far-right parental rights organizer who spearheaded anti-LGBTQ protests that at times turned violent, lost his school board elections in Glendale this month. His co-organizer, Aneta Krkepkyan, lost her race as well — but only by less than 200 votes, according to current election results, which will be certified this week. Further south, in Orange County, school board members Rick Ledesma and Madison Miner were recalled after facing criticism for approving a policy that would require schools to notify parents if their child is transgender. In a school district outside of Sacramento, board member Emily MacDonald resigned after facing a recall election for her comments on the “social contagion” of “transgenderism.” 

Although these conservatives in California ultimately don’t have spots on their local school boards, they have had plenty of support. 

The elections came months after tensions among parental rights and far-rights groups reached a fever pitch. Scores of protesters descended upon two Los Angeles school districts in June, railing against Pride month events. 

Jordan Henry speaks outside a Glendale Unified School District Board of Education meeting in June 2023.
Jordan Henry speaks outside a Glendale Unified School District Board of Education meeting in June 2023. David McNew via Getty Images

Hundreds of conservative activists, including Henry and Krpekyan, showed up in Glendale to protest the district’s support of Pride month. The district had passed a Pride resolution without incident for the previous five years. The Glendale rally quickly descended into violence, and people at the protest described a scene of anti-LGBTQ agitators beating, kicking and hurling slurs at LGBTQ+ advocates.

“This is about, specifically, gender ideology being put upon and thrust upon children at Glendale Unified,” Henry, who does not have a student in the school district, told the Los Angeles Times after the protest.

Neither Henry nor Krpekyan responded to HuffPost’s request for comment.

Grey James, an organizer with LGBTQ+ advocacy group GlendaleOUT, told HuffPost that the protests and uptick in hateful rhetoric have had a chilling effect in schools.

“People are afraid to show up and to be affiliated with LGBT issues because they know that everybody is a potential target,” James said, noting that teachers within Glendale schools have reported that fewer and fewer students are participating in events put on by the Gender and Sexuality Alliance.

“That’s a horrible way to live. Imagine being a kid and witnessing this in your community,” James added.

‘This Isn’t A New Playbook’ 

The ballot initiative strategy has paid off in the past for right-wing groups in California. In November 2008, California voters approved Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage after it had been briefly legalized earlier that year.

But Prop 8 may have passed in part because the language and political advertising confused voters. California’s current attorney general, Rob Bonta, has vowed to make sure that the language of the initiative petitions is crystal clear. Bonta, a Democrat, refers to the proposed measures collectively as the “Restricts Rights of Transgender Youth” initiative. His summary of the measure noted that although the initiatives could have “potential minor savings in state and local health care costs,” this cost would likely still be incurred by “individuals seeking treatment later in life.” Leaders from Protect Kids California, a subgroup of Students First California, have been frustrated by the state attorney general’s representation of their proposals and, in February, filed to sue Bonta over the petition’s title.

The history of conservatives turning to ballot measures to try to roll back LGBTQ+ rights in the state predates Prop 8, said Tony Hoang, the executive director of Equality California, the state’s largest LGBTQ+ advocacy organization that played a key role in fighting for the right for same-sex couples to marry.

“This isn’t a new playbook for them,” he said. I feel like we’ve gone back to the ’70s with the Briggs initiative, where time and time again, our community is put up to a vote, and they’re hoping to galvanize their base with this red meat.”

The Briggs ballot initiative, which was sponsored by state legislator John Briggs of Orange County, sought to bar lesbian and gay teachers from working in California public schools. The ballot measure was initially very popular with voters but ultimately failed in the 1978 election after a coalition of LGBTQ+ activists, including Harvey Milk — the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California — organized a successful campaign against it.

In recent years, as the broader conservative strategy has been to make transgender and gender-nonconforming people the target of today’s moral panic, anti-LGBTQ rhetoric has not proven to be popular at the polls. Candidates in federal, state and local levels of government that run on anti-trans platforms have notperformed well in elections, though several GOP-controlled states have succeeded in passing legislation that restricts the rights of LGBTQ+ people.

Even if they don’t succeed — or end up on the ballot at all — initiatives like the Protect Kids Act can have a negative impact, Hoang said.

“We also know that when the proposed measures are out there, they cause harm to LGBTQ youth across the state,” he said. “The hotlines that we partner with are getting increased spikes of youth that are reaching out for help and having suicidal thoughts because far-right extremist politicians are utilizing our community as a wedge issue.” LGBTQ+ youth are four times more likely to die from suicide than their peers. More than a third of trans youth currently live in states where they cannot access gender-affirming care, and schools have reported higher rates of hate crimes against LGBTQ+ kids.

Advocates like Equality California say they have to plan for all outcomes in state and federal elections this year. Local and state-level battles over LGBTQ+ equality have shown no signs of slowing down, and activists are concerned about what could happen across the country — including in blue states — if Republicans have control of Congress and the White House.

“We are planning for the worst,” Hoang said, “and looking at what are the practical things we can do here in California to ensure that our protections are safeguarded in light of whatever happens at the federal level.”