She spoke of how the Trump administration has repeatedly rolled back the rights of the transgender community, and asked the presidential candidate what he would do to protect the lives of transgender people like her daughter.
“The idea that an 8-year-old child or a 10-year-old child decides ... ‘I want to be transgender ... it’d make my life a lot easier,’ ” Biden said in his answer. “There should be zero discrimination.”
But by the next day, Biden’s answer — and Haeck’s family — had become the subject of political attacks from conservative commentators and social media trolls.
Fox News’s Tucker Carlson described parents like her as “crazed” ideologues who “would tell the rest of us that an 8-year-old is entitled to hormone therapy on demand and permanent, life-altering surgery,” even though Haeck’s daughter had gone through no such medical interventions. When she woke up in her hotel room in Philadelphia the morning after the town hall, the first message Haeck saw on Facebook threatened to kill her and her husband and take away their children.
“It made me throw up,” Haeck said.
A week and a half later, she learned that a political action committee associated with the Virginia-based conservative think tank American Principles Project had sent out text messages to voters across Pennsylvania misconstruing Biden’s words to suggest he had “endorsed sex change operations for children as young as 8,” which is not true. It included a misleading video, debunked last week by the Associated Press, which showed a clip of his answer to Haeck’s question.
The mother was stunned to see that anyone would assume she was giving her daughter hormone treatments or surgeries — options that are only offered to transgender youth at older ages.
“At this age it’s a social transition. It’s pronouns, it’s choosing what length your hair is going to be, what your clothes are,” Haeck said. “The truth isn’t what it’s about to these people, at all. They’re happy to use a blatant lie for their own political gains, and use my child and children as part of their game.”
The text messages and similar emails were part of a wave of disinformation crashing over voters just days before the election. It was also the latest attempt by conservative groups to rally President Trump’s base by focusing on health care for transgender children, advocates and researchers say.
It became a lightning-rod issue early this year, when Republican state lawmakers across the country filed bills that sought to ban medical professionals from treating transgender teens with puberty-blocking medicines and other treatments, even though the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends giving youths “access to comprehensive, gender-affirming, and developmentally appropriate health care.” Some lawmakers were inspired to file the legislation after learning about a highly publicized divorce custody case in Texas in which a father objected to his 7-year-old child socially transitioning, which the mother encouraged.
The executive director of the American Principles Project, Terry Schilling, told The Washington Post that the PAC’s aim was to reach a million Democrats and Independents in Pennsylvania. RoboKiller, a company that offers a robocall and text blocking app, estimated that the PAC had sent 300,000 messages Sunday and Monday, also targeting Virginia and New Jersey, though about 90 percent of the texts went to Pennsylvania. The PAC also published the video in similar ads on Facebook last weekend, focusing predominantly on users in Wisconsin and Michigan, according to a Facebook ad library for the organization.
Schilling defended the claims in an interview with The Post, saying Biden’s comment about “zero discrimination” implied that “children should have a right to live as the gender they identify with, even if opposite from their biological sex, and have access to any medical treatments that will facilitate this.”
He also said he did not intend to attack transgender children or their parents. “I care about protecting the innocence of kids,” Schilling said. “They’re not 18. They can’t consent to a sex change. All of this stuff confuses them."
But LGBTQ advocates said the ads and messages are part of a continued attempt by conservatives to “weaponize” transgender issues for political gain.
“It is a strategy of distortion and cruelty,” said Elliot Imse, senior director of communications at the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which advocates for LGBTQ elected officials. Imse said the group has seen a growing number of transphobic attacks targeting LGBTQ candidates and other Democrats this election cycle. In one recent example, an ad from the National Republican Congressional Committee targeted U.S. House candidate Gina Ortiz Jones in Texas, claiming she would “divert military money for transgender reassignment surgeries.”
In another recent video shared on social media this week, the national LGBTQ organization Log Cabin Republicans tweeted a video of a self-described “lesbian feminist” who endorsed Trump and claimed that “progressive ideology is erasing women across the board.”
“I just see this as hardcore base pandering and incitement of violence,” Heron Greenesmith, a senior research analyst at the social justice think tank Political Research Associates, said of the recent text message campaigns. According to the Human Rights Campaign, at least 33 transgender or gender-nonconforming people have been killed so far in 2020, the highest number of violent deaths at this point in the year since the group began tracking the data in 2013.
Haeck had hoped her question at Biden’s town hall would lead to a deeper conservation about the rights of transgender children like her own.
Her 8-year-old daughter, Raffa, first started telling her parents she was a girl when she was 3 years old. She would constantly come home from preschool and put on a tutu and wig. Then, she started refusing to leave the house in boy clothes. She hated being photographed. She started lagging academically in school, where she would have accidents because she was teased for using the boys’ bathrooms. One day, she told Haeck she hated herself, and no longer wanted to be alive.
By the time Raffa was 6 years old, “it became so clear that it was absolutely the right thing to do to support her,” Haeck said. After working with a psychologist and researching the best approaches, Haeck and her husband began introducing Raffa as their daughter.
“It’s made me happier because I can be who I want to be,” Raffa said in an interview with The Post. “I can have long hair. I can put it in ponytails. ... I can play with my friends that are girls, being a girl with them.”
Raffa’s transition, and that of most transgender children her age, has not involved any of the medical interventions mentioned in the recent ads or in the attacks she’s received on social media. Some have accused Haeck and her husband of being child abusers. Others have pointed out the fact that her husband, Ezra Nanes, ran unsuccessfully for state office two years ago, and suggested their connection to Democratic politics was the reason she was chosen to ask a question at the town hall.
Haeck said she was invited to submit a question by her neighbor, whose niece works for ABC News. She decided she wanted to ask about the issue that most kept her up at night — the safety of her transgender daughter, and what the current political climate has done to the lives and rights of transgender people. Among the more than 200 people who submitted questions, she said she was one of 21 voters who were chosen.
Although Biden didn’t use the perfect vocabulary in his response, and went on a bit of an unrelated tangent about driving to a swimming pool with his dad, Haeck said she was touched by his kindness. She left the town hall feeling hopeful. Watching her mother on TV at home, Raffa said, was “really cool.”
But whatever comfort Haeck took in Biden’s comments has since been replaced by anxiety. Having been swept up in a disinformation campaign, she is fearful of how her exchange with Biden is being used by some to advocate against transgender children like her daughter. “They really are trying to provoke strong emotions in people around this lie for their own political gains,” she said. “It has nothing to do with concerns for kids.”