SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — As of today, eight states across the country have banned gender-affirming care for transgender youth. The first bill in Arkansas was signed into law in 2021 but wouldn’t have been possible without South Dakota acting as a catalyst for such legislation.
In August of 2019, South Dakota Republican Representative Fred Deutsch began work on HB 1057, also known as the Vulnerable Child Protection Act. The bill had 42 supporters in the South Dakota Legislature but behind the scenes there was a network of support throughout the country.
Last week, Mother Jones first reported on the secret work group that helped craft anti-trans legislation across the country and provide lawmakers with lobbying resources and witnesses. At the center of the story was Deutsch whose work in 2020 was a focal point of the 2,000-plus emails. Elisa Shupe, a transgender woman who was previously part of the group but has since disavowed their work, provided KELOLAND News with access to her entire inbox over the last four years.
The emails provide a comprehensive look at how Deutsch worked with conservative groups including Alliance Defending Freedom, Alabama Eagle Forum, Mass Resistance as well as lawmakers in Alabama, Florida and Idaho to share resources, witnesses, and policy ideas to begin to spread anti-trans bills across the country.
“Fred has far and away done the heavy lifting on this fantastic project. I am completely OK following the lead and rules he establishes. Alliances can be fragile and it’s best that, as this bill goes, we stick to the small scope program in order to establish the greater goal,” Andre Van Mol wrote to the group.
Deutsch ignites anti-trans movement
Despite the failure of Deutsch’s 2020 bill, the legislation became the framework for how other states would successfully ban gender-affirming care over the next three years. Within the emails, Deutsch frequently corresponds with Alliance Defending Freedom and Alabama Eagle Forum to fine tune the language of the bill and strategize how to respond to backlash from the American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota.
“KC from Kelsey Coalition will be developing her suggested strategy for testimony that I’ll bounce off our South Dakota team,” Deutsch wrote in August of 2019. The Kelsey Coalition describes itself as a “national group of parents whose transgender-identifying children have been harmed by physicians, therapists, and clinics throughout the US.”
That testimony included Dr. Michael Laidlaw who has appeared in the South Dakota Legislature in 2020 and 2023 to support bans on gender-affirming care. Following his appearance in 2020, Laidlaw posted his testimony to YouTube so that the group could share the video in their respective states to garner support. Laidlaw and other witnesses on the chain frequently coordinated media campaigns of articles, Twitter threads and videos to support legislation in South Dakota and beyond.
In an email thread titled “Opposition Strategy Suggestions,” Laidlaw and Deutsch discussed how to refute the ACLU’s opposition to the bill as well as the legal implications of the bill.
“Stepping back a bit though, philosophically, we are trying to make something to be recognized as a crime by the legal system. But is a crime not a crime if it is not yet ‘on the books’? Seems as though it has to be said somehow that these are crimes waiting to be recognized and codified into law. Perhaps it could be stated in a less inflammatory way then what I’ve written,” Laidlaw wrote in the thread.
In 2023, Laidlaw was among proponent testimony for Republican Representative Bethany Soye’s “Help Not Harm” legislation of which Deutsch was a co-sponsor.
Alliance Defending Freedom is also no stranger to the South Dakota Legislature.
The group has worked on several anti-trans bills in South Dakota dating back to 2016 when Deutsch introduced a bathroom bill to only allow students to use a restroom that aligned with their sex at birth. Matt Sharp, senior counsel with ADF, testified in 2022 in support of Governor Kristi Noem’s transgender sports ban and in 2022 on Deutsch’s bathroom bill.
Also included in Shupe’s emails is Daniel Davis with the Heritage Foundation and the Daily Signal. Shupe and Davis coordinated an op-ed piece in 2019 about Shupe’s detransition. The Daily Signal is a political commentary site published through the conservative think tank, The Heritage Foundation.
Recently, The Daily Signal has received several exclusive stories with Ian Fury, Governor Kristi Noem’s Chief of Communications. That included a story in December about a contract between the Transformation Project and the South Dakota Department of Health. That contract was later terminated, and former Secretary Joan Adam resigned just days later.
The Daily Signal has also reported on pushback Noem received from conservative groups such as the National Review on transgender policies in the state. The ADF has also been vocal in the past of Noem’s style and form veto of the trans sports ban in 2021.
Anti-trans movement spreads beyond South Dakota
In February of 2020, Deutsch’s bill failed in a Senate committee. Despite the loss, the ball was already rolling in Alabama, Florida and Georgia on similar bills. Margaret Clarke with the Alabama Eagle forum wrote to Deutsch, and the group, saying “Please do not say that the South Dakota effort failed!!”
In Idaho, the group was putting pressure on Representative Julianne Young’s birth certificate bill which had passed the Idaho Legislature. The bill sought to ban people from changing their gender identity on their birth certificate.
“We are still going after the Governor, though, to make sure that he signs or at least allow the bills to become law,” Arthur Schaper with Mass Resistance emailed the group.
Deutsch responded to Young’s email about the continued fight on the Idaho bill saying:
“Thank you for your coverage. Though our session in SD is now over and our efforts to protect gender-confused vulnerable children failed, I continue to receive ugly email and social media posts. America needs more state legislators like you.”
In Alabama, the fight was just beginning.
“I am leading a coalition here in Alabama to adopt a bill similar to Rep. Fred Deutsch’s. He and Michelle have been coaching us,” Clarke wrote to the group.
Florida was already in the process of working to pass the Vulnerable Child Protection Act, which shares a name with the South Dakota bill from Deutsch.
“But once it passes out of that Health Quality Committee, I’ve urged them to get a diversity of witnesses as was achieved for SD,” Cretella wrote the group about the Florida bill.
That bill eventually died in the Health Quality Subcommittee in March of 2020.
Additionally, in one email, Van Mol mentioned the “SD” battle in addition to “likely” ones coming in Texas and Georgia on similar legislation.
The 2020 sessions wouldn’t be fruitful for this kind of legislation but 2021 would bring the first ban in Arkansas followed by similar laws in Alabama, Arizona and Texas in 2022. 2023 has seen Mississippi, South Dakota, Tennessee and Utah join the list of states with bans on gender-affirming care for transgender youth.
In Iowa, a bill to ban gender-affirming care for minors is currently awaiting Governor Kim Reynolds’s signature.
Meanwhile to the north, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz signed an executive order last week to protect the right to access gender-affirming care. The Minnesota Legislature is working to pass a bill that would accompany the order to make Minnesota a refuge for transgender people seeking care as more states aim to ban it.