Culture war fights over transgender identity may have snuck up on many Americans, but the leaders of the Family Policy Alliance, a little known but influential group founded decades ago by James Dobson, have been preparing their trans battle plan since 2014.
Now, they’re celebrating a string of legislative victories restricting transgender rights in 21 states.
Few Americans know much about the Family Policy Alliance, or FPA. It’s the “public policy partner” of Focus on the Family and has offices on Focus’s Colorado Springs campus. FPA says it was founded in 2004, but its work began within Focus in the 1980s as part of Dobson’s “battle for righteousness” through law and politics. Its vision is “a nation where God is honored, religious freedom flourishes, families thrive and life is cherished.”
They’ve had an outsized influence on America’s transgender landscape through their $40 million, 300-plus employee network of family policy councils in 40 states.
Together, FPA and its sister organization, the Family Policy Alliance Foundation, have only 18 employees and take in only $4.3 million a year, but they’ve had an outsized influence on America’s transgender landscape through their $40 million, 300-plus employee network of family policy councils in 40 states, including the Florida Family Policy Council and Texas Values.
FPA says its state network makes it “one of the largest alliances in the country.”
FPA is involved in legislation on a host of hot-button issues, helping draft and pass legislation in states that:
- Restricts or criminalizes abortion procedures and medications
- Puts limits on drag shows
- Requires citizens to register with a state registry to access online pornography
- Protects teachers from having to use personal pronouns of students’ choosing
- Limits student access to classes and textbooks dealing with American history, human sexuality and Critical Race Theory, which Focus says spreads “lies perpetuated by spiritual darkness” and “wokeness.”
FPA also promotes “election integrity” bills that FPA CEO Craig DeRoche said are needed because “everything has been engineered to suppress your vote and for you to give up.”
But FPA’s greatest and speediest victories have been the transgender battles many conservatives once considered unwinnable.
Focus on the Family’s powerful partner
Focus on the Family moved to Colorado Springs from California in 1991 and immediately plunged into politics, backing Amendment 2 to overturn the state’s gay rights laws and prevent such laws in the future.
The campaign against “the gay agenda” was ugly and divisive. Gays were portrayed as sex-obsessed, immoral, perverted, ungodly, elitist and unhealthy. They preyed on children. They were hellbent on destroying marriage and family. They wanted to use their “personal lifestyle choice” to seek “special rights” other Americans don’t enjoy.
Amendment 2 won 53% of the vote. Focus declared victory, but Colorado was hit by a wave of boycotts, canceled conventions and trade shows, lost jobs and vanishing revenue.
Before Focus could roll out similar anti-gay legislation in other states, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Amendment 2 was unconstitutional, with the majority writing that the measure “classified homosexuals not to further a proper legislative end but to make them unequal to everyone else.”
Two decades later, the high court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, and today more than two-thirds of Americans approve of it, according to numerous polls.
One major difference between yesterday’s battle against “the gay agenda” and today’s fight against “transgender ideology” is FPA. Focus now has a powerful partner that can successfully turn its family values into legislation.
“Though the debate over transgenderism will continue to be fought in the cultural and media spheres of society, the solution to it will come from the political realm,” said Focus’ activist news site, Daily Citizen, in March.
Trans campaigns focus on sports and treatment
FPA’s two transgender campaigns have focused on sports and treatments. The goal of FPA’s “Save Girls Sports” campaign is “Protecting Fair Play for Our Girls.” Its agenda is this: “Female athletes deserve fair competition — that means the chance to compete in women’s divisions distinct from co-ed or men’s categories, and free from males competing in those female-only competitions.”
In 2020, Idaho became the first state to pass FPA’s model anti-trans sports legislation. Since then, 20 more GOP-led states have enacted similar legislation. A May poll found six in 10 Americans support such restrictions.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox vetoed the sports legislation, but legislators overrode his veto.
“Rarely has so much fear and anger been directed at so few,” said the moderate Republican governor, citing the fact that the entire state had only four transgender kids playing high school sports and only one was a biological male playing on a girls’ team.
The goal of FPA’s “Help Not Harm” campaign is to “End Transgender Experiments on Kids” with the explanation: “Kids are not experiments. When a child is struggling, they need compassionate care — not experimental hormones and surgery.”
The state of confusion and misunderstanding is such that a majority of Americans support such bans on medical care for minors, while also supporting laws that ban discrimination against transgender people.
Going against the consensus of medical professionals who work with the transgender community, FPA’s model legislation, written with the help of the Christian Medical and Dental Associations, declares gender transition procedures for minors harmful and prohibits them. Neither insurance nor public funds can be used to cover such care, which is defined as “unprofessional and reckless conduct.”
As for enforcement, minors who have been “harmed” by such care have 30 years to sue for injunctive and declaratory relief as well as compensatory and punitive damages.
The first state to pass “Help Not Harm” legislation was Arkansas in 2021, adopting FPA’s model legislation almost word for word. State Rep. Robin Lundstrom, who supported both the sports and treatment bans, is an alumnus and speaker at FPA’s Statesman Academy, which has trained 150 alumni who now serve as Republican legislators in 35 states. Statesman Academy alumni overrode gubernatorial vetoes of the legislation in both Arkansas and Kentucky.
Lundstrom, who has called America “our Christian nation,” said the emergence of transgender identity was a consequence the Supreme Court decision allowing gay marriage, a decision she said “would be a wrecking ball that would just knock down a big wall there and allow all this other nonsense to come pouring in. … This is just the progression of the degeneration of our society. We’ve been watching it for a long time, and we’re on the cusp of that right now.”
No one corrected Lundstrom when she claimed during an FPA forum that her bill “didn’t take away any health care (and) didn’t take away any counseling” from trans kids, but in an interview, FPA leaders said Lundstrom had misrepresented her bill.
Fifteen additional states have passed some version of “Help Not Harm,” and 12 more states have introduced such bills in 2023. Public hearings for the bills often include testimony from individuals who transitioned but then changed their minds — a statistically rare occurrence.
FPA promoted the campaign with nearly 150,000 messages to state and federal officials and held six training sessions for members of the U.S. House and Senate and their staff members. But trans bills remain a dead issue in blue states.
Leaders say they have no plans to address gun violence, the leading cause of death among children and teens since 2020.
While FPA says protecting children from harm motivates its activism on trans issues as well as its efforts to restrict access to books, curriculum and pornography, its leaders say they have no plans to address gun violence, the leading cause of death among children and teens since 2020.
Quiet group now shares its story
Historically, FPA has been reluctant to toot its own horn and has declined previous interview requests about its work. But in May, executives explained their transgender strategy in a wide-ranging 90-minute interview in which one described recent victories as “a season of exciting growth” that shows the family values movement has “matured” after years of toil, some unrewarded.
Autumn Leva, FPA’s senior vice president for strategy, said while the “woke left” and their collaborators in the medical establishment have “weaponized” transgender identity, FPA has set up a “shield of defense” protecting children from treatments that do no good and cause great harm.
“A political agenda has taken over what would normally be in the realm of parents and medical professionals,” said Leva, who planned to be a schoolteacher before being called to activism, earned a J.D. from Pat Robertson’s Regent University School of Law, interned with the Heritage Foundation, was an aide to Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado Springs, long regarded as the most conservative member of the U.S. House, and worked for the Minnesota Family Council.
“We’ve completely turned that (weaponization) around, and now elected leaders are lining up to make sure they show that they do not stand for children being transitioned,” she said. FPA leaders also believe voters will line up to reelect leaders who have supported these bills.
FPA is a 501(c)4 nonprofit, and IRS rules say such groups must be “operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare,” not partisan political activity. But FPA is a political powerhouse that helps elect candidates and then works with them to move states to the right. FPA’s website says it is “engaging directly in the frontline efforts of politics and policy.” The Family Policy Alliance Foundation is a 501(c) 3 nonprofit prohibited from excessive partisan activity.
FPA partners with a wide network of secular and religious conservative groups, including Heritage Foundation, Ethics and Public Policy Center, American Principles Project, Eagle Forum, Concerned Women for America, and the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
This spring, FPA brought together more than 100 socially conservative activist groups for its first-ever “SoConCon.”
‘There is no such thing as a “trans kid”’
No one’s sure how many transgender teens there are in the U.S. One 2017 survey estimated there were 150,000. But Focus’ Daily Citizen claims there are none, and that’s just the beginning. Focus also claims:
- “There is no such thing as a ‘trans kid’”
- “There is no such thing as ‘anti-LGBTQ’ legislation”
- “There’s no such thing as a transgender athlete”
- “There is no such thing as the ‘LGBT community’”
- “There is no such thing as an ‘LGBTQ+ community’”
- “There is no such thing as a nonbinary or genderless person”
- “There is no such thing as ‘cis woman,’ ‘trans men,’ or ‘non-binary people’ in nature. No one should use those words as if they actually refer to something real. They do not.”
Similar claims were issued at a 2022 “Help Not Harm” virtual forum, where participants described transgender identity as a “mirage,” a “cult,” a “psychosocial neurodevelopmental problem” and a “social contagion” that sees transitioning as a “cure-all” and “the answer for any discomfort or problem that a kid has.”
Many blamed a perceived surge in transgender identity on greedy medical professionals who are riding “a gravy train” funded by “genital mutilation” and other ghoulish procedures that leave kids damaged and possibly sterile.
The Colson Center’s John Stonestreet described transgender identity as an effort to redefine reality by “changing the body to fit the mind.” He said the movement had embraced an ideology of “expressive individualism,” the same flawed worldview that gave us the 1960s sexual revolution and the gay rights movement.
He claimed trans ideology says: “Our bodies are canvases. They’re tools for personal expression.”
Stonestreet said trans people reject God because they reject God’s created order and substitute a “constructed self” that defies nature and logic.
During the “Help Not Harm” forum, speakers said young people who threaten suicide are engaging in “emotional blackmail” and parents should “stand strong.” Kids actually become more suicidal when they seek to transition and will be less suicidal after their treatments are halted, they said. This belief is the exact opposite of modern peer-reviewed scientific data.
Sen. Mike Lee of Utah promised forum participants he would “get rid of any grant programs where they’re providing money for transgender research on children using U.S. taxpayer dollars.”
FPA’s Autumn Leva insists no one has been helped by transgender therapy or surgery and no one will be harmed by “weaning” them from such treatment. She says 82,300 children have been “protected” so far in states that enacted FPA’s bills.
Culture war or compassion?
Some Christians and congregations believe in addressing transgender people with love, compassion and healing. But FPA CEO Craig DeRoche, during an interview with health-and-wealth preacher Andrew Wommack’s politically oriented Truth & Liberty Coalition program, seemed to suggest Jesus’ command to love one’s neighbors isn’t applicable to transgender people.
“I think any Christian that looks to Scripture would say to somebody with gender dysphoria that I’m not better than that person, you know, and I have my own things where I fall short, and I’m supposed to love them, you know, my neighbor, as much as I love God, and we work to do that imperfectly. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about an ideology that’s manipulating people … and you have these politicians trying to take advantage of it, enforcing it on some people to make some people more equal than others. It’s sin … and it’s shocking.”
Leva says Christians should love trans individuals while remaining firm.
“Churches that do not speak clearly on God’s design for marriage and sexuality in today’s culture, or churches that send mixed messages, are not shining the light in a way that it needs to be shown,” she said. “We have a culture where a growing number of children believe the lie that they were born in the wrong body, wreaking devastation on families and on their own bodies. As believers, we can’t afford to sit that out. We have no choice but to oppose that.”
When asked which aspect of the anti-transgender campaigns were most aligned with Christian principles, Leva said no one had ever asked that, then replied, “Real Christian love means speaking the truth and pointing toward the truth,” not “the false gospel of the woke agenda.”
Navigating the parental rights paradox
FPA says it is committed to “protecting children’s relationships with their parents.”
“Let parents parent,” they say.
“The safest place for a child is with their loving and involved parents,” says FPA’s website. “Political or ideological efforts to drive wedges between children and their parents are not healthy.”
FPA has long championed “parental rights” when it comes to restrictions on school curriculum and library books.
FPA insists parents’ rights end once they choose to “harm” their children by helping them transition.
But FPA insists parents’ rights end once they choose to “harm” their children by helping them transition. While FPA does not endorse legislation that criminalizes parents, it does support laws that prevent parents from exercising parental agency when it comes to deciding what’s best for their own kids. Many families in the states that passed FPA’s legislation have moved to other states so their kids can continue transition care that is now denied in their home states.
“Legislation that punishes or criminalizes parents who consent to gender interventions on their children is not and has never been our ‘Help Not Harm’ model,” said Leva, “and we strongly and actively advise against it because parents are themselves often victims in this politicized agenda that provides parents no other options than so-called ‘gender affirming care.’”
Down with ‘faceless bureaucrats,’ up with loving, godly bureaucrats
Conservatives love to cite Ronald Reagan’s “nine most terrifying words” in the English language: “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” FPA routinely condemns state meddling in family matters. “Faceless government bureaucrats claim they should be more involved in children’s intimate decisions than their parents,” DeRoche says.
Government workers also came under fire at the “Help Not Harm” forum, where one speaker said “bureaucrats don’t care at the end of the day. They just want to keep a job, get advancement, and then get their pension lined up. … They don’t care if you get help or not.”
But the bureaucrats who support FPA are different. One GOP official claimed that caring, “godly” bureaucrats are better for some children than their own parents, according to reporting by Sarah Posner.
“We know how God created that child and the future that God intended that child to have.”
“Being a child is tough,” said Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, now serving as lieutenant govenor. “But being a child with parents who don’t love you as parents are supposed to love you makes it even tougher. But fortunately for those young people there are folks like you all, like our legislators in Arkansas, and attorneys general like me, willing to stand up and fight for those children, and to protect them, because we know how God created that child and the future that God intended that child to have.”
Not all of FPA’s partners are so loving. Its affiliate the Idaho Family Policy Center has partnered with Gary DeMar, who has called for the death penalty for homosexual acts. Toby Sumpter, a center board member, is an associate pastor at the controversial Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho, which teaches wives can’t say no to sex (“A husband is never trespassing in his own garden”) and wives must vote as their husbands command. “Brothers, a friendly reminder for elections: make sure your wife votes exactly as you do,” Sumpter tweeted.
State family policy councils also have endorsed Republican officials who promoted Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election fraud, participated in the “Stop the Steal” rally in D.C. on Jan. 6, 2021, cooperated with Trump’s fake electors schemes, voted to overturn the popular vote in Congress, and refused to cooperate with the House investigation into January 6.
An official endorsed by the Family Policy Council of West Virginia filmed himself illegally entering the Capitol, was later jailed and has since published a book about the “grave injustices” he has faced. FPA says it cannot comment on the activities of its “independent” state affiliates.
Resurrecting the gay agenda battle plan
Focus on the Family’s campaign against “the gay agenda” in the early 1990s followed a simple battle plan:
- Craft a partisan political solution to a profoundly complex social, moral and theological issue.
- Rally pastors and churches to embrace culture war activism as their means of engagement on the issue.
- Exploit classical propaganda techniques (slogans; labeling; name-calling; scapegoating; demonization; mis- and disinformation; appeals to fear and prejudice; targeting an unpopular sexual minority as the other) to spur people to action.
- Use this “galvanizing” issue to get voters to the polls.
Trans issues and “parental rights” helped elect Glenn Youngkin as governor in Virginia in 2020, but it’s not clear how these issues will impact the 2024 elections.
Last November, a gunman walked into Club Q, an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs, and started shooting, killing five and injuring 19. A few days later, vandals attacked a sign at Focus on the Family’s campus, writing, “Their blood is on your hands. Five lives taken.”
Focus CEO Jim Daly called the vandalism “unwarranted,” telling Debbie Kelley of The Gazette: “We’re Christian folks following Scripture that indicates how we should behave and treat people, and how marriage is defined by God, as between a man and a woman. People have the right to disagree, and Focus and other Christians have the right to believe what they believe.”
Americans still have the right to disagree with Focus. But in states where FPA’s trans bills have been enacted, they’ve lost the freedom to live out their values.
Why being transgender is not a sin | Opinion by Mark Wingfield
“The Baptist Pastor and His Transgender Friends” | TEDx Talk by Mark Wingfield
Trans 101 for churches: ways to make a difference for transgender persons | Opinion by Susan Shaw and Brenda McComb