December 17, 2023 - 8:00am

This week, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) dropped a major investigation into “anti-LGBTQ+ pseudoscience”. Dubbed Project Captain, the report declares that the “network we identify supports and is supported by white Christian nationalist ideology that seeks to privilege straight, white, cisgender Christians in public policy and replace science and American law with Christian theology”. 

The authors cast a strange and internally contradictory set of aspersions over the Enlightenment and “science” (their quotation marks, not mine), while deploying all the strategies they accuse their political opponents of practising. Then again, making sense of the opposition is not what this report is about. 

Rather, it is the product of political necessity — the need to discredit the growing pushback to youth gender transition and gender self-ID policies that put males in girls’ sports and women’s prisons. One way to dismiss political opponents is by attaching as many of the following labels as possible: conservative, Christian nationalist, cisheteronormative, white supremacist, male supremacist, creationist purveyors of misinformation and pseudoscience. (In case that’s not enough to convince you, these views are also “unpopular.” We’ll come back to that.) 

This is a ham-fisted attempt to lump all opponents together, regardless of their distinct values, approaches, or political orientations. The report then moves on to accuse the “anti-LGBTQ+ pseudoscience network” of “manufacturing doubt” by, for instance, using “critical reasoning and attention to detail” when evaluating counterarguments (guilty as charged?) and pointing out that developmental psychology and growing numbers of detransitioners suggest that trans identification may, in some cases, be transient and thus an unwise target of life-altering hormonal and surgical interventions. 

The authors make the bold move of defining pseudoscience (“knowledge or conclusions we assume were produced by following the scientific method or best practices within a specific field of study — like psychology, psychiatry and various fields of medicine — but are not actually scientific”) while peddling it themselves, passing off unverifiable concepts like gender identity as established and unquestionable “scientific” facts. 

More, they claim that “LGBTQ+ rights” — a catch-all term they avoid defining in any detail — enjoy broad public support. Trans activists often claim that the policies for which they advocate don’t affect anyone other than trans people. This is a bid for tolerance that most seem more than willing to grant. But as the public becomes more familiar with what this policy agenda means in practice, they’re realising that tolerance for difference isn’t what is being asked of them. 

A recent survey of public attitudes and beliefs on three key transgender policy agenda items — bathroom use, access to sports, and youth gender transition — found public support is lacking. Or, as the University of Houston summarised the findings in a press release: “New survey suggests general society not willing to allow more rights for transgender people.” Specificity over what’s being asked of the public matters. 

The SPLC made its name decades ago during the civil rights movement, when it went after undisputed villains like the Ku Klux Klan. But in recent years the organisation has drifted from its original mission, adopting broader and ever more questionable definitions of hate and becoming, in effect, the keepers of a blacklist of people and groups and ideas that all good progressives must shun. 

At some point, the question organisations like the SPLC asked themselves changed from “what does the public need to know about this issue?” to “what do we need to tell the public to keep them on side?” When it comes to sex and gender, the SPLC apparently decided the public needs to hear that their common-sense concerns, even their compassion, are just tools of white Christian nationalism. Meanwhile, the Center continues to trade on its old reputation, hoping supporters won’t notice. 

The Captain Report warns that “purveyors of pseudoscience generally rely on the fact that most people will take information for granted because they do not have the time, resources or knowledge to conduct a study of their own; do not have the expertise to question the methodology used to reach a conclusion; refuse to critically analyse information; or mistakenly trust the source.” Those who once put their trust in the Southern Poverty Law Center may relate.

Eliza Mondegreen is a graduate student in psychiatry and the author of Writing Behavior on Substack.