State Rep. Stephanie Luck is no stranger to culture war-inspired controversies. The Penrose Republican has developed a reputation as an anti-abortion hardliner, calling the practice “legalized genocide,” and pushed a bill that would have required medical providers to collect personal data from abortion patients; she’s also an election denier who, in April 2021, asked Trump attorney John Eastman if there were any remaining avenues to overturn the 2020 presidential election. Now, she’s become the latest Republican to accuse LGBTQ people of preying on young children, a homophobic trope that’s as worn out as it is dangerous.
A recent email sent out from Luck’s statehouse office reported an anecdote in which, according to Luck, a middle school student was “recruited” by a teacher into the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) under false pretenses.
The email reads: “Then slowly the story comes out: your daughter’s art teacher recruited her into ‘Art Club’, where she and the other pre-teenaged kids were asked whom they were sexually attracted to and told that if they felt ‘uncomfortable’ with who they were it was a sure sign they were transgender. She was also told that her parents might not be ‘safe’, that it was okay to lie to her parents, and that her new transgender identity meant she was more likely to commit suicide. To avoid that outcome, your daughter was told she ought to pursue mental health care and begin taking puberty blockers – all without telling you, her parents.”
Though Luck does not provide a direct attribution for this story, she writes that it came from testimony from a Larimer County mother who spoke before the House Public Behavioral Health and Human Services last month. That woman is Erin Lee, an activist who says her child was “lured” into the GSA meeting by subterfuge from a trusted teacher at a school in Poudre School District.
Lee initially made her claims via Parents Defending Education, a conservative group with well-documented links to the Koch brothers and Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News. Two weeks after a round of negative stories in conservative outlets including Murdoch’s New York Post, the Fort Collins Coloradoan published a detailed report on Lee’s claims, a story for which neither Lee not her attorney was willing to comment.
“Lee declined to comment to the Coloradoan and directed any questions to her lawyer, Brad Bergford, who also declined comment.
Bergford said he wasn’t “at liberty” to comment on why Lee needed a lawyer or why she brought this into the public eye a year after it happened and had been resolved.
A search of Colorado Courts and the national court system showed no ongoing lawsuits involving Lee and PSD, nor [LGBT group director] Chambers.
Chambers, answering written questions from the Coloradoan, said the events of the May 2021 meeting “have been mischaracterized” and that “no student was ever forced or coerced to attend or stay at the meeting for any reason whatsoever.”Molly Bohanon, Fort Collins Coloradoan
“Her art teacher lured her into a GSA meeting disguised as art club,” Lee claimed in her testimony, “where a teacher and presenter did unthinkable things with the children, like explore who they’re sexually attracted to, tell them if they’re not comfortable in their biological sex then they’re transgender, and discuss polyamory.”
At the start of the 2021-2022 school year, Poudre School District cut ties with the nonprofit that coordinated the district’s resources for LGBTQ students, opting instead to hire an in-school coordinator.
Lee’s accusations play directly into a derogatory and all too common stereotype of gay and trans people as “groomers” who prey on children. Across the nation, Republicans have used these ideas as a wedge issue to galvanize right-wing voters.
One of the most prominent religious right groups to link LGBT people with the crime of pedophilia is Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), an anti-LGBT hate group. Both Rep. Luck and Lee’s attorney Bergford are graduates of ADF’s Blackstone Legal Fellowship program, which trains Christian lawyers to “impact culture” and previously described its mission as seeking “to recover the robust Christendomic theology of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries.”
Incendiary rhetoric like this has led to increased violence against LGBTQ people, and transgender people especially, in the past few years, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Colorado saw the ramifications of this last November, after an armed individual opened fire at Club Q in Colorado Springs.
Lee was not simply a concerned citizen giving public comment on the hearing. Since she first brought up her concerns in May 2021, she has gained a following as an activist who focuses on parental rights, an ideological umbrella that prioritizes parents’ authority over the legal rights of other groups – including, often, statutes ensuring equality for LGBTQ people. She’s also actively raising funds to produce an original documentary, which she says would explore “the assault on [children’s] innocence and identity” by trans activists.
The hearing concerned a bill that would create a mental health assessment program for grades six through twelve.
“As kids navigate the academic, social, and emotional experiences that come with growing up, ensuring that all children and youth have access to the behavioral health support and services they need is more critical than ever. But without universal screening, there may be no way to know that some of our students are quietly struggling and need help,” said Leslie Colwell, Vice President of Youth Success Initiatives at Colorado Children’s Campaign, in support of the bill. “… Making parents aware that these screenings are taking place has the potential to spur a very important conversation about mental health between students and parents, and further destigmatizing therapy and placing more attention on early intervention may prevent identified challenges from getting worse.”
For parental rights advocates like Lee, the main point of contention is that, if parents decline the assessment, students can choose to opt back in without parental knowledge.
“We quickly found out that due to House Bill 1911-29, therapists in Colorado can only affirm transgender confusion, a label that did not fit my child,” Lee said in the hearing. “And as a result she became depressed and then suicidal. … We recognized that her mental health decline, and put a stop to the therapy visits. It was only then that the rapid-onset gender confusion and depression began to lift. … If my child did not break the rules and tell us about her gender confusion, therapy without familial involvement would have led to her worsened gender dysphoria, depression, and likely her suicide.”
Lee assumes that, by default, someone who is reconsidering their gender identity must be confused. She references the controversial theory of rapid onset gender dysphoria (ROGD), which posits that transgender identity is spread from child to child as a “social contagion,” and has high comorbidity with other mental health issues such as depression. Disregarding how the theory compares LGBTQ identity to a disease, ROGD also has little statistical evidence to back it up. A 2021 study from the Journal of Pediatrics found no significant link between an adolescent’s knowledge of their gender identity and negative mental health outcomes.
Data also suggests that when families support and affirm LGBTQ youth in their identities, rates of depression, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation all tend to go down, rather than up.
Luck, for her part, seemed to agree completely with Lee’s opposition to the mental health bill.
“House Bill 1003 seems to view parents as unwanted, unneeded, and uniformed [sic] interlopers when it comes to the care of their own children,” Luck wrote. “It is an affront to the millions of conscientious and caring parents in our state.”
Luck did not respond to a request for comment. An attempt to reach Lee via email was unsuccessful. This article will be updated with any response received.