Ads for Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Daniel Kelly peddle anti-trans fear, false info

American Principles Project PAC is attacking trans youth to win elections and end transition-related care for people of all ages, including text and digital ads sent to voters in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin Watch

April 2, 2023

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A group of people stand on steps around a statue and hold signs, with trees and the dome of the Wisconsin State Capitol in the background.

Protesters hold signs on the steps of the Wisconsin State Capitol building during a rally in support of trans rights in Madison on March 18, 2023. One says "The trans agenda is an average life expectancy," a play on the anti-trans claims of a "trans agenda." (Credit: Drake White-Bergey / Wisconsin Watch)

Wisconsin Watch

By Phoebe Petrovic, Wisconsin Watch

A Virginia-based group is spreading false information about transgender youth, school officials and Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Janet Protasiewicz to encourage voters to support her challenger Daniel Kelly in the 2023 Wisconsin Supreme Court election.

As of March 17, American Principles Project PAC, which belongs to a think tank by the same name, had poured about $796,000 into digital advertisements and peer-to-peer messaging supporting Kelly, the conservative former justice.

The videos, distributed by text message to Wisconsin voters, contain transphobia and disinformation, including broad claims that Protasiewicz and school officials are working to make children transgender.

The videos also claim school officials keep secret from parents their children’s gender identity or administer transition-related care without parental permission. The ads target two school districts: Eau Claire and Kettle Moraine.

Eau Claire Area School District Superintendent Mike Johnson said his district’s policy is “if a student asks an ECASD staff member not to disclose to a parent/caregiver their preferred name and/or pronouns, we honor that request, but considerable counseling and support is provided to help the student and family/caregiver come together, not drift apart.”

“If a parent would ask a specific question regarding their child,” he added, “ECASD staff will always tell the truth and provide support for both the student and the family.”

The superintendent also said the Eau Claire district “doesn’t participate in any form of medical transition care … only a parent makes those decisions.”

Kettle Moraine School District Superintendent Stephen Plum, whose schools are also targeted in the ads, said previously the district has no written policies on gender identity; legal filings state it has no unwritten policy, either.

Trans rights not a top concern in race

Highly anticipated cases have made the Supreme Court race the most expensive in the nation’s history. The top issues include abortion and redistricting — not transgender rights.

But American Principles Project (APP) is part of a national, far-right movement to demonize transgender people and undermine their rights in realms including education and health care. It is funded by deep-pocketed donors including GOP megadonor Richard Uihlein. In January, APP’s president confirmed to The New York Times that it aims to eliminate transition care for transgender people of any age, calling the current anti-trans campaign “a political winner.”

An online ad show images of the Wisconsin State Capitol and "Daniel Kelly" with the header text "VOTE Justice Daniel Kelly on April 4th."

A digital ad paid for by American Principles Project PAC touts conservative Daniel Kelly’s candidacy for the Wisconsin Supreme Court through false, anti-transgender messaging. The far-right group has spread similar messages in other states, positioning supporting transgender youth as at odds with parental rights. (Credit: American Principles Project PAC)

APP PAC has waged an advertising war against trans people in state and federal elections across the country for at least two years.

Out of 31 ads on its YouTube page, 24 discuss LGBTQ+ people, often targeting transgender youth through the frame of parental rights. The ads — which don’t include the two in Wisconsin — challenged presidential candidate Joe Biden and candidates in 10 states. Many of the targeted candidates won their races.

An APP spokesperson did not respond to emails requesting comment or providing specific questions about their Wisconsin efforts. The Kelly campaign also did not respond to questions.

Eau Claire School Board President Tim Nordin said he recognizes APP’s strategy as an “ongoing tactic across the nation” at the expense of transgender youth.

Nordin described it as “trying to make people afraid or angry — or frankly, confuse them or believe things that are false — in order to get them to go out and vote.”

At less than 1% of the U.S. population, transgender people comprise a tiny minority that faces significant marginalization.

Nordin added that “amplifying and hyperbolizing these sorts of messages creates danger” for trans people and their supporters. Nordin and his family have received a death threat over his support of the district’s gender identity policies. A California man was arrested and charged with making a terroristic threat, but the case was dismissed after the defendant was convicted of similar charges in federal court.

Texts target Wisconsin voters with conspiratorial claims

On March 23, Wausau’s progressive Mayor Katie Rosenberg received what she described as a “disgusting” text from an unknown number.

It claimed that Protasiewicz, the liberal candidate for the Supreme Court, is “endorsed by all the woke activists that are stripping parents of their rights in Wisconsin schools and forcing transgenderism down our throats.”

The text didn’t identify the sender, but the video accompanying it was paid for by American Principles Project PAC.

“I think that anybody using kids as a political cudgel, it’s highly inappropriate, but especially some of our most vulnerable kids,” Rosenberg said. “Our trans kids deserve our support, not to be used as a political tool.”

People in Milwaukee, Waukesha and Dane counties have reported receiving similar texts since mid-March.

The text messages are lurid. They decry the “woke left’s unending thirst to trans our children.” They are conspiratorial, claiming “Protasiewicz and her woke allies want to TRANS our children without notifying parents.” And they are false.

“These claims aren’t based in reality and don’t reflect positions Judge Protasiewicz has taken in this campaign,” campaign spokesperson Sam Roecker said by email.

Transgender people pushed back on the fallacy of indoctrination.

“Nobody’s out here trying to make children what they’re not,” said Vica-Etta Steel, a former elementary school teacher and current faith leader who spoke at a transgender rights rally at the Capitol on March 18. “If you’re cisgender, if you were born in the same sex and gender, if you all agree that you match, that’s fine. You are who you are.”

Steel and the transgender activists at the march said they wanted to live in a world where it’s safe to live as the gender that fits them. Steel, a transgender woman, didn’t have that opportunity as a child, saying: “By kindergarten, I understood I had to hide who I was from this world.”

Board president: Depiction of Eau Claire schools ‘patently false’

One of APP PAC’s ads focuses on the Eau Claire school district. The first frame shows a headline about a lawsuit a group of parents filed against the district, challenging its approach to transgender students on the basis of “parental rights.”

In September 2022, anonymous parents represented by the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty and Stephen Miller’s America First Legal, sued the district over its administrative guidance for supporting transgender and gender non-conforming students.

A judge dismissed the suit in March 2023 for lack of standing and evidence. The parents are appealing.

A still image from a video shows an illustration with a photo of a classroom and header text that reads "Parents Sue Eau Claire Schools for Transgender Policy, Violates Parental Rights."

An American Principles Project PAC video ad highlights a lawsuit against the Eau Claire Area School District in which anonymous parents challenged administrative guidance for supporting transgender and gender non-conforming students. A judge dismissed the suit in March 2023 for lack of standing and evidence, prompting the parents to appeal. Eau Claire School Board President Tim Nordin says the ad is part of a nationwide effort “to make people afraid or angry — or frankly, confuse them or believe things that are false — in order to get them to go out and vote” at the expense of trans youth. Wisconsin Watch screenshot of APP ad in 2023 Wisconsin Supreme Court race. (Credit: Logan Circle Group / Vimeo)

While the Eau Claire lawsuit is in federal court, WILL has filed two other cases in state courts against Kettle Moraine and Madison public schools that might one day land on the Supreme Court’s docket. These suits also challenge those districts’ choices to honor transgender students’ chosen names and pronouns. The former has not yet been decided, and the latter is being appealed after a Dane County judge dismissed it for reasons similar to the Eau Claire case.

The existence of the Eau Claire lawsuit is among the few verifiable facts in APP’s ad. Another frame bears the text: “School policy states: ‘Parents are not entitled to know their kids’ identities.'”

“That’s patently false,” said Nordin, the school board president, noting the line comes from notes on a presenter’s slide during a professional development session on creating safe spaces — not district or school policy.

In Eau Claire, parents can obtain their child’s gender support plan upon request, regardless of a student’s wishes, and changes to a student’s official name in the school portal require parental permission.

The district does encourage staff to first speak with a student before disclosing their gender identity to parents due to potential safety or other concerns.

But Nordin said in practice, when a student tells school personnel they are trans or gender nonconforming, “the first thing that our staff always do is ask, ‘How can we help be that bridge? How can we help you get there with your parents?'” He also estimated that 99% of students with a “gender support plan” were already out with their parents.

The video ads also conflate social and medicalized transition.

In the ad featuring Eau Claire, the narrator warns that “radical activists want kids to start transgender therapies without parental consent” as similar text flashes over a video of a health care worker giving a child a shot.

In a second video ad about Kettle Moraine, the narrator falsely claims “an innocent 12-year-old girl was transitioned into a boy by school officials without parental consent.” Later, the ad shows graphic, grainy images of a torso with chest bandages and arms with skin graft sites, presumably for transition-related surgeries, as the narrator yells: “This is insanity.”

Doctors do not prescribe puberty blockers, often a first step in transition-related medical care, until trans children show signs of puberty, and guidelines typically reserve surgeries for adults aged 18 or older, according to AP.

But the juxtaposition of text and image in both ads implies that schools provide or authorize medical therapies without parental notice.

“It’s just flat misinformation” said Josie Caballero, director of the U.S. Trans Survey and Special Projects at the National Center for Transgender Equality Action Fund, which advocates for transgender equality.

She said the ads falsely equate social transition, which can include changing a person’s name or pronouns, with medical procedures.

The Kettle Moraine child referenced in the ad — whose parents are suing the school district with WILL — only wanted to use a different name and pronouns. According to WILL’s own filings, the parents removed the child from school before the district could act on the student’s request.

‘Parental rights’ claims

As the advertisement featuring Eau Claire continues, a narrator warns that “extreme groups endorsing Janet Protasiewicz want to take away parental rights and impose trans ideology.” Protasiewicz’s endorsements show only one group dedicated to LGBTQ+ issues: the PAC of the Human Rights Campaign.

A still image from a video shows an image of Janet Protasiewicz and the text "The Extreme Groups Endorsing Janet Protasiewicz."

An American Principles Project PAC video ad shows liberal Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Janet Protasiewicz. It claims that “extreme groups” endorsing her seek to “impose transgender ideology” on children and eliminate parental rights. Protasiewicz’s endorsements show only one group dedicated to LGBTQ+ issues: the PAC of the Human Rights Campaign. (Credit: Logan Circle Group / Vimeo)

Said Nordin: “These attacks are framed as something other than what they are, which is trying to make children the ‘other’ and the ‘enemy’ to make people afraid, to try to drive people to the ballot to gain power for these right-wing hate messages.”

Every video ad and text message reviewed by Wisconsin Watch discussed parental rights in some way. APP’s video featuring Kettle Moraine claimed: “the balance of Wisconsin’s Supreme Court will determine if parents still have rights.”

A still image from a video shows a group of protestors superimposed with the text "Take Away Parental Rights," "Impose Transgender Ideology" and "On Our Kids."

An American Principles Project PAC video ad falsely claims groups endorsing liberal candidate Janet Protasiewicz seek to remove parental rights and “impose transgender ideology” on children. The term is a “dog whistle,” according to Josie Caballero of the National Center for Transgender Equality Action Fund, signaling the false belief that transgender people are not innately transgender, but instead must be converted or indoctrinated. (Credit: Logan Circle Group / Vimeo)

Caballero said her group is “trying to give rights and freedoms to trans Americans and family members that are supportive.”

“The opposition is not fighting for parental rights,” she said. “They’re actually actively taking them away.”

Eleven states have banned at least some form of best-practice medical care for transgender youth, according to the think tank Movement Advancement Project, and many others are debating similar moves. The medications and surgeries these laws restrict are endorsed by every major medical association, but in those states, children, and their parents, no longer have the right to access it.

Caballero considers the term “trans ideology,” also in the ads and texts, a “dog whistle” for the false belief that transgender people “aren’t innately trans,” but instead “have to be turned trans.”

A group of people walk together in one direction along a street, with one person in the foreground holding a flag with illustrations of flowers and foliage superimposed with the words "Trans Rights Are Human Rights."

A protester carries a flag declaring, “Trans Rights Are Human Rights,” while marching from the University of Wisconsin-Madison to the Wisconsin State Capitol building during a rally in support of trans rights in Madison on March 18, 2023. “Nobody’s out here trying to make children what they’re not,” says Vica-Etta Steel, a transgender woman who spoke the rally. (Credit: Drake White-Bergey / Wisconsin Watch)

Graeme Reid, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch, describes “gender ideology” as a linguistic tool that seeks to undermine LGBTQ+ equality “by playing on people’s fear of social change and claiming a global conspiracy of great influence and scale.”

Nordin also rejects the claim. “Our district is not pushing any ideology. If there’s one thing that we’re pushing, it’s ‘Respect people for who they are.'”

APP: Part of national anti-trans movement

Caballero said that despite the significant funds behind the anti-trans movement to which APP belongs, the position remains fringe, designed to appeal “to the most extreme.”

“These policies,” she said, “don’t resonate with the general public.”

That’s something Nordin saw firsthand in Eau Claire. He said the people who said “awful things” about trans youth are “simply a loud, very small minority.” The message they got back: “What our community is here for is supporting kids and bringing families together, but in a way that respects the essential humanity of individuals, including children.”

The nonprofit Wisconsin Watch collaborates with WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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