On Wednesday, March 8, Mother Jones broke the news of a secret working group that had collaborated to craft anti-trans legislation targeting youth healthcare and spread it to multiple states. The existence of that group—which included numerous elected officials, members of Christian conservative policy groups such as the Family Policy Alliance and the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), and representatives from anti-trans “feminist” group Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF), among others—proved that the current onslaught of anti-trans legislation was the result of a coordinated campaign.
Within hours of the Mother Jones story publishing, a 2,600-page PDF archive of the leaks was posted online.
That archive is substantial, and it is damning. But the public leaks are not the whole story. When the archive was posted, I had already been reading through the leaked emails for several days. The leaker, a trans woman and former “detransition” activist named Elisa Rae Shupe, had reached out to me to offer access, and I had come away with a whole other story.
The full archive—sent to me, and other journalists—contains every email Shupe sent or received, from both of her two email accounts, between 2017 and 2023, the years when she was most active as a member of the organized anti-trans movement. There are years of media, legislative and tactical strategy outlined in those emails; there are conversations in which some of the most well-known TERFs in the movement coordinate strategy and brainstorm talking points. It is a playbook for how anti-trans organizations operate and a compressed history of how the TERF movement joined forces with the Christian right to create the current moment.
Most important, it is a record of how Elisa Rae Shupe was crafted into a weapon; how her narrative was established, edited and eventually taken out of her control, even as her name appeared on testimonies, Supreme Court briefings and highly circulated op-eds. This is the making of a “detransitioner.” More like her are being made every day.
Shupe, an early face of trans activism, is pulled deep into the TERF pool
Elisa Rae Shupe transitioned in 2013. It did not go well; her hormone levels were improperly monitored and she wound up with blood clots and painful skin reactions to her estrogen patches. Still, in her early transition, she presented a positive face. Her background—she was a retired military veteran, a decorated sergeant first class, who received transition care from the Department for Veterans Affairs—made her an interesting story. She was, famously, the first person in the U.S. to be legally designated non-binary. In a 2015 article for the New York Times, Shupe wrote that “radical, conservative politicians and religious groups routinely attack [her] very existence with legislation to deny me basic human rights such as a bathroom that matches my gender identity.”
By 2017, Shupe was working with the LGBTQ2S+ civil rights organization Lambda Legal. She had been profiled by queer-friendly publications as recently as 2016. But it was becoming increasingly clear that something had shifted: in a January 2017 email interview with New York magazine writer Alexa Tsoulis-Reay, which was intended for Tsoulis-Reay’s book Finding Normal, Shupe wrote, “I never thought of myself as a female, I was led to believe that,” and claimed that medical transition can’t alleviate gender dysphoria. “Gender dysphoria is a donkey chasing a carrot in a program the twisted shrinks created, that’s fuelled by societal norms and sex stereotypes.” She told Tsoulis-Reay that she “totally agree[s] with a lot of the hard-core feminist ideologies about biological sex and gender,” and lamented the fact that trans rights activists have depicted TERFS as “mortal enemies.”
Tsoulis-Reay may not have recognized these talking points, but someone else soon did. By May 2017, Shupe had been offered a role as a guest blogger at Gender Identity Watch, run by the notorious trans-exclusionary feminist Cathy Brennan. She was also published on the blog Youth Trans Critical Professionals, run by Lisa Marchiano (who also sometimes operated under the pseudonym Lisa Bell). Marchiano was also working closely with an activist known variously as “Denise,” “Marie” and “Janette,” though Marchiano referred to her simply by the name of her website, 4thWaveNow.
This was the deep end of the TERF pool in the United States. Brennan’s loud, corrosive online presence, as per Jezebel, “did more to push a noxious brand of anti-trans feminism on the internet than any other person in the country.” Over 8,900 people signed a petition asking the Southern Policy Law Center to classify Gender Identity Watch as a hate group, due partly to Brennan’s habit of using the blog to out and shame specific trans people. Marchiano and 4thWaveNow, along with a physician and researcher named Lisa Littman, were instrumental in creating “Rapid-Onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD),” the debunked yet widely cited theory that youth transition is caused by social contagion.
These early communications provide a first-hand look at how TERFs push talking points into the mainstream. Lambda Legal had been growing increasingly uncomfortable with Shupe’s politics, and when her anti-trans writings came to light, they dropped her entirely. Shupe wrote to Brennan, asking for sympathetic “media contacts,” and Brennan wrote back with a list; the first name on it was Michelle Goldberg, who lamented the plight of TERFs in a 2014 article for the New Yorker and has since been criticized for transphobia in her column at the New York Times. (Goldberg denies any close relationship with Brennan, telling me via email that she “think[s she] spoke to her in 2014 for a piece [she] was researching for the New Yorker but didn’t end up quoting her,” and that she doesn’t remember their conversation.)
When self-described “gender culture war reporter” Lisa Selin Davis wrote another Times editorial widely criticized as transphobic, Marchiano reached out to arrange a phone call between Davis and Shupe, noting hopefully that “Lisa has been met with [sic] Chase Strangio and Kate Bornstein looking for common ground, but is looking for other trans perspectives as well.” Shupe says she and Davis stayed in touch after the phone call, and was able to show me an email exchange dated December 2022.
Not all of these attempts paid off. In February 2019, Shupe contacted Abigail Shrier, author of the book Irreversible Damage, which argues that the “transgender craze” is “seducing our daughters” and causing vulnerable cis girls to transition due to social contagion. Though Shrier proposed a phone call, not much seems to have come of that conversation. Shupe made a slightly more successful pitch to now podcaster Katie Herzog, who at the time was a staff writer at The Stranger and reached out to Shupe multiple times via Twitter DM asking for interviews, but did not end up using any of Shupe’s quotes. In both cases, Shupe says, the roadblock was the same: Shrier and Herzog were “invested in selling detrans women, not males.”
“People like me are inferior sales tools,” Shupe tells me in an email. “Although some people will sympathize with narratives like the one that Laura Ingraham peddled, that I’m mentally ill, and instead of giving me therapy, the VA gave me hormones, etc., it’s not as good of a seller as a damaged young woman.”
Herzog disputes Shupe’s characterization as to why she didn’t include Shupe’s comments in her story, stating in an email to Xtra that she didn’t include Shupe over concerns for her mental health.
Finding anti-trans narratives that would “sell” to the general public was a constant concern for this crowd, and Shupe says it didn’t much matter if the narratives were based in fact or not. Marchiano, for instance, eagerly watched the spread of the ROGD theory—“[transfeminist writer and researcher Julia] Serano has already written a takedown,” she exulted in one August 2018 email. Shupe suspects Marchiano’s role is larger than the public knows: “Marchiano never explicitly said she is the inventor of ROGD, but the evidence points to her, and she’s listed as a contributor to the [Lisa Littman] study on PLOS One,” she writes to me. “My ‘opinion’ is that Marchiano and the 4thWaveNow folks are behind the ROGD study, and Littman merely fronted it for them to make it appear unbiased.”
In emails to Xtra sent after this article was published, Littman, Marchiano and 4thWaveNow dispute Shupe’s allegations.
Littman said she is the author of the study and claims to the contrary are “not based in evidence.” The founder of 4thWaveNow calls Shupe’s statements “completely untrue.” Marchiano, meanwhile, said she and “many other clinicians and researchers have been concerned about the ethical issues related to affirmative care for teens since 2016.” She also notes that she did not invent ROGD and in no way looked for anti-trans narratives that would “sell.”
Examining the archive, Marchiano, on two separate occasions, asked Shupe for help in arguing that transition causes teen suicide.
“Comparing notes, we are noticing that the only suicides of trans teens that we hear about are among those kids who are being supported and affirmed, and are transitioning or have transitioned. Leelah Alcorn being the only exception,” Marchiano wrote in the first email, dated Oct. 15, 2018. “Since there are no national statistics that would allow us to test the hypothesis that transition may increase suicidality, we want to try to mine news reports to see what they show. Are you able to put your hands on as many reports of trans teen suicide stories as possible?” Marchiano was still looking for those stories in October 2019, when she again wrote to Shupe that “I would like to write something about how the trans narrative is actually making kids feel suicidal—how the suicidality is because of transition or perhaps being told that if they are trans, they will feel suicidal.”
Marchiano, in her correspondence with Xtra, said Shupe approached her in 2017 asking for help in “getting her story out.” They exchanged emails over the next several years, largely at Shupe’s behest, Marchiano said.
“[Shupe] was often sending me news articles she thought were relevant or writing to me of her own mental struggles. I usually replied politely but briefly. Sometimes, I didn’t reply at all,” Marchiano wrote to Xtra. “Shupe encouraged me to make use of an extensive database of new articles that she had gathered on trans kids and young people.
“It was one of the most thorough collection of news articles I had seen at that point, and I did think it might be useful in helping to document what was going on in terms of suicidality in this area.
“I was and continue to be concerned that telling children and young people that they may become suicidal if they can’t transition may encourage them to be suicidal. This is called the ‘nocebo’ effect, which can be very powerful,” Marchiano said in the email to Xtra. “We know that suicidality can be susceptible to suggestion. Any suicide is a tragedy. It continues to appear true that many trans young people who commit suicide have been fully affirmed and supported. I think the ethical professional stance is to want to understand better what is going on in the population.”
Multiple studies, however, show that transition significantly reduces suicidality among trans and non-binary youth, with different studies giving rate reductions ranging from 40 percent to a staggering 73 percent. It’s also not common for psychologists or researchers to start with a firm conclusion and work backward to cherry-pick the evidence (which, as Marchiano herself wrote, would have been impossible to collect). Still, it was all part of the game, which was less about truth and more about finding the right emotional buttons to push in order to provoke an anti-trans backlash.
“She just kept working at different things until they found something that worked,” Shupe tells me in a phone call. “It was just, like, endlessly trying something. ‘Does this thing work? Did this get traction?’ And if not, you know, move on to this.”
Shupe was a valuable player in this game because, as a “detransitioner,” she could lend credence to other people’s theories by claiming they accurately described her. One major theory was “autogynephilia,” a term coined by gender-critical sexologist Ray Blanchard to argue that (at least some) trans women are fetishistic men who gain sexual satisfaction from seeing themselves as female. In our phone call, Shupe refers to “working with Blanchard to get the autogynephilia diagnosis.” I ask her what she means, assuming that she got the idea from his work.
“No,” Shupe says. “He told me how to get diagnosed.”
By January 2019, Shupe had publicly renounced her non-binary identity and publicly identified as male, and by the end of that year, she had legally changed her name from “Jamie” (the chosen name for her first transition) to “James.” In a February 2019 email, Shupe wrote to Blanchard that she wanted a diagnosis of autogynephilia and asked how to get one. Shupe was not a patient of Blanchard’s, just a fellow traveller in anti-trans circles, but Blanchard responded in detail: “Your psychiatrist could consider two diagnoses,” he wrote. “The first is Transvestic Disorder (302.3), and either or both of its two specifiers, ‘With autogynephilia,’ and ‘In full remission.’” He warned her that the other diagnosis, “Gender Dysphoria in Adolescents and Adults,” was less desirable, and encouraged her to share his letter with healthcare providers: “I have no opposition to your sharing the contents of this email with any psychiatrist you might consult in the future or anywhere else you might see fit.”
Shupe maintained a friendly correspondence with Blanchard, as she did with many other members of the burgeoning U.S.-based TERF movement. It was in March 2019 when she met one of the movement’s most controversial leaders: Kara Dansky, board chair of WoLF, and the woman widely credited with bringing TERFs into the right wing.
Dansky’s willingness to openly align with right-wing groups such as the ADF made her a polarizing figure in TERF circles— Brennan openly loathed her—but it had also given her access to forms of political power that eluded her peers. The loose, informal network of TERFs was no match for the organized firepower and well-funded think tanks of the Christian right, and Dansky seemed to know it: “My instinct is that it will be detransitioners, parents and athletes who will break this open, not radical feminists,” Dansky wrote to Shupe, in that March 2019 introduction, “and I am okay with that.”
Shupe was open to working with conservatives, and had been cultivating her own contacts at the ADF since at least 2017, when she spoke with senior counsel Gary McCaleb about changing the gender markers on her documentation. Still, beginning in 2019, those ties became much more important. This was due in part to another subject discussed in the Dansky emails. In an email dated March 13, 2019, Stupe complained that the Social Security Administration required her to file a “gender change” when she detransitioned.
“You want to sue them?” Dansky wrote. “I wonder if this might be something ADF would take on, if you are willing to work with them.”
Shopping for a lawsuit
Lawsuits were a key part of anti-trans strategy from the start. Court proceedings had been instrumental in rolling back trans rights in the U.K.—for example, in the much-publicized Bell v. Tavistock case, where political detransitioner Keira Bell sued the Tavistock Clinic for prescribing puberty blockers to her as a minor.
Shupe had been floating the idea of suing someone for the cause since at least 2017, with vocal encouragement from her TERF colleagues: “I know people who would testify. I believe that Ken Zucker would. Mike Bailey perhaps also. And if they can’t, they will know people who can,” Marchiano wrote in November 2017, adding, “I am going to have a lot of resources for you on this. Really. You let me know when you are ready, and I will start introducing you to people.”
Shupe’s lawsuit, as it eventually took shape, resembled the Bell case in some respects. She alleged that the Department of Veterans Affairs had been hasty in providing her with gender-affirming healthcare, and claimed that her mental health issues (which included PTSD and borderline personality disorder, BPD) should have disqualified her for treatment. The difference was that, in 2013, when she began her transition, Elisa Shupe was nearly 50 years old. This would have been a detransitioner suing a branch of the U.S. government on the grounds that it was unethical to provide gender-affirming healthcare to adults. In this respect, the case would have clarified and advanced the goals of the broader anti-trans movement: not only to prohibit youth transition, but to forbid transition at any age.
Shupe’s closest ally in this quest was her attorney, Bob Sullivan of Shoemaker and Sullivan. In a March 12, 2019, email, Sullivan introduced himself to Shupe as a “faithful Catholic who tries to use [his] legal skill to build the kingdom of God” and promised that he would be more “thorough and aggressive” than an attorney who did not understand “the evil of gender ideology.”
“Your case is going to need some medical expert testimony … I may have access to some experts who a non-Catholic and a non-Christian may not know,” Sullivan wrote, reminding Shupe that “the average psychologist, psychiatrist or medical doctor is not going to want to lift a finger to help you.”
Even if physicians or psychiatrists would not find merit in Shupe’s claims, the ADF surely did; in a March 22, 2019, email, Gary McCaleb wrote to both Sullivan and Shupe, saying that he “[called] Bob Sullivan; he responded to me most graciously by email earlier this week. I’ll do all I can to help him with this.” In the ensuing correspondence, McCaleb assisted with medical records and documentation, and was made privy to Sullivan’s legal strategy for the case, making him a kind of silent partner.
“The way it seems to work is ADF will evaluate a lawsuit and fund it if they like it, but it’s often similar to the Bob Sullivan situation,” Shupe tells me in an email. “They don’t have the bandwidth to be licensed in every state, so they have a network of lawyers in each that will do their filings. Then ADF pulls the strings from afar and shows up as the big guns at certain moments.”
Shupe had been active in the anti-trans movement for years, but her lawsuit— which Sullivan called “a formal step to take down the gender rights movement”—stood to make her a key asset. Shupe entered the big leagues. She also lost control of her own life story.
At the beginning of her gender-critical career, Shupe’s public voice was more or less her own; that is, she actually gave the interviews and wrote the blog posts that appeared under her name. As Shupe entered the world of the Christian right, however, her voice was increasingly retooled or outright manufactured by her handlers.
Sullivan quickly took over Shupe’s public image, instructing her to refer all requests for interviews or public appearances to him. In an email chain dated April 2019, he told her not to talk to a Washington Post reporter he deemed trans-friendly, and directed her to what he called “good Catholic media sources.” In another April 2019 email, Sullivan provided Shupe with what he called an “outline” for an op-ed, along with instructions for pitching: “You should shop it to the main liberal papers offering it to each one for 24 hours before offering it to a new one. After about four or five, you could then offer it to some more ‘conservative’ papers until you get one to bite.” The “outline” provided by Sullivan was a full essay of 1,609 words. One sentence was typed in red, indicating that Shupe should fill in the details herself.
Shupe’s other allies were also eager to use her name. On September 10, 2019, Roger Brooks of the ADF wrote to request help with Schwartz v. City of New York, an ADF-backed lawsuit aimed at overturning New York City’s ban on conversion therapy. What Brooks needed, he said, was a 700-word op-ed conveying two points: “1) You were horribly lied to and cheated when medical and mental health professionals failed to give you counselling to help you achieve comfort with your natural sex, and instead encouraged and ‘supported’ transition; 2) You and others who choose to ‘detransition’ need wise mental health counselling as you go through that process, and a law like New York City’s that censors your conversations with the professionals you choose to ask for help is an outrage and a cruelty.”
Again, Brooks wanted Shupe’s name on the op-ed, but he did not want her to write it: “ADF has some excellent writers familiar with the length and style that appeals to op-ed page editors, who could take even a very rough sketch or outline of thoughts from you—or just talk with you—and then create a draft that I think you will be very happy with.”
It wasn’t just essays. The manufacture of Shupe’s voice sometimes included court testimony: the Family Policy Alliance called on Shupe to testify on behalf of a Maine bill, HB 755, which “prohibit[ed] the advertising, offering or administering of therapy to minors for both sexual orientation and gender identity.” Shupe sent the testimony via email to public policy manager Stephanie Curry, who sent it back with edits.
At the time, however, Shupe welcomed this “assistance”; in fact, she needed it, because her own ability to write was compromised. While her career as a detransitioner took off, Elisa Rae Shupe fell apart.
As her influence increased, Shupe’s mental health deteriorated
In her career as a “detransitioner,” there was one thing Elisa Rae Shupe had not yet done: detransition. She went by “James”; she used he/him pronouns. Yet she kept taking estrogen, even as she publicly decried its use. Her lawsuit changed that. The VA stopped providing healthcare, abruptly cutting off her HRT access. Other gender-affirming providers would not take her on as a client, fearing— reasonably enough—that she might sue.
The loss of her HRT, combined with the pressure of her increasingly high profile, caused Shupe’s mental health to deteriorate rapidly and severely. Her breaking point came after a highly trafficked op-ed at the Daily Signal, in which she called herself a mentally ill autogynephile and repeated that “I should have been stopped [from transitioning], but out-of-control transgender activism had made the nurse practitioner too scared to say no.” Being put into conversion therapy, she wrote, “would have protected me from my inclination to crossdress and my risky sexual transgressions, of which there were many.”
In the days after the op-ed was published, “the reality of how I had portrayed myself set in,” Shupe writes to me in an email. She believes, not without reason, that the whole world sees her as a pervert and a lunatic: “I’d destroyed my life. The bridge back to being trans was burned.”
Shupe tried to update her advance directive so that doctors would not be allowed to resuscitate or put her on life support; in the process, she told her social worker, “I had been, you know, staring at the Valium bottle, thinking about overdosing. I’d been staring at kitchen knives when I opened the drawer and thinking about stabbing myself.” In late April 2019, Shupe was committed to a psychiatric ward.
Shupe was open about her mental health struggles at the time. In her emails to Curry, she mentioned needing help with her testimony because she was on a high dosage of Valium. When Brooks asked her to work with a ghostwriter, she accepted, citing “serious mental health issues” that “cause my writing to be a gift that comes and goes.” Sullivan and Curry were both privy to the full account of her commitment.
Yet, when Sullivan engaged with Shupe’s mental health, his approach was transactional. Shupe sent Sullivan a partial manuscript, in which she disclosed that she had been sexually abused by a male relative; he wrote back that “the background of mental illness is something many people need to understand. I think it would need to include even more background, such as some idea (though not in detail) of the abuse you suffered as a child, and how that (likely) triggered your interest in crossdressing.”
Curry was more sympathetic, at least on the surface: “So much about your journey seems to be a loss of control from people stealing it, hijacking it, co-opting it for their own nefarious purpose, selfishly and without regards for your well-being,” she wrote. Yet the Family Policy Alliance continued to contact Shupe for testimony on anti-trans legislation.
Privately, Shupe spoke in terms of duty: “The parents of these kids also depend on me,” she wrote to Sullivan. “They’re telling their kids, ‘Look, Jamie is telling you this stuff is not only not real and harmful to your health.’ … The media largely won’t let these mothers speak, but they’re more than willing to wield me like a sword. So I’m their voice.”
Yet, increasingly, all Shupe needed to be was alive, conscious and willing to sign any transphobic statement that was put in front of her. The persona of “James Shupe” was more powerful and visible than ever, but the life and health of Elisa Rae Shupe increasingly did not matter.
Uncomfortable questions remain
Shupe’s lawsuit against the VA fizzled out in October 2019. Sullivan strongly preferred to file in Florida, thinking he would get a better verdict, but was unable to find any local attorneys willing to help him prosecute the case. By that time, Shupe was on to her next project: helping WoLF, the Family Policy Alliance, the ADF and more to draft a bill banning gender-affirming healthcare for minors, to be presented by South Dakota representative Fred Deutsch.
The work group’s emails are public. Shupe said a lot of ugly stuff in them. She was particularly vehement on the topic of other “gender-critical” trans people: “Unless they’ve taken formal steps to reclaim their birth sex and denounce gender ideology, please don’t endorse or indulge these persons,” she told the group. Allowing gender-critical trans adults to testify, she told Deutsch in a March 2020 email, “was literally like having people testifying ‘don’t do this, even though I’m doing it because it’s life-saving.’”
During my phone call with Shupe last week, I quote that line back to her. She, too, was seeking HRT at the time; she knew that gender-affirming healthcare was life-saving, because she had become suicidal when she lost access to it. It is the question I still can’t wrap my head around: how could Shupe try to ban something for others if she knew that losing it would kill her?
There is a long silence on the other end of the phone line.
“I don’t have an excuse for that,” Shupe says, eventually. “There is no excuse for that.”
There is no excuse, but maybe there are reasons. People with BPD are prone to “splitting,” seeing things as either pure good or pure evil; Shupe thinks that her disappointing early transition, combined with her BPD, caused her to believe that if transition wasn’t an absolute good for her, then it was an absolute evil for everyone. She’s working on that, she says; owning her own experiences, not projecting.
Yet, if Shupe’s narrative in 2019 was that she was too mentally ill to transition, the narrative in 2023 can’t be that she is too mentally ill to detransition. Both stories rob Shupe of her agency. Shupe made choices, and it seems to me that one of the things driving her was very simple: the anti-trans movement made Shupe feel important to someone, or many someones. Being used made her feel necessary.
During our phone call, she recalls the night the Daily Signal op-ed went live: “I sat there at my screen, watching these high-powered Twitter accounts, a lot of them anonymous, with tens of thousands of followers, tweet it one by one. It was an orchestrated event. Less than 24 hours later, Fox was on the phone going, ‘Hey, we want you on Laura Ingraham tonight. We’ll send a car to pick you up.’”
That would be a big moment in anyone’s life, and it was particularly huge for a middle-aged veteran living on disability. Shupe, for what it’s worth, agrees with this: “I’m just sitting at home, adrift, every day,” she tells me. “So, you know, what is it like when somebody like Marchiano sends me a new mission to go on? I got something to do. I’m useful now. I’m no longer this loser on disability. I’m a useful person to a movement.”
There is a long history of extremist movements recruiting damaged and isolated individuals to do their dirty work. Yet Shupe’s crusade wrecked her life, and in the end, the movement that elevated her also chewed her up and spat her out without hesitation. There was no big fuck-you-I’m-out moment for Shupe, no definitive point when she knew it was over; the tide just turned on her. A fellow TERF named Karen Davis started publicly attacking Shupe for her supposed autogynephilia. Shupe says she received death threats.
“I was gradually waking up to the fact that, you know, I was just a useful idiot, are the two words I would use,” Shupe tells me. “I got the vibe that they wanted me to help them, they wanted me to use them, but they wouldn’t trust somebody like me around their kids.”
She does not expect things to get easier now that she’s leaked the emails: “I burned bridges on both sides of the aisle. So, at this point, I’m just all alone in my life,” she says. The person she’s paying attention to now is an eighteen-year-old named Chloe Cole. Cole, who recently filmed an interview with Jordan Peterson, and has been thanked by name in Ron DeSantis’s Florida State of the State address, is another “detransitioner,” and as Shupe has exited the scene, Cole’s star has been steadily on the rise. Shupe worries that Cole is being manipulated. She thinks Cole’s mental health might be worse than she lets on.
“She’s like I was. She’s a younger clone of me,” Elisa Rae Shupe says. “My worry is, what’s going to happen to her when all the attention is withdrawn?”