“Under His wings,” one lobbyist wrote in an email. “The Devil never sleeps,” another person sent in an email chain about the distinction between gender and sex. “I pray for the 2nd coming more and more.”
These missives are part of a trove of leaked emails between South Dakota GOP Rep. Fred Deutsch, anti-trans lobbyists, and other state lawmakers about anti-trans policies that are filled with language so deeply religious that, at times, the communications read like scripts from The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s the language, one expert told VICE News, of Christian nationalists who believe they’re engaging in a holy war.
The emails, which are available online for journalists and others to read and were first reported on by Mother Jones, include revelations about some of the ways that anti-trans lobbyists—and elected Republicans like Deutsch and Idaho Rep. Julianne Young—collaborate and strategize to write and endorse policies that directly target trans people on a national scale.
The repeated notes about “blessings” and “prayers,” as well as sign-offs like “God bless you” and “Under His wings,” proliferate throughout the emails, which frequently reference explicit religious motivations for targeting trans people.
“Know that many have prayed and are praying for you this day. Do not back down, nor should you be afraid. Know that the Lord is with you. The children of South Dakota belong to him. He is jealous over them. Let his jealousies be spoken forth in the House of Representatives of South Dakota today so that his children would be made safe. Know you are HIS representative today. Do not be afraid. Stand firm in what is right,” wrote Vernadette Broyles, a lawyer and president of the Georgia-based Children and Parental Rights Campaign, which mobilizes against “gender ideology,” in 2020.
Broyles did not respond to VICE News’ request for comment. The email was in response to a note from Deutsch about his proposed legislation. “Today, we do battle on the SD House Floor. Thank you for all your work, and your prayers,” Deutsch wrote. Deutsch also did not respond to VICE News’ request for comment.
It's not surprising to experts that the language in the emails looks like that.
“It is the language of Christian nationalism,” Thomas Lecaque, an associate professor of history at Grand View University focusing on apocalyptic religion and political violence. “It is the language of people who very much believe they are doing God’s will, and it is the language of people who very much believe that they are engaged in a holy war.”
The repeated notes about “blessings” and “prayers,” as well as sign-offs like “God bless you” and “Under His wings,” proliferate throughout the emails.
Explicit references to warfare pop up in the emails a few times: “I prayed for you and the others supporting the bill today. Asked the Lord to put all of you in the Armor of God for this fight,” wrote Elisa Rae Shupe, a trans woman, in an email. Shupe, at the time, had detransitioned and was an anti-trans advocate. She’s since re-transitioned, renounced her ties to Christianity, and shared the emails with journalists. “I fell prey to the belief that if I did what they suggested that I would be cured of my gender dysphoria… I was encouraged to confess my sins, ask for forgiveness by Jesus, and turn my plight over to the Lord Jesus Christ. I was also asked to accept that my transgender status was a sexually motivated sin and to cure myself by attending a religious 12-step program, which I did for approximately a year,” Shupe told VICE News.
Another email, also from Broyles, stated, “Praise God!! And we cancel every assignment of backlash against you and those who stood with you. May you sleep the deep sleep of one who has warred well for what is right.”
As bills passed or failed, the involved parties also imbued their responses with religious language.
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Emails from 2020 show right-wing lobbyists and politicians rejoicing after Idaho passed two anti-trans bills. One of the bills, which is still being fought by the ACLU, bans trans women and girls from girls’ sports, and is rooted in the myth that trans women have a leg up in sports, though evidence has consistently stated the opposite. “Dear Friends,” wrote Young, the Idaho representative, “I cannot thank you enough for your help and support! It is official—Governor Little signed both H500 and H509 today! Many tears and prayers of gratitude! The fight goes on!” Young sent the email to nearly 30 people, some of whom have also lobbied against abortion, including Deutsch.
Young did not respond to VICE News’ request for comment.
Responses from lobbyists all over flooded in: “God is with us,” one person wrote.
Another person wrote, “I've been making a point to pray each day, asking that the Governor would sign these bills, and those prayers have now been answered.”
“Praise God! Five smooth stones, and an abiding faith in His justice! Good work you guys!” a lobby group member wrote. (Five smooth stones is a biblical reference that is often used as a shorthand for a situation in which an underdog, David, fights—and defeats—a much stronger adversary, Goliath.)
“Praise God! Five smooth stones, and an abiding faith in His justice! Good work you guys!”
“Stopping the existence of transgender people and the acceptance of trans people in the public sphere is to them some sort of religious imperative,” Lecaque told VICE News.“It’s particularly fascinating that this group that has all this money, control in state legislatures, control of the house, they had a presidency, is acting like somehow they are David in the struggle.”
None of this is particularly surprising, and none of it is new. Today’s Christian nationalists believe that America is an inherently holy, Christian land, and that it’s their duty to restore God’s kingdom in order for Jesus to return. Part of this means that they think the country’s laws, policies and cultural institutions should reflect evangelical Christian values, VICE News previously reported. As a result, contentious cultural and political issues, like drag queen story hours and “critical race theory” are perceived as Satanic. Indeed, the Devil came up in the leaked emails.
“I completely agree that it is Christian Nationalism, although I tend to refer to it as religious extremism,” Shupe said in an email to VICE News. “Christian Nationalists are a danger to the LGBTQ population, and society in general: a genuine threat to people's lives and safety. They feign compassion while doing everything possible to strip us of our civil rights and ability to safely exist and participate in society.”
Shupe also acknowledged her own past efforts while collaborating with the anti-trans lobby.
“I take full responsibility for the manner in which I also acted in a harmful manner while participating in the secret workgroup. My actions were wrong, shameful, and harmful. And I was caught up in the moment of that misguided evangelical extremism,” Shupe said. “For that, I am truly sorry for the harm that I helped to cause.”
Trans issues, in particular, have been targeted with unprecedented fervor as of late. In 2022, anti-trans hate went mainstream, with onlookers asking if the escalation in anti-trans rhetoric is constituting the beginning of a genocide. Hate groups, far-right pundits, and conservative legislators have zeroed-in on trans people and spread harmful lies and stereotypes about what it means to be trans, often falsely framing trans people as a threat to children.
The political and social environment in the U.S. for trans issues is already fraught. This year’s legislative session has seen a record-breaking 470 anti-trans bills introduced in states across the country, including three trans healthcare bans that have already been signed into law. In South Dakota, Gov. Kristina Noem signed a gender-affirming care ban this year that in many ways resembles a previously failed ban, “Vulnerable Child Protection Act,” first introduced by Deutsch in 2019, and discussed in the emails at length.
“They are not trying to protect children. They are trying to murder the transgender community,” Lecaque said.
Today, trans youth, especially Black and Brown kids, are struggling with mental health more than before, families with trans kids are considered fleeing their homes in states that are hostile to trans people, and hate groups and extremists have repeatedly incited violence at drag shows.
Numerous medical governing bodies, including the American Medical Association, American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics, however, have endorsed gender-affirming care for minors. But that hasn’t stopped several states from introducing or ratifying legislation banning gender-affirming care for minors.
Tess Owen contributed reporting.