During the presidential campaign, President-elect Donald Trump was generous with his bigotry. But gay and lesbian Americans seemed largely to escape his scapegoating, despite the Republican Party’s entrenched homophobia. “The LGBT community, the gay community, the lesbian community—they are so much in favor of what I’ve been saying,” Trump said at a June campaign rally in Atlanta.
But if Trump was supposed to be the first gay-friendly GOPer in the White House, he has a funny way of showing it. Even setting aside vice president-elect Mike Pence’s support for homophobic policies as governor of Indiana, Trump has assembled a transition team and cabinet deeply tied to one of the most pernicious anti-gay groups around. The Family Research Council isn’t content to oppose homosexuality on religious grounds; instead, it uses pseudoscience to give its homophobia a flimsy veneer of objectivity. And it could wind up shaping the incoming president’s policies.
“They’ve been highly sophisticated in cultivating a scientific identity, which makes them powerful,” says David Peterson, an English professor who studies homophobic language at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. (The FRC and Trump transition team did not respond to requests for comment.)
How tied up is Trump with this group? Ken Blackwell, Trump’s transition team’s domestic policy chair, is an FRC senior fellow. Kay Cole James, who co-leads the transition team in management and budget affairs, is a former FRC vice president. James’ co-lead, Ed Meese, has written for FRC. Brietbart’s Ken Klukowski, head of the team’s “Constitutional rights” policy, served as director of FRC’s Center of Religious Liberty. Trump’s nominee for secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, comes from a family of FRC donors.
That’s not to mention the many cabinet appointees and soon-to-be staffers who have spoken at FRC’s annual Values Voter Summit, from Reince Priebus to Tom Price to Jeff Sessions to Mike Pompeo. Pence and Trump themselves have met with FRC President Tony Perkins, and they were the first-ever Republican presidential ticket to speak at the summit.
‘They’ve been highly sophisticated in cultivating a scientific identity, which makes them powerful.’
That the FRC has found its way back into a position of influence over the presidency shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. The group has been making political moves since the early 1980s. Since then, it’s grown to become the most successful progeny of an effort among social conservatives to move the basis of their policy recommendations away from Scripture and toward sociology. Not that legitimate sociology is where the FRC has arrived. Rather, the group is to homophobia what the National Policy Institute is to the alt-right—a bland, respectable-sounding, quasi-academic front for a hateful, regressive ideology. It comes packaged in a way that looks like real science but is really just cherrypicked data stitched together to serve its agenda.
“A whole slew of real scientists who have demanded that the Family Research Council stop using their data,” says Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has designated the FRC an extremist group.
The papers the FRC produces often purport to be meta-analyses—studies of studies. Rather than compiling an accurate synthesis of mainstream scientific inquiry, however, the group mis-contextualizes data to arrive at a desired conclusion. This technique is how the FRC manages to link homosexuality to, among other things, pedophilia and shortened lifespans, despite strong scientific consensus to the contrary. When the group is not twisting mainstream scientists’ numbers, it’s citing organizations such as the American College of Pediatricians, which sure sounds like the American Academy of Pediatrics but is actually a far-right breakaway group with only 200 members.
The FRC and its pseudoscientific research are useful tools for socially conservative legislators.
It’s pretty much the same story with the research FRC produces itself. “The FRC’s research is just a giant exercise in selection bias,” says Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland. “If being rich makes you more likely to be married, a study that says being married makes you rich will always find that result.”
The FRC has mis-designed many sociological experiments. If you want to study whether children fare better emotionally when raised by heterosexual or homosexual married couples, as FRC purported to do, you would need to make sure all conditions besides the parents’ sexual orientations were the same in order to truly compare them. Instead, the FRC study mostly looked at children of same-sex couples that weren’t married, had pre-existing emotional troubles, and were the offspring of previous marriages that ended when one parent came out. The FRC’s findings don’t even pass a basic scientific smell test, according to the American Sociological Association. What’s more, the group’s work isn’t peer reviewed.
“Their research is worse than worthless. It’s propaganda,” says Potok.
Nevertheless, FRC members perspectives are treated as reasonable by many in Congress. And now it appears they’ll enjoy similar esteem from the Trump administration. In part, that success owes itself to the group’s public relations effort to appear of respectable. Their website is well designed and hides some of the FRC’s most outré work. Perkins seems like a pleasant enough fellow on television.
But it’s also because the FRC and its pseudoscientific research are useful tools for socially conservative legislators. “We call it pre-suasion,” says Lisa Corrigan, a professor of communications and director of gender studies at the University of Arkansas. “You inoculate a population with an idea ahead of time and then pass legislation that reinforces that idea.” For example, the FRC released a paper in January 2015 claiming that fetuses feel pain by the time they reach 20 weeks, and sometimes earlier. Trump later campaigned on a promise to sign the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, a late-term abortion ban given pseudoscientific cover by the FRC’s findings.
With current and former FRC staff all over the Trump transition team, the group seems as well positioned as ever to propagate its ideology. Perhaps most importantly—and least conspicuously—it may find a way to accomplish its goals through lower level government officials who buy into the FRC’s beliefs. “The headlines are about who is the secretary of this or that, but they deal with broad policy,” says David Himmelstein, a professor of public health policy at the CUNY School of Public Heath at Hunter College. But the lower level political hires the transition team has the authority to make—the undersecretaries, the assistant undersecretaries—have the power to overrule scientific advisory committees, Himmelstein says, and have done so even under the relatively pro-science Obama administration. Such actions by a presidential administration can also provide political cover for more radical policy shifts at the state level.
In his short time as president-elect, Trump has already shown he cares little for fealty to facts. The way his cabinet is shaping up, science seems likely to get similar treatment—in this case, at the expense of women and LGBTQ Americans.