Trans rights activist Imara Jones on the anti-trans hate machine the far right has assembled

Imara Jones accepting the NABJ-NAHJ Journalist of Distinction Award
Imara Jones accepting the NABJ-NAHJ Journalist of Distinction Award Photo: Screenshot

Imara Jones is an award-winning journalist, thought leader, and content creator whose work focuses on trans people and the intersection of religious fundamentalism, the LGBTQ+ community, and civil rights. The sequel to her award-winning podcast The Anti-Trans Hate Machine drops in March.

Jones shared some time on a chilly afternoon in Brooklyn to describe the state of the far right’s campaign targeting trans kids, drag queens, and “groomers,” from a billionaire Christian cabal spreading nationalist gospel and unlimited cash to a new and made-to-order frontline hate group called Gays Against Groomers.

LGBTQ Nation: I imagine for your work it’s got to be a full-time job just keeping up with all the connections between attacks and protests and media fueling them, and the money fueling the organizations. Do you have a giant bulletin board in your office, like a detective, with pictures and pushpins and strings connecting everything?

IJ: Yes, we have. Generally, we create what we call sitemaps. And we kind of look for who’s where, and who are they connected to, and how they link back. And at a certain point it, you know, you don’t even have to do that as much anymore because you hear a name, or you see an organization, and you go, “Oh yeah, there are links to X.” In the right-wing space that fuels a lot of his hate, you see the usual suspects and don’t have to look that hard.

LGBTQ Nation: There’s been a recent focus on drag shows and story time hours by frontline groups and media outlets like Libs of TikTok and Project Veritas. Is that a shift away from casting young people as villains, like the ones playing girls’ sports and 10-year-olds testifying in state legislatures, and moving to adults as villains or what they’re calling groomers? Is that an easier sell for hate groups and far-right media than attacks on kids and parents?

IJ: I don’t see it as an either/or. I see it as an expansion of the battlespace rather than a conversion of it from one thing to the other. We have to understand from the perspective of the right that these distinctions about gender and gender identity, it’s like blurred into one thing. Drag is very threatening because it has wide acceptance. It’s about bending gender, right? And about the part of gender that’s an illusion. And so for them that fits very much in the space of trans people.

And when I look at conservative media, they haven’t let up at all on trans people and trans kids. You know, we have anti-trans bills that were passed this year in Georgia and in Florida, and as a centerpiece of the campaigns of [Republican Gov. of Texas] Greg Abbott and [Republcan Gov. of Florida] Ron DeSantis, and on and on and on. There was a huge emphasis in Uvalde in an online campaign that moved to conservative media that then moved to a member of Congress to say that the shooter was trans. So, I don’t think that it’s a flip. It’s looking new to us because it’s greatly expanded, but it’s actually not.

LGBTQ Nation: Tell us about the Betsy DeVos/Prince clan, and why we don’t hear about their influence.

IJ: Can I take those questions in reverse? I would say why don’t we hear about it, one, because they’re powerful people and people are afraid of powerful people, including newspapers, and we know that. Secondly, I think it’s because they have a degree of mainstream credibility because she was a secretary of education, even in the midst of a controversial administration. And one of the reasons why they’re so effective is because their extremism is cloaked behind this air of comity and rectitude. There’s a certain way in which she composes herself, which I think doesn’t scream extremist.

LGBTQ Nation: And how about the DeVos/Prince clan itself?

IJ: When we say the DeVos family, we’re talking about the fusion of two billionaire families into one. Betsy DeVos was born Betsy Prince into the really wealthy Prince family. And then she married Richard DeVos. It’s actually a giant clan, a billionaire clan. And there is not a far-right organization, and in many cases designated hate groups, who exist without the largess of that family. Betsy DeVos, or Betsy Prince and her husband, Richard DeVos are the second generation in this billionaire kind of clan.

Richard DeVos’ father, for example, was extremely important to the founding of the Heritage Foundation. The Prince family, which is Betsy DeVos, helped to fund the headquarters of the Family Research Council, which is designated by the SPLC [Southern Poverty Law Center] as a hate group. And they’ve been involved in so many far-right organizations throughout the decades. And so what you have here in this second generation is kind of a sophistication of their operation and particularly in Betsy Prince, this kind of fusion of strategy, of money and a whole host of other things.

LGBTQ Nation: How does that manifest itself?

IJ: So this family is kind of the royal family of the Christian nationalist movement. And they set the example for how to move money throughout the right wing for all of the other really wealthy families. They participated in an annual gathering of Christian nationalist billionaires called The Gathering, in which Betsy DeVos is on tape coaching them in terms of how, as a wealthy person in this far-right movement, you move money to other things, and encouraging them to do so. There is religious extremism in their views, which is what’s driving a lot of this.

As well, all of the Trump administration’s anti-trans policies came out of the DeVos Center for Family and Religion that’s housed in the Heritage Foundation. People were moved from that center into the Trump administration where they began to disseminate these policies. I think that we have to keep in mind that Betsy DeVos is just the most visible person of this large, far-right billionaire clan that has been active for over 40 years.

LGBTQ Nation: How did DeVos end up as education secretary in the Trump Administration?

IJ: They didn’t know who to appoint to anything because their win was a surprise, right? So they were like, “What in the world are we going to do?” So they turned to Erik Prince. It’s gonna sound familiar, younger brother of Betsy. And he’s like, okay, we’ll get you linked up with the right people. And one, he clued them into his sister and, two, they went to the Heritage Foundation, and the Heritage Foundation said, “Boy, you know, this is actually what we’ve wanted to do for a really long time.”

And so it flows that the Heritage Foundation would recommend Betsy DeVos because their family is a longtime founder at that center and they know that she’s been really active in education and educational circles. And then they basically started to populate the entire administration with people recommended by a combination of the Heritage Foundation and Erik Prince and that’s literally how she got in the mix.

LGBTQ Nation: The DeVos family are adherents of Dominionism. What is that?

In Ecclesiastes, there is the charge to basically create theocracies that are based on kind of a real religious caste system. And so how do you do that? The way you do that is something called Dominionism. And that is to say that you seize the seven mountains of society, you gain control of those things. And once you have control of them, you can then move society towards this theocratic vision. And so what are some of the seven mountains? They’re business and finance, they’re education, they’re the media, arts, etc. So the charge for Betsy DeVos at this epic gathering in the early 2000s was to charge really wealthy people and billionaires to pick their mountain, and then focus on it. As people who have been told over and over and over that their wealth flows from the fact that they are chosen and special, you can see how they gravitate towards something like Dominionism, and they have. Their whole family has.

LGBTQ Nation: I’d like to zero in on one particular group as an example of one at the bottom of this organizational hierarchy. What can you tell us about Gays Against Groomers? It appeared out of nowhere about six months ago, fully formed and led by a woman named Jaimee Michell. Do you think it’s organic?

IJ: There’s very little on the right that’s organic. It’s really funny, because I have to explain this a lot to mainstream and even the liberal funders, where, you know, on the left, a lot of things are organic, and people just form them and then they get funded. A lot of times, what happens on the right is, they’ll say, “Who’s gonna start an organization that will do X?” And then someone raises their hand.

This is one of the things we’re going to document next year on the podcast, but one of the things that they do on the right is that they go out and they shop for people from the communities that they’re targeting who are willing to essentially carry the message that they want them to carry if they give them a large enough check. And so they will go out and they’ll look for a Jaimee Michell — this is not uncommon — they’ll be actively looking for these people online or elsewhere. And once they find them, they will either engage them or platform them or say, “Can we introduce you to other people?” and that’s literally how it gets started.

A lot of the TERFs that you see platformed, and TERF organizations, it’s all because the Heritage Foundation went and found them and put them on a panel, and after that, all those people began to be kind of off to the races in terms of their public voice and platforming and a whole host of other things.

LGBTQ Nation: It says very prominently on the Gays Against Groomers website that they’re “a 100% independent, self-funded nonprofit organization.”

IJ: They’re not an official 501(c)(3). I think they claim that. I don’t think there are any 990’s on them. So, to self-assert that you’re self-funded, without in any way showing that you’re self-funded, and the fact that they have so many people — I can look at it right now and say they have a budget of close to a million dollars? Or over a million dollars? So where did that come from? There’s not a million dollars-worth of Gays Against Groomers money in the gay community, right? It’s not an organic conversation. Whereas like, okay, Gays Against Guns. Can they go out and do a GoFundMe campaign amongst people, raise money? Yeah. There’s support for that. But no, there’s nothing organic about this. It reads to me like a slick version of the ex-gay organizations that were funded and founded by Focus on the Family in the 1980’s.

LGBTQ Nation: What’s in store for Season 2 of Anti-Trans Hate Machine?

IJ: We are focusing on the way that the right has manufactured a cultural and media debate about the validity and worthiness of trans people and trans kids, and then has gone on to weaponize that to justify both political and actual violence.

LGBTQ Nation: What do you mean by weaponize, exactly?

IJ: So, you create a conversation. It’s like what happened in the 1930s — and there’s nothing analogous to the Holocaust — but there is an analogy to how you got there as a society. And one of the things that happened in the 1930s is that they just started a conversation about the bad people that needed to be separated from Germany. And that conversation was actually started by the Nazis. Once that conversation had reached a certain level, they use it as justification — they weaponized it — to then begin this campaign of physical separation and then targeting. You create the conversation, and then you recognize the conversation that you created, in order to take the action that you really want to take.

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