Ashley Underwood, Research Associate | August 19, 2021 Blog Post

The Weaponization of “Family”

The goal of “protecting” the “traditional family” has a long history of being a veneer for hateful agendas and harmful policies. Former President Reagan’s vilification of single mothers paved a path to withhold federal support from lower income families. Latent, misogynistic bias against working mothers thwarted universal childcare in the early 1970s. LGBTQ advocates have fought long and hard for marriage equality but are still working against the myopic, codified definitions of family that place undue burdens on LGBTQ households. Xenophobic discourse about migrant families runs rampant and criminalizes parents for seeking opportunities to raise their children in safe conditions. Most recently, a sham need to “protect family members'' from discrimination in sports, led by the “pro-family” movement, is behind a recent wave of transphobic legislative actions at the state level. 

What Is the Pro-Family Movement?

The “pro-family” movement has positioned itself on the international stage as a modern-day missionary. This movement has inserted itself into countries, largely in the Global South, to promulgate the evangelical ideology that denounces reproductive healthcare and shuns the full spectrum of sexualities and gender orientations. It operates within a rigid definition of “family” that is restricted to cisgender, heterosexual, married couples and their cisgender, heterosexual children. Domestically, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) has centered itself as the “attorney” of the pro-family movement. The ADF is also proactively working toward codifying transphobia with the help of right-wing policymakers and other extremist groups, such as The Heritage FoundationFamily Watch InternationalConcerned Women of America and C-FAM. Their “Promise to America’s Children” is an initiative targeting the lives and wellbeing of transgender youth through model legislation that seeks to ban minors’ access to gender-affirming care and participation in sports. 

How Are Anti-Trans Hate Groups Working at the State Level? 

The “pro-family” movement is a large, well-funded, well-oiled machine, but its success relies on parents who have narrow worldviews and can be convinced that any inclusive policies are threats to their own children. Unfortunately, the galvanization of parents against inclusive, progressive policies is nothing new. When interviewed by NBC Newsabout the “Promise to America’s Children,” history professor Bethany Moreton reminded us of Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign, which “worked to overturn gay nondiscrimination ordinances in Miami by referencing how such measures would harm local children.” As The New Republic so aptly wrote, “Maternalism is a handy shield against being accurately identified as fueling homophobia and racism.”

In the case of recent legislation seeking to exclude transgender girls from participating in sports, it was the work of “concerned parents” that established it all. Connecticut mom Bianca Stanescu started a petition in June 2018 calling for student athletes to participate on teams based on the sex they were assigned at birth, an effort to deny athletes the opportunity to participate on teams based on their gender identities. This petition was a hateful response to a local rising track star, Andraya Yearwood, who is Black and transgender. Andraya was assigned male at birth, but as a transgirl, she was participating in the female division. Apparently, the petition was just the start. Stanescu’s daughter and two other cisgender student athletes represented by the ADF were plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit that attempted to reverse a policy allowing transgender girl athletes to participate on girls’ sports teams. Connecticut is not an anomaly. In Idaho, the ADF is active in a lawsuit defending the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act, which bans transgender girls and women from participating in school sports. The ADF also helped to develop this legislation. Due to the ADF and its partner organizations’ work with policymakers, copycat legislation has woven its way into other states. 

Although “sports bans” have gained the most media attention, the current batch of anti-trans legislation is not targeting sports exclusion alone. Across states, proposed legislation contains language aiming to censor comprehensive sex education, allow for criminal charges to be made against transgender student athletes, force school officials to disclose potentially sensitive information to parents regarding students’ gender expression and all-out ban minors from accessing gender-affirming medical care. Much of the language found in these bills’ texts can be traced back to the “Promise to America’s Children.” 

Although the “Promise” is positively worded—invoking themes of family values, protection and parental love—lurking behind its wholesome “Christian” veneer is a policy that will codify long-term harm to children. Children who need gender-affirming medical care. Children who need protection from dangerous, homophobic parents. Children who need unbiased, comprehensive education about their bodies. Children who could stand to benefit from the social perks of sports participation. Children who will need the help of trusted adults as they navigate their gender identities and sexual orientations. Children in foster care who deserve to be adopted by loving parents, regardless of their potential parents’ gender identities and sexual orientations. Children who deserve safety in school. Children who are worthy of life and dignity. Children who should be able not only to exist but also to thrive in a world that does not criminalize their existence. 

"Pro-Family" Is Antithetical To Family Values

As humans, we have an intrinsic desire to nurture and protect the families we are born into as well as our chosen families. It’s what makes family a universal value. However, the “pro-family” movement seeks to harm and destroy families that exist outside of their belief system. They are antithetical to family and family values. The hate fueling their transphobic actions is eerily similar to the hate of racist parents who opposed school integration, the hate congregated outside of abortion clinics in an attempt to block patients from making the decisions they feel are bestfor their families, the hate that is fortified through stigmatized environments. Try as it might, the “pro-family” movement cannot claim the moral high ground if its victory depends on suppressing the rights of all families and their children. And it certainly cannot claim to value family if its current strategies involve targeting the most cherished members of our familial units: children. Children should be promised safety, love and hope, not a conglomerate of adults seeking to legislate their lives out of existence.

Ashley Underwood is a Research Associate at Equity Forward. She is a reproductive justice and public health advocate with an extensive background in working to improve maternal and sexual health outcomes through program implementation and development. Most recently, Ashley worked as a research and program manager at NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio. Ashley holds a Master’s degree in public health from Case Western Reserve University.