A recently released trove of documents from the American College of Pediatricians (ACPEDs) reveals how a Republican donor used veiled threats implying legal action against a Dallas-area children’s hospital as part of a massive pressure campaign to force the hospital to turn away transgender patients.
In November 2021, the GENder Education and Care, Interdisciplinary Support (GENECIS) program at Children’s Medical Center Dallas dissolved after a vitriolic campaign that included attacks by Governor Greg Abbott and, in one incident, protesters showing up at the office of a board member. Although the clinic followed the best practices of experts in medical care for transgender kids, opponents claimed without basis that the clinic was engaged in “genital mutilation” of young people.
Behind the scenes, Republican megadonor and hotel magnate Monty Bennett exerted pressure on the clinic while also pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into the war chests of anti-trans lawmakers (See “Monty Bennett’s Transphobic Money”). Leaders at ACPEDs, which has been designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, apparently saw Bennett’s tactics—using veiled threats and right-wing talking points about trans healthcare to badger the administrators of the children’s hospital—as a playbook they could reproduce in their nationwide fight against gender-affirming care. And the files in the massive release of private data from the hate group reflect how right-wing politicians, extremist groups like ACPEDs, and their wealthy supporters often work closely together, sharing rhetoric and tactics with each other.
Bennett’s previously unreported emails with Children’s Medical Center staff were among the more than 10,000 documents accidentally released by ACPEDs in a massive data breach, as first reported by WIRED. The cache demonstrates the role the organization has played as a clearinghouse for anti-trans and anti-abortion policy in recent years.
Neither Bennett nor ACPEDs responded to the Texas Observer’s requests for comment.
Starting in December 2019, Bennet sent a series of misinformation-packed emails to representatives of Children’s Medical about the GENECIS clinic. His tactics are tantamount to what is known as “sealioning”—a technique to wear people down with relentless requests for information.
The email chain begins with Bennett requesting “studies/evidence supporting the benefits/outcomes of gender realignment in general and Children’s GeneCIS program specifically.” After receiving a number of position papers and research studies from the hospital’s senior director of communications, Bennett asserts that “treating transgender youth early and aggressively is based far more on activist researchers’ will than on the ethical treatment of minors or the conclusions of the scientific studies you sent us.”
While Bennett begins the chain with what seems like genuine curiosity by requesting more information about gender-affirming care, he followed up with an email on January 26 expressing much stronger views. That email contains a multi-page, point-by-point critique of the research studies. Bennett argues that “clinicians are being bullied into writing a radical prescription based on fear and groupthink.”
Echoing talking points used by right-wing protesters, Bennett described the clinic as a “sterilization program”—yet another commonplace but erroneous misconception about transgender healthcare—and threatened, “You all may very well become bankrupted, regardless of how much insurance your organization carries.”
“Please stop damaging our children. Before it’s too late,” Bennett continued. “And please send back immediately all the monies Ashford has ever donated to you guys. I cannot have my firm be associated with your experimentation on children.” Ashford Inc. is Bennet’s publicly traded firm.
Bennett also asked: “Is it wrong that I will volunteer to testify that you guys knew (by way of this email) that there was very little proof that your sterilization program was either safe or effective?”
Bennett’s emails to Children’s Medical came as Republicans launched a second wave of anti-trans legislation across the country. According to the American Civil Liberties Union’s legislation map, lawmakers in the state introduced 66 bills in 2020, exceeding the previous peak in 2016 by 15 percent. By 2023, they’d filed more than 520 anti-trans bills across the nation. Texas leads the pack in terms of anti-trans legislation, with 57 bills introduced by Republican representatives in 2023.
This hateful campaign to criminalize trans youth and the people who take care of them has been met with impassioned protest both in and outside of the Capitol. But powerful donors and the politicians whose campaigns they support appear hellbent on pushing a religious policy agenda—one that’s inexorably tied to ACPEDs, as revealed by the path the emails took to land in its hands.
In November 2020, months after Bennett demanded money back from a children’s hospital, Rob Hays—CEO of Ashford Hospitality Trust and one of Bennett’s top lieutenants—forwarded the exchange to a man by the name of William Stigall. Stigall is currently vice president and chief research officer at Cook Children’s Pediatric Intensive Care Unit and a faculty member at both the Burnett School of Medicine at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth and at the University of Dallas, a private Catholic college that’s actually based in Irving. Stigall in turn forwarded the emails to Michelle Cretella, the executive director of ACPEDs, where Stigall sits on the board of directors.
After receiving the emails from Stigall, Cretella sent them to her assistant and requested that the exchange be saved in her personal Google Drive folder with the name “HOW TO DEFUND TRANS PEDIATRICS.” Her folder was stored, along with many of her other private files, underneath a folder labeled “Staff Duties—Job Descriptions” on an open Google Drive folder, available to anyone on the internet.
Bennett’s substantial wealth could be used as leverage: Bennett donated unknown sums of money to Children’s Medical Center Dallas via his company Ashford Inc. as well as significant sums to Republican politicians who were publicly pressuring the clinic. However, the subject of the email chain, “HOW TO DEFUND TRANS PEDIATRICS,” suggests the organization believed it could use the same tactics against other clinics like GENECIS.
Children’s Medical Center Dallas declined to comment on Bennett’s emails, or how much money Bennett and his companies have donated to the nonprofit hospital.
ACPEDs documents from the leak show that GENECIS had been on ACPEDs radar since at least 2016. That year, ACPEDs received a letter from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton thanking the organization for submitting an amicus brief in support of the state of Texas in the landmark abortion case Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the 2016 Supreme Court decision that blocked the state’s House Bill 2 anti-abortion law.
While it’s impossible to say whether Bennett ever communicated directly with ACPEDs, it’s clear that members of his inner circle and theirs aren’t far removed from one another. Stigall sits on the advisory board of the Dallas Forum on Law, Politics, and Culture—a group of conservative scholars who advocate “natural law theory” as a foundation for American public philosophy. Hays also happens to be a member of the Dallas Forum’s board of directors alongside multiple professors at the University of Dallas, which often hosts Dallas Forum events. Minutes of the executive committee meetings show that Stigall worked on behalf of ACPEDs to build a relationship with the University of Dallas, which offered to host a board meeting and “mini conference” with faculty members. They also show that the talking points and language used in Bennett’s emails broadly echo those promoted by ACPEDs—for example, that therapies provided by clinics such as GENECIS are “permanently sterilizing” minors.
“The biggest benefit of GENECIS or clinics like it is the coordination of care,” said one parent of a transgender child who received treatment at GENECIS, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of being reported to the state and investigated under suspicion of “child abuse.”
“GENECIS was vital. For most people, clinics like GENECIS may be the first real-life opportunity they’ve had to see how to be affirming to their child. It allowed my kid to just have a normal life,” the parent said. “People need to understand just how devastating it was for GENECIS to be closed down.”
Republican politicians championed the campaign to shut down GENECIS, which also included the efforts of conservative media outlets and a defunct astroturf group known as Save Texas Kids. As reported by The 19th News: Pressure from the governor’s office; an investigative committee led by former state Representative Matt Krause, who led the Republican charge to remove some 850 books on subjects of race and sexuality in schools; a formal opinion from Paxton labeling gender-affirming care as “child abuse”; and a number of bills proposed in the 2021 legislative session contributed to the shuttering of the clinic.
Children’s Medical Center in Dallas refused to comment, citing “ongoing legal proceedings.” Dr. Ximena Lopez, the GENECIS program director, is engaged in an ongoing lawsuit against Children’s Medical Center over the program’s closure.
Targeted pressure campaigns on clinics like GENECIS were but opening forays in a broad push to criminalize gender affirming care in Texas. Political pressure has continued to build as other clinics providing gender-affirming have faced similar attacks. Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston announced in March 2022 that it would cease gender-affirming care in response to Abbott’s call to investigate families with transgender kids who seek healthcare. Last Friday, Paxton announced an investigation into Dell Children’s Medical Center in Austin regarding allegations that the hospital performed unlawful procedures, an announcement that came shortly after Project Veritas, a far-right outlet known for deceptively edited videos and propagating conspiracy theories, released footage purporting to reveal improper medical practices at Dell Children’s.
The latest state-sponsored investigation into a gender-affirming clinic came on the same day that the Texas Legislature was set to discuss proposed legislation that would ban the treatments offered by such clinics. The legislation proposing to ban gender-affirming care for minors was originally set to be discussed on May 2, but was delayed due to a procedural move by Democratic elected officials who noted that bill analysis by an advocacy organization had been misattributed in the bill. The organization was none other than ACPEDs.
Since 2010, Monty Bennett has donated directly and through various companies $215,000 to Abbott, $305,000 to Paxton, and $28,000 to Krause.
The two related bills which ban gender-affirming care for minors, Senate Bill 14 and House Bill 1686, have a combined 96 sponsors. Twenty-one of those sponsors have received a total of $142,500 campaign contributions from Bennett and his associated companies—Verbena LLC, MJP Operating, and Dartmore LP—since 2010. Four of the sponsors, including the authors Senator Donna Campell and Representative Tom Oliverson, received a total of $572,720 from the Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, to which Bennett and Ashford have together have contributed $100,000 since 2010. All together, Bennett and his companies have put at least $790,500 over the last 13 years toward Republican politicians who have taken a hardline stance against gender-affirming care.
Bennett was also able to use his wealth to fund a news website that has run exclusively critical reports about GENECIS. In early 2021, Bennett resurrected a defunct historic Black-owned newspaper, the Dallas Express, as a right-wing news website that has been linked to a network of partisan “pink slime” news websites associated with businessman Brian Timpone. Since then, the Dallas Express has demonstrated a knack for extensively covering the activities of right-wing astroturf groups in Dallas. Prior to the formal dissolution of the clinic, the Dallas Express ran a handful of articles attacking the clinic, all of them prominently featuring quotes from a defunct astroturf group, Save Texas Kids.
The dissolution of the GENECIS program didn’t stop the Dallas Express from continuing to hammer the clinic with attacks and allegations of wrongdoing. Some 10 articles critical of GENECIS were published after November 2021, including an Op-Ed co-written by Matt Rinaldi, chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, that accused the clinic of “permanently mutilating” patients.