SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — This story has been updated with additional comments by Rep. Deutsch.
An article recently published by news site Mother Jones outlines the workings of a behind-the-scenes group of lawmakers, lawyers, religious groups and hyper-conservative organizations whose goal is the advancement of anti-trans legislation nationwide.
Allegedly at the heart of this group is South Dakota Republican Rep. Fred Deutsch.
The details of this story come from emails provided to journalists by a former participant in this group, a transgender woman named Elisa Shupe, who acted as the group’s expert on de-transitioning.
Shupe said the tipping point for her in deciding share the emails was a need for transparency. “I was behind the curtain. I knew how sleazy this whole thing was, and I was probably the only person with any morals that was willing to state that,” she told KELOLAND News.
KELOLAND News reached out to Deutsch, as well as South Dakota Republican Rep. Jon Hansen, who is also listed on emails from the group, about the contents and release of the emails and their alleged involvement in the group.
In an emailed reply, Deutsch wrote: “Jacob, if you’ve been following state news, my family and I received a death threat concerning this topic. As a result, I am not making any comments to the media. I hope you can understand.”
Following publication of this story, Deutsch emailed again Tuesday morning, saying in part: “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 — That statement is just so far removed from my recollection, and is 100% opposite from the purpose of the proposed legislation.“
Deutsch went on to add that he believes that Shupe has a ‘vendetta’.
KELOLAND News remains in contact with Deutsch.
Also in an emailed reply, Hansen responded:
Hey Jacob, I’m proud to have helped lead the way in crafting legislation to protect minor children from the chemical castrations, double mastectomies, and other forms of permanent bodily mutilation that we’ve seen take place across this country on young kids at the hands of doctors who are driven more by woke gender ideology than actual medicine.Rep. Jon Hansen
Contrary to Hansen’s assertion that the goal was protect children, Shupe attributes a darker purpose to Deutsch and the others behind this movement.
“Their goal was to inflict maximum harm,” Shupe said. “The public face of all this is, ‘We have respect and compassion for trans people, and we just want to help them get better,’ — behind the scenes — they’re talking about, ‘We need to destroy these folks. Their values don’t match ours. They’re heathens, this is Sodom and Gomorrah and we need to get rid of these folks.'”
KELOLAND News is in possession of these emails and has begun the process of working our way through them. This story is an introduction to the subject and the woman who has told us about it.
Shupe is a complicated person. She is a veteran. She is nearly 60 years old. She is the first person in the U.S. to have been legally recognized as having a non-binary gender. She is a victim of sexual abuse and has struggled with mental health. She is a transgender woman who de-transitioned, re-transitioned and is still grappling with the events that occurred throughout that process.
Shupe spoke with KELOLAND News on Friday, providing us details on her life, her introduction to the working group and her involvement within it.
Shupe’s early life
Shupe was born in 1963 in Washington, D.C., and raised in the suburbs of Maryland. From a young age, Shupe was gender non-conforming, which she says led to conflicts with her mother. “Through my childhood I got slapped and called a sissy by her,” she said.
Sexual abuse was also prevalent in her life, between the ages of 8 and 10 by a relative, which Shupe says also complicated the matter of her figuring herself out. “That was abuse that went unpunished — I wasn’t able to tell that secret.”
One of eight children, Shupe describes an upbringing full of volatility. “On my father’s side, there was a lot of alcoholics. There were suicides in the family tree. My grandfather was an alcoholic,” she said.
When Shupe was in high school, the military came calling. “I went into the military in November of 1982 — recruiters came to our high school — we just got marched to the cafeteria where they were like, ‘Hey, the recruiters are here — they’re going to give you a test.’ A couple weeks later phone started ringing off the hook.”
According to Shupe, at the time it took a testing score of 110 to be an officer. “I scored a 125,” she said.
Time in the military
Shupe joined the military, spending a total of 18 years in the service before retiring in 2000 with a rank of Sergeant First Class.
The 18 years Shupe spent in the service made an impression. She says economically it was a great decision, but it also inflicted a large amount of trauma. “I really had no idea who and what I am in relation to gender,” she said, describing the time that she entered the service. “That turned out to be just more trauma.”
Shupe’s time spent in the military was roughly split into periods before and after the implementation of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ (DADT), a policy in place from 1994 to 2011 under which supervisors were barred from initiating investigation into the sexual preferences of service members, but which also prohibited service members from openly expressing non-heterosexual identities. Doing so would often result in discharge from the military.
In Shupe’s memory, the period of time under DADT was not an especially safe time for non-heterosexual people. “They actually discharged more people under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell than they did in the prior years,” she said.
In addition to being trans, Shupe also identifies as pansexual, or exhibiting attraction to people regardless of their sex or gender identity.
During this time in the military, Shupe kept her questions about her identity and her attraction to men a secret to the public, but allowed room for some personal exploration. “I would cross-dress at home, things of that nature,” she explained.
By the time Shupe retired from the military, she was ready to leave. The past several years had been filled with fear of exposure, hardship including the development of PTSD and injury. Things were also getting risky for her.
“It was a situation where I was starting to get in trouble,” Shupe explained. “I was the number two enlisted person in the unit, but my boss was a super religious person — we would go to platoon sergeant meetings in the morning and he would literally give us sermons about Sodom and Gomorrah and badmouth the gay people that he knew that were in the unit.”
This behavior by Shupe’s boss was not permitted under DADT, so Shupe reported him. “I turned him in to the Inspector General — and guess who got punished for that one,” she asked rhetorically.
Around that time, Shupe sustained an arm injury and saw it as her way out. “It was an escape hatch,” she said. “By that time I had developed full-time PTSD — I was deteriorating pretty badly from the stress of trying to hide it all for all those years.”
Shupe’s life post-military
Shupe left the service on August 1, 2001, but it would be years before she was able to fully come to terms with her identity. The 2000s were kept busy with family matters for Shupe, and she referred to the time as a sort of lost decade for her in terms of her self-discovery.
Indeed, this was just one lost decade in Shupe’s life, in that respect. She was repressed and victimized by family throughout her youth, and then entered into the rigid structure of the military for nearly 20 years during which she was also barred from developing her real identity.
By the time Shupe left the military, she was in her late 30s and still had not had space to discover and come to terms with who she was. Another full decade would go by before she got her chance.
“That all blew up in 2012 when I just kind of lost it and started searching around on the internet — I was like, ‘Holy crap, am I a trans woman?’ As soon as I figured that out, I wanted to start hormone treatments,” Shupe recalled.
The start of Shupe’s transition
Following her realization, Shupe fully embraced her identity as a trans woman, beginning hormones, having her facial hair removed “and started living life as a trans woman,” she said.
Shupe hadn’t been prepared for the political minefield she was stepping into, describing trouble with using bathrooms, having people cussing at her for wearing female clothing and more. “That was a pretty scary environment,” she said.
For Shupe, her transition came at a late age. She was nearly 40 and says the pressure, hatred and threats wore her down. “I just allowed my transition to flame out,” she said.
Due to how late in her life Shupe began her treatments, she has faced difficulty. “The top of my head is bald; I’ve still got too much of a male frame — it’s too late,” she said.
Compounding her struggles is the fact Shupe faced criticism from where you may expect; the camps of those such as the evangelical right, trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) and the larger conservative movement — but also from some aspects of the trans community itself. “I wasn’t well liked or received in the trans community,” She said.
As previously stated, Shupe is a complicated individual. Her views on many subjects do not necessarily align with what many may typically expect for those of a trans woman in 2023. She does not support trans women participating in female sports, and she spoke positively of former President Trump’s decision to bar openly trans people from the U.S. military.
Struggling with her mental health and deciding to de-transition, Shupe had two stays in a psych ward at the Washington, D.C., VA hospital in 2018. Following this, she was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder.
Though Shupe was in the process of de-transitioning, the VA was keeping her on hormones. Following a media interview, Shupe was approached by a conservative lawyer who told her she could sue the VA for having provided her the treatments that helped her transition. Once she notified the VA of her intent to sue, she says they dropped her treatment.
Shupe wrote an op-ed about her experience and her decision to de-transition in the Daily Signal, a conservative political outlet ran by The Heritage Foundation. After this, she says things kind of blew up.
“I sat in front of my screen and watched all these high-powered conservative accounts with tens of thousands of followers or even more Tweet it one after another,” Shupe said, calling it a totally orchestrated event. “It was a frenzy.”
Following this frenzy, Shupe was cut off from her hormones entirely in early 2019. After her final appointment with her endocrinologist, she left and went to the social worker who had done her advanced directive a year prior.
“A year before I had said keep me alive at all costs — even on a ventilator and if I’m brain dead. I said, ‘Let me die.'” Shupe paused for a long moment before continuing. “That was a pretty dark day — I told them, ‘Let me die for any reason.'”
This was the impetus for Shupe’s third stay in a psych ward.
Without access to hormones, Shupe’s body had begun to de-transition. She explained the horror of it in part through a metaphor in which vines begin to grow up a tree, covering it and suffocating it until it began to rot from within.
In this metaphor, the vines were a stand-in for Shupe’s bodily hair returning in force, as well as the other symptoms of her de-transition. She began attempting to find replacements for prescribed hormones at places like Walmart, GNC or Amazon, taking oral estrogen and over-the-counter supplements.
Later in 2019, as she attempted to self-regulate her hormones, Shupe spoke at the Family Policy Alliance’s (another conservative religious organization) Statesmen Academy. A Gulf War General was in attendance. So was the Governor of Georgia. “It was a big deal,” said Shupe, who spoke about the ‘LGBT agenda.’ “We were all gathered to do harm,” she said. “I was there to train lawmakers to help do that.”
After her speech, Shupe was approached by Vernadette Broyles, a lawyer with the Child & Parents Rights Organization.
Not long after, Shupe says she was invited to join Deutsch’s work group.
Reflections on Deutsch’s work group
From the beginning, Shupe says she was concerned about some of the extreme statements that were being passed back and forth in the emails, such as a member comparing non-binary people to worms.
Shupe criticized Deutsch for his lack of moderation within the group. “Deutsch didn’t like, stop any of that stuff,” she said. “Deutsch was kind of a pretty spineless leader in the group who wasn’t like, ‘Hey, we’re good Christian people and we’re out to save children.’ There was none of that. Deutsch just let them run amok.”
Shupe was involved with the group from late 2019 until early 2021. Throughout much of this time, she had been living what she referred to as a double life.
In January 1, 2020, Shupe says she wound up in the emergency room with a blood clot in her leg, which by day two became infected. “[The VA] called me back in and they agreed to put me back on hormones under one condition; that I had to be treated under their transgender woman protocols,” she said.
Shupe said this was the beginning of her re-transitioning, at least from a hormonal perspective. She remained working with Deutsch and the members of the work group, serving as their de-transition expert, even as she was taking hormones to re-transition.
This dual existence was a secret Shupe kept from the group members.
Shupe was, as mentioned, uncomfortable with some aspects of the group, such as the language they used. She was also uncomfortable with what she called their ‘God-slinging.’
“This isn’t about saving the children here; this is religious extremism at work,” described Shupe. “I wasn’t exaggerating when I told Mother Jones that Deutsch assembled a group of people — we were all just like trained killers.”
Despite her qualms, Shupe said at the time, she was focused on her de-transition, even as she was failing at it, and that she was taken in by the cause. She worked to support Deutsch.
While she provided much in the way of background efforts and support to the group, one thing Shupe was not willing to do was testify on the bills themselves.
“I kept telling them no,” said Shupe, thinking back to times she’d been asked to testify on legislation by group members, recalling one instance in particular with a Florida legislator.
“He rings me up and he’s like, ‘Hey, my bill’s dropping Monday morning in Tallahassee — I want you there to testify as my expert witness,'” Shupe recounted. “I had a Monday morning appointment with my VA psychiatrist, and the VA doesn’t play games about missing appointments.”
Shupe refused to testify in Florida. She said Deutsch also asked her to testify for him in South Dakota. “I was like, ‘Dude, I’ve got PTSD. I’m not getting on freaking airplanes. I’m not coming to South Dakota. I’ll help you all you want online, but this isn’t part of the deal,” she said.
And help them she did. Despite her misgivings about the group, Shupe continued to play a role.
“Despite the things I’ve said about Deutsch, I still treated him like he was the commander and I was a staff officer — I needed to do whatever it took to help him win.”
Deutsch has won in years past. While his initial attempts to pass anti-trans legislation in the state stalled before becoming law, in the past few years, South Dakota has passed laws banning trans women from competing in women’s K-12 and state university athletics and banning many kinds of gender affirming care for minors.
While these were undoubtedly initiatives championed by Deutsch, Shupe casts doubt on just how much of a leader he truly was in this group. “I don’t mean to be cruel to the guy, but he’s always struck me as pretty spineless,” she remarked. “I think he was a puppet for ADF (Alliance Defending Freedom) and folks like Family Policy Alliance and God knows who else — I literally think that they just scooped him up — but nobody’s going to convince me that all this was Deutsch.”
But from Shupe’s own telling, Deutsch was not the only puppet. We asked her if she felt respected by the group. Did she feel like the group saw her as one of them?
“At first I did, but as time went by, it became increasingly clear that I was nothing more than a useful idiot,” Shupe said. “I was getting that vibe at church — my 12-step program at the church — we would go in the evenings on a Tuesday night or something. I used to call it the Sinner Service, you know. All the folks that you really wouldn’t want in the congregation on Sunday — you’re useful to us. We can break the glass and get you out of the cage when necessary to do our dirty deeds, but other than that we wouldn’t want you around our kids.”
Another aspect of Shupe’s feeling of being used: she said the members of the group were fully aware of her struggles with her mental health.
“They didn’t have any boundaries on this stuff,” Shupe said. “If you were to go through all the emails, you’d see me telling Family Policy Alliance, ‘Look, I’m not well. I can’t do this right now,’ and then Mass Resistance (an anti-LGBT organization) is saying, ‘Wait, James (Shupe’s birth name and former legal name) do this for us,’ — I’m sorry dude, I’m in the middle of a bi-polar meltdown here. I just bought seven cars and you want me to do testimony for you? It just increasingly became aware to me that I was nothing more than a useful idiot.”
Shupe grew more distant from the group as she continued to struggle with her mental health and a mounting sense of guilt. In late 2018, Shupe moved to Nevada, where she had difficulty getting her hormone treatments, being unable to meet with the VA endocrinologist until March 2021.
By April 2021, Shupe’s testosterone was back to full male-levels. “I had body hair growing on me — I was a freaking train wreck,” she said. Shupe, suicidal, spent more time in a psychiatric ward.
It was at this point that the weight of Shupe’s identity and her guilt became too much to sustain. “It’s also a moral issue,” she said. “If I’m cracking up that bad and threatening to cut off my testicles at the entrance of a VA emergency room — what does that say for yanking these kids off hormones? I just couldn’t be a part to that stuff anymore.”
Shupe ceased active participation in the group, not responding to emails or telling them that she was too unwell to offer help.
Now, nearly two years later, Shupe has made her decision to leak the emails from her time in the group. She had some difficulty in figuring out just how to do so, contending with some journalists asking for months of exclusivity in return for telling the story. She refused this type of arrangement. “Trans kids don’t have months,” she said.
Shupe said the tipping point for her in deciding share the emails was a need for transparency. “I was behind the curtain. I knew how sleazy this whole thing was, and I was probably the only person with any morals that was willing to state that,” she said.
Another factor Shupe honed in on was her perception of how unlevel the playing field has become. “I really fault the Democrats for this,” she said. “The Republicans are locked and loaded for war — all out war — they’ve gotten their shit together behind the scenes,” she said. “They came into this in the last six months ready to annihilate the trans community.”