SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — On March 8, 2023, Mother Jones reporter Madison Pauly revealed the existence of a secretive group of state lawmakers, lawyers, activists and members of conservative political and religious groups.
This revelation came in the form of more than 2,000 pages of emails, provided to journalists across the country by Elisa Shupe, a transgender woman who had been involved with the group for the past several years.
On March 8, KELOLAND News received these emails in their entirety. In the past week, myself and my colleague Jazzmine Jackson have been combing through the exchanges and email threads.
You can find Jackson’s work on the project, explaining how South Dakota became the front-line of anti-trans legislation, here.
Note: Throughout the emails, Shupe is listed and referred to as James or Jamie Shupe. James was Shupe’s birth and former legal-name. At a point in the past, she also went by Jamie. Her legal name is now Elisa.
Five South Dakotans involved in the group
In our time with the emails in hand, KELOLAND News has identified five South Dakotans as having involvement in the group. These are Republican State Representatives Fred Deutsch and Jon Hansen, Republican State Senator, and current Senate President Pro Tempore, Lee Schoenbeck, then-South Dakota Catholic Conference Director Christopher Motz, and Glenn Ridder, a family medicine practitioner with Sanford Health.
In the cases of Hansen, Motz and Ridder, the full extent of their involvement in the group remains unknown. They were not active participants in emails on which Shupe was included, though they are cc’d on a large number.
Deutsch was much more active, appearing on the majority of email chains in which Shupe was included.
As for Schoenbeck, when reached for comment on his involvement with the emails, his initial reaction, via email, was; “No idea what you’re talking about,”.
Provided with a specific example, Schoenbeck remembered.
“Ok. That’s who you’re talking about. Fred put me on it without asking. If those are all out there, you’ll see a point where I disappear as I had him take me off. Those folks generated a blizzard of emails. I deleted all of them. Don’t know them, other than Fred.“
Schoenbeck’s characterization of his involvement is mostly accurate. The number of chains on which his email address appears is minimal, though he was a direct participant in one; a debate about language in legislation to be introduced in the 2020 session.
At issue was the involvement of the word ‘incorrect’ in relation to a child’s perception of their own sex. “Amen,” relied Schoenbeck when Deutsch announced he’d been road-tripping across the state to meet with legislators.
On his opinion of the work ‘incorrect’ Schoenbeck appeared opposed.
“‘Incorrect’ draws more flys [SIC] — because of it’s [SIC] judgmental nature,” he wrote, following it up by adding, “I’m okay with being judgmental — others not so much.“
On March 10, 2023, two days after receiving the emails, we spoke with Shupe in a telephone interview spanning more than an hour. In this interview, she outlined her involvement in the group, and the path that led her to Deutsch.
Among the tranche of emails was this, pictured below, from January 29, 2020, the morning before Deutsch’s HB 1057 — the Vulnerable Child Protection Act (VCPA) was heard on the South Dakota House Floor.
Perhaps no other email as well encapsulates the spirit and tenor of the group as a whole, both as described by Shupe, and as bourn out in the emails themselves.
“I wasn’t exaggerating when I told Mother Jones that Deutsch assembled a group of people — we were all just like trained killers,” Shupe told KELOLAND News in her March 10 interview.
Deutsch’s VCPA, though it cleared the House, would not pass in 2020, being killed by a Senate Committee on Feb. 10 of that year. While that spelled the end of it for the year, that was not the last the state and the nation would see of it. A similar bill became law in South Dakota this year.
Response from Deutsch
Deutsch himself does not agree with Shupe’s characterizations.
Jacob, I read your story. I do not agree with Ms. Shupe’s characterization. I do not “ever” recall saying anything derogatory or unkind about trans people. You have the emails – can you find anything from me that remotely resembles Ms. Shupe’s statement that “behind the sense [SIC]– they’re talking about, ‘we need to destroy these kids?’ That statement is just so far removed from my recollection, and is 100% opposite from the purpose of the proposed legislation. I believe the reality is Ms. Shupe, who admittedly suffers from psychological problems and has been involuntarily committed to a psych ward four times — has a vendetta.Tuesday morning email from Deutsch
Response from Shupe
Shupe provided a response to this statement from Deutsch which placed a focus on her mental health.
Rep. Fred Deutsch valued my counsel and credentials at every point that he was using me to strip transgender kids of their rights to receive life saving health care, but after I leaked the emails because it was the correct and just thing to do, Deutsch now attacks me for having mental illness caused by childhood and military sexual trauma. I’m saddened by this, but not surprised.
My four psychiatric hospitalizations were caused by trying to detransition despite having severe gender dysphoria. My belief was if what Deutsch and the others were selling worked, I would get things like family acceptance back, etc.
To this day, my mother painfully refuses to accept me as a transgender woman. “Can’t the psychiatrists fix you?” My mom asks. Like Deutsch, my mother fails to accept that a legitimate medical association is helping and fixing me. Not the sham one that Deutsch is in cahoots with secretly until now.
The snake oil cure for gender dysphoria that Deutsch and his cronies are peddling to the public, “more time,” as an appropriate course of action to deal with gender dysphoria failed to help, treat, or cure me. The outcome won’t be any different for trans kids in South Dakota who have become vulnerable to his so-called child protection acts. The lost time accessing necessary medical care will forever haunt these kids and scar their psyches. Early intervention is vital to success when it comes to a gender transition.
I failed those vulnerable children. I participated in harm against them. I can admit that now. Rep. Fred Deutsch isn’t there yet.Elisa Shupe, in response to the above statement by Deutsch
As for Deutsch’s question as to whether he is ever noted in the emails as saying ‘we need to destroy these kids’ (he may truly be unsure, as he claims not to have emails dating that far back), there is no instance of him saying such a thing in the emails provided by Shupe.
There is however a steady presence of erasure and the categorical denial of the existence of trans people throughout. Erasure and denial that Deutsch did not push back on in the exchanges.
Trans erasure amid group members
The latest example of this comes in the group’s response to the news that Pauly was in possession of emails from the group. As seen in the slideshow below, Pauly reached out to Deutsch for comment.
Deutsch solicited advice from the group, seen in slide #3 (Shupe was not yet known to be the source of the leak and remained in the chain at this point), and in slide #5, group member Jon Uhler writes in part: “I believe we need to respond, and do so in a way that clearly shuts the attempted smear job down, as this is what this is, but emphasizes that there is no such thing as a Trans kids.”
Further example of such opinions can be found throughout, such as the below thread, where a debate about the language to be used in legislation prompted a group member to suggest the addition of the phrase “non-binary”. This lead to a response from Bernard Hudson, where he dismissed the existence of a trans or non-binary identity asking: “You are non-binary, then what? A worm? A worker bee? A penguin in a European zoo? An ant?”
Hudson made a similar statement in Jan. 2020, responding to another group member, this time Scott Newgent, a transgender man who opposes gender affirming care for minors.
After Newgent notes he is the only person in the group that has medically transitioned, Hudson responded to Shupe, outlining his belief that Newgent had not transitioned because such a thing is not possible.
Deutsch casts doubt on Shupe’s mental state — despite reliance on her
A seen above, Deutsch questions Shupe’s mental health, an indication that perhaps she should not be relied upon.
Despite this apparent belief, Deutsch did rely upon Shupe on multiple occasions. His trust in her ability went so far that in March of 2019 he solicited her to testify by phone on a transgender bathroom bill. Shupe declined to do so.
As he worked to draft anti-transgender legislation for the 2020 session, Deutsch reached out to Shupe, asking for her suggestions for modifications.
Shupe has been open with her history of mental health struggles throughout the years, including to members of the group. In January 2020, Shupe was on an email thread with Deutsch where she was asked to testify on a bill in Georgia. She declined, citing her PTSD and anxiety disorder, along with the toll public appearances take one her.
Shupe also provided KELOLAND News with additional instances of group members making requests dating back to years prior to 2020, which she declined to due to her mental health.
The 2020 exchange did not dissuade Deutsch from continuing to utilize Shupe’s expertise. On Jan. 23, 2020, just days after Shupe declined to speak in Georgia due to her mental health, Deutsch reached out again, asking for Shupe’s assistance in crafting a response to a CNN article.
Deutsch’s further utilization of the group
Deutsch consistently utilized the opinions of this group to craft legislation. The thread below is a separate one from the one above on which Schoenbeck participates (though he is cc’d on this one as well), but originates from the same email in which Deutsch provides an update on the VCPA.
Rather than focusing on descriptive language, this thread debates the age at which certain types of gender affirming care should be banned.
Deutsch also utilized the group to come up with defenses for key criticisms of his legislation, such as data showing increases in suicide and suicidal ideation in children to whom gender affirming care is denied.
Beyond the issue of suicide, this also applied to economic impacts of anti-trans legislation, constitutional issues, parental rights concerns and more.
Deutsch even reached out to the group to craft a response to a concerned pediatrician from South Dakota who had sent a letter to lawmakers asking them to oppose the VCPA.
Deutsch was correct in asserting that no emails show an outright stated desire to destroy trans kids. It was however was Shupe’s impression that more explicit things were being said behind the scenes, one she said was buoyed by a conversation, noted below, with another group member, over concerns about Deutsch’s use of his official legislative email.
Shupe, somewhat ironically due to what she herself would do a little more than two years later, expressed concern in January of 2020 that in the event of a lawsuit, the emails could wind up in the hands of the ACLU.
“I’ve tried to be careful about communicating with Dr. Deutsch via e-mail for that exact reason,” replied Matt Sharp of the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). “Basically, I’m never going to write anything in e-mail that I would not want read in open court.”
Secrecy was deeply ingrained in the workgroup, as made apparent from the trove of emails turned over by Shupe. It is clear that members, including Deutsch himself, seemed to be aware that their success in passing their legislative initiatives in states across the country could rely on them remaining anonymous.
Deutsch’s reference to battle may have been the one that set the tone for the group, but an excerpt from another, pictured twice above, outlined their mandate.
As always, please do not share this with media. The longer we can fly under the radar, the better.Fred Deutsch, August 17, 2019, providing an update on the VCPA
KELOLAND News has been in contact with Deutsch. On March 14 he reached out, extending an invitation for an in-person interview in Watertown. We replied on the afternoon of March 14, telling Deutsch that I, a broadcast reporter and a photographer were prepared to meet with him on either March 15 or March 17.
We have not received a response.