A far-right Charles Koch-funded front group tried to bring anti-Trans hate to Cranston and found an army of activists waiting to call them out.
On September 19, the Independent Women’s Network hosted a forum to discuss “Gender Ideology in Schools” at the William Hall Branch of the Cranston Public Library. The group claims discussion of gender and sexuality in schools with students is a path to mental health struggles.
The Independent Women’s Network is made up of local chapters of the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF), a far-right fringe group funded by Charles Koch. The group pushes a transphobic agenda and discourages suicide prevention efforts in schools, claiming talk of Trans lives and suicide prevention leads to “social contagion.”
Along with pushing anti-LGBTQ policies, IWF pushes a variety of fringe ideas. True North Research described IWF as a “front group for hire” that would peddle whatever far-right policies they are paid to advocate for. IWF even opposed temporary paid medical leave for front-line workers during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The group also has ties to Big Tobacco and the pharmaceutical industry.
In response to this fringe group’s attempts to sell anti-trans ideas to Cranston, the Trans communities of Rhode Island and their allies organized a protest outside the library to demonstrate that such hate and fear-mongering does not belong in the Ocean State. The protest was organized by TGI Network, LGBTQ Action RI, Youth Pride Inc., Sage, Womxn Project, Haus of Codec, the Democratic Women’s Caucus, and RI Queer PAC.
Protestors explained to Options Magazine that they were there to remind IWF that Queer and Trans people have a right to exist: “We can intellectualize many things, but not people’s right to exist. Families with Trans youth are already dealing with a lot, and inviting an international troll does not help them,” stated Damián Lima, a Trans immigrant and compassionate advocate for his community.
Protestors told Options that tensions and nerves were high, with many people concerned that counter-protesters would get violent. The police presence at the event did not ease protestors' concerns and even added to fears things could take a turn for the worst. Yet, despite the fears and intimidation, over two hundred people came out in support of the Trans community that evening.
Many of the families there told Options they were determined to show their kids that Trans people deserve more respect than to be talked about behind closed doors on government property. Volta Tran, a community educator and Cranston resident explained to Options that they were there to keep working to protect students: “Others may choose to dismiss the expertise of leading health organizations and instead spread misinformation… the reality is that we need to continue addressing the bullying, harassment, and increased risks of suicide that so many face.”
Giona Picheco, a Trans woman and Cranston resident, told Options “I think a lot of us came here with a lot of anger about what’s going on behind closed doors in a public library but seeing the amount of support that came out tonight fills me with hope and joy. And I know that Rhode Island is a place of acceptance and love.”
The progress Rhode Island has made toward protecting Trans people translates into our culture. Since 2001, RI has outlawed discrimination based on gender identity for employment, credit, housing, and public accommodations. The state has also repealed Gay and Trans “panic defense,” banned conversion therapy, updated forms to be inclusive of Trans and non-binary identities, and stripped single-user bathrooms of gender designations. Protestors mentioned that although there is plenty Rhode Island can do to further the protection of Trans people, having these laws in effect over time shaped our culture to be Trans-inclusive and helped drive people to come out to support Trans people that day.
Throughout the evening tensions eased and members of the Trans community and local advocates spoke to the crowd on the steps of the library. Damián Lima told the crowd that “since the library decided to host this group, tonight we will have our own panel, right here, right now, with actual experts in the Trans community.” The other speakers included Donnie Anderson, Jaye Watts, Giona Picheco, Rush Frazier, Volta Tran, and State Senator Tiara Mack, and the energy from the crowd was palpable.
After the speeches were over, supporters spoke to each other about how the misinformation that IWF spreads causes harm to the Trans community. “Extensive research indicates that Trans youth with supportive families report higher self-esteem, better mental health, and fewer suicide attempts than those without that family support,” Tran told Options, and noted that “my family’s love was life-saving.”
It is clear that Rhode Island has a community that is willing to let the light in even in the face of extreme bigotry and transphobia. As a parting note for the night, Dr. Reverend Donnie Anderson said this, “I wish, when I was nine years old and I tried to have a conversation with my mother about what was going on in my life, that there was language and resources that could have helped me identify myself. And I’m here tonight to fight to make sure the kids today don’t have to go through six decades in the closet like I did.”
LGBT Map combats misinformation on its website and provides resources to learn more about helping Trans youth.