After Far-Right Harassment, Trans People Are Fighting to Keep Their Health Care

trans-care-at-clinics - Credit: Stephen Zenner/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images
trans-care-at-clinics - Credit: Stephen Zenner/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

For trans children, finding a community of peers is challenging. That’s why Maya, whose name has been changed to protect her family, was thrilled this past spring when she and her nine-year-old son were able to join a carefully vetted children’s group through the Gender Development Program at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago. “It gives my son the opportunity to interact with kids who are going through similar things,” she says. It’s essentially a play group, she says, where children in the same age group do themed activities like going to the beach or building paper airplanes. “It’s just so important for them just to have that connection with other kids.”

The paper airplanes meetup never happened, however. It was canceled following multiple public protests and instances of harassment against the hospital’s gender clinic. On August 22, an activist known as Billboard Chris stood outside the hospital wearing a sandwich board that said “Children cannot consent to puberty blockers” and tweeted to his 77,000 followers, accusing the hospital of “ghoulish child abuse.” Nine days later, a prominent conservative activist posted a tweet thread accusing Lurie of promoting sex toys and BDSM to children. He posted screenshots of webpages from the Chicago feminist sex shop Early to Bed as supposed evidence. (The assistant manager of the store, who asked that their name not be included, tells Rolling Stone the shop works with Lurie to help trans teens get gender gear — mainly binders — and that this does not include sex toys.)

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On Sept. 15, the day before the meetup, Maya got an email canceling the event. “Out of an abundance of caution, we have decided to cancel this month’s groups,” read the email, which Rolling Stone reviewed. “Unfortunately, our division of adolescent medicine, gender program, and sex education providers have been the target of recent harassment.”

“My kid was super bummed,” Maya says. “Just a couple days earlier we’d gotten an email like, ‘Hey, don’t forget — are you working on your paper airplane?’ And two days later we got the email that it’s a no-go.”

For several months, right-wing activists and trolls have routinely targeted hospitals that offer transgender health clinics. These campaigns have taken place mostly online, and tend to focus on adolescent health offerings, in particular. Users with large followings like the account Libs of TikTok have led the charge, calling out one organization at a time. The users often categorize trans health care providers, whom they target by name, as “groomers” and accuse them of child abuse. Their followers then swarm the health centers’ official accounts, demanding firings and shutdowns.

Some organizations have responded by removing web pages about the clinics — which can include identifying information about the staff — and moving appointments temporarily from in-person to virtual. Others, like Lurie, have canceled events. (Lurie did not immediately reply to request for comment on the cancellation of the meetup group.) Following the protest in Chicago, the hospital posted a statement on its website reaffirming its commitment to providing transgender care.

Chase Strangio, the ACLU’s deputy director for transgender justice, says harassment from the right wing has been escalating and could cause a chilling effect, where patients don’t feel safe going to their doctors. “[The campaigns] are very much aimed at demonizing the care, attacking clinics, highlighting individual providers, and creating these incendiary untrue narratives that threaten the ability of people to safely access care,” they say.

In some instances, the harassment seems to be achieving its goals, and people including Maya are seeing trans care disrupted in real life. Alejandra Caraballo, a lawyer, trans advocate, and instructor at Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic, said on Twitter that people have messaged her about struggles with refilling prescriptions and other issues accessing care in the wake of these threats. “The terrorism is working,” she wrote. “These clinics are really like a lifeblood of the trans community, because they offer so many resources,” Caraballo tells Rolling Stone. “They offer understanding care, and also Prep, Pep, and STI testing; a lot of trans people oftentimes have to resort to survival sex work. The surgeries are actually not the bulk of the work that they do. Most of it is actually day-to-day primary care.”

“[The campaigns] are very much aimed at demonizing the care, attacking clinics, and creating incendiary, untrue narratives that threaten the ability of people to safely access care,” says the ACLU’s Chase Strangio.

Brooke, who asked that we use only her first name, encountered a slowdown in her medical care at Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s Clinic for Transgender Health in Nashville, Tennessee following an online harassment campaign against the institution. On Friday, Sept. 16, she saw her primary care doctor for a routine physical. The following Tuesday, right around the time she expected to hear from her doctor, the Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh, who often uses his platform to go after trans people, tweeted to his one million followers about what he called an “investigation” into practices at VUMC. Walsh claimed, among other things, that Vanderbilt “drugs, chemically castrates, and performs double mastectomies on minors,” and that the hospital was motivated by greed to open its Transgender Health Clinic in 2018. He used a brief video clip of a doctor — Brooke’s PCP — discussing the budgetary benefits of transgender health care to support his claim. On Wednesday, Tucker Carlson picked up Walsh’s claims. Walsh’s original tweet has been liked and retweeted tens of thousands of times.

“When you see your doctor being attacked for helping you, it’s very difficult,” Brooke says, adding that her doctor, who she’s been seeing for over two years, is the best she’s ever had. “She’s very sweet and compassionate and understands what she’s talking about. She knows what she’s doing.”

Shortly after her physical, Brooke was able to see her blood-work results online. One of the results concerned her, so she was eager for more information, but she didn’t hear from her doctor about the results until several days after Walsh’s “investigation” went viral. “I finally heard back a week later at like, 11:40 at night, [when] she was working late, because I can tell on the app,” Brooke says. “It was troubling. Very troubling.”

VUMC released a statement saying Walsh’s posts “misrepresent facts about the care the Medical Center provides to transgender patients.” The medical center took down the web page about its transgender health clinic and reportedly temporarily shifted operations to virtual appointments rather than in person. (A media contact for VUMC did not respond to a request for further comment or an interview with the doctor Walsh targeted.)

For people who attend these clinics, a lot is at stake. A 37-year-old transgender woman, who asked to remain anonymous because she has not come out, says transgender resources offered through health care giant Kaiser Permanente have played an important role in the early stages of her transition. Over the course of a few months in early 2022, she attended a virtual gender expression workshop covering topics including clothing, makeup, and skincare. “It was one of the earliest affirming things in my transition,” she says. “It’s an incredible thing that Kaiser offers, and I didn’t expect something like that in a million years.” Earlier in September, Kaiser was targeted online by Libs of TikTok and other users, who attacked the program for offering similar workshops to children ages 12 to 17 who identify as trans or non-binary, along with their parents. The woman who spoke to Rolling Stone says she was horrified to see a program that helped her vilified that way. “Just seeing that, it was disgusting,” she says. “They’re not doing harm, they’re doing good.”

A spokesperson for Kaiser tells Rolling Stone they are concerned about the safety and security of the staff at their clinics, following the onslaught of harassment online. The company also confirmed they are continuing to offer gender expression workshops.

Other organizations also say they are proceeding with care as usual despite harassment and threats. The University of Wisconsin, which had just announced its Gender Services Clinic in August, came under fire from Libs of TikTok last week. The account took screenshots of the clinic’s information pages on top surgery and zeroed in on the fact that they offer advice for minors as well as adults. Within hours, the university had taken down or password-protected its webpages on gender-affirming health care. A spokesperson for the health center tells Rolling Stone the attacks haven’t stopped the clinic from administering services, saying, “We have not made any changes to our gender services program and standard appointments and operations continue.” The spokesperson added, “​​UW Health fully supports our patients who identify as LGBTQ+ and our expert clinicians and staff who provide patient-centered and evidence-based gender services care.”

According to the ACLU’s Strangio, the fallout from online harassment campaigns is only just beginning. “Every year we’re seeing an escalation in a legislative attack,” they say. “I think it’s very likely that we will see in Tennessee, for example, a categorical ban on care, at least for trans adolescents.” And in a special session last week, two days after Walsh’s campaign against VUMC, Strangio notes, Missouri introduced a proposal to ban care for trans adolescents. Activists viewed the proposal as a political stunt to rally the Republican base, since special sessions are constitutionally limited and the proposal cannot actually be made law — at least not right now. “I think it’s very likely that we’ll see that bill being introduced again,” Strangio says. “Come January, there’ll be legislative consequences to all of this.”

For parents like Maya, the increasing targeted harassment of the trans community forces a weighing of a child’s physical safety against the essential, positive social interactions they get from programs offered by trans health clinics. “You sorta hesitate and worry,” Maya says. “When they had the gender play group at the beach, it was outside. I genuinely hesitated about going to that one. I get it: It would be a fun day and the kids could play at the beach, but it makes you pause and reevaluate the safety of these situations.”

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