The power of fear

Earlier this year, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed the School Success and Opportunity Act (AB 1266), which provides protections for transgender students by requiring schools to allow students to participate in all school activities, sports teams, programs, and facilities (such as bathrooms and locker rooms) that match their gender identity. Almost immediately after the law was signed – surprise! – several groups began to fight to overturn it. Their tactic is similar to what they did with Proposition 8 – gather at least 500,000 signatures so they can get a referendum on the ballot, and then convince people to vote to overturn the law. And they’re moving fast – signature-gatherers, both paid and volunteer, have been spotted throughout the state of California, mostly on college campuses and in front of Wal-Mart stores and other shopping centers.

Who are these people? They’re the usual suspects. Frank Schubert. The Capitol Resource Institute. The Pacific Justice Institute. If you followed the Proposition 8 battle, you might be familiar with these names. Frank Schubert was the political strategist who successfully ran the Proposition 8 ballot campaign. The Pacific Justice Institute (PJI) is a conservative legal defense organization that, in addition to unsuccessfully defending Proposition 8, has also unsuccessfully opposed bans on sexual orientation change therapy. The Capitol Resource Institute (CRI) is a conservative watchdog organization that was another one of the Proposition 8 players. Now Schubert is directing the anti-AB 1266 efforts, and PJI and CRI are contributing money, manpower, and bandwidth. (As an aside, Frank Schubert was born, raised, and still lives in Sacramento. Both the PJI and CRI are also in Sacramento. These people are in my freakin’ backyard.)

These groups lost the Proposition 8 battle. And they lost hard. Now they’re turning their attention to the transgender community – and they’re out for blood. You see, they might have lost, but they learned some important – and dangerous – lessons along the way. Probably the most important thing they took away from the 2008 campaign is that fear is a very effective persuasion tactic. So effective that, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis, in the final weeks of the 2008 campaign, it was parents with children under the age of 18 who were most likely to change their minds and switch to a “yes” vote. And why was that? Because the Proposition 8 supporters saturated the airwaves with fear-based television ads targeting children – and more than 687,000 voters changed their minds because of those ads.   

So now, with AB 1266 under fire, these folks have now upgraded to Fear Tactics 2.0. A perfect example of this is the site launched by PJI called, which provides information about the “School Bathroom Bill,” and then supports that “information” with the following vignettes:

Picture this … your 7 year-old daughter comes home from school in tears. You ask her what’s wrong and she says she’s afraid to go to the bathroom at school because a boy comes in while she’s there. Outraged, you call the school to demand an explanation. You’re told that your daughter is telling the truth, but because the boy says he wants to be a girl, their hands are tied. “It’s the law.”  Sound far-fetched? Think again. This is exactly what lies ahead under new legislation pending in the California legislature. But there’s more … much more. 

The next section is titled “Camping Nightmares,” and the scenario goes like this:

Imagine your 12 year-old son goes on an overnight camping trip with the Boy Scouts. The Scout troop leader nervously tells you that one of their newest members has been assigned to his tent, and even though she has lived most of her life as a girl, everyone needs to treat her like just another Boy Scout, since that’s now what she wants and “it’s the law.” 

The last section is titled, “Dreams Shattered,” and it states the following:

Finally, think about your teenage daughter … a star athlete whose basketball team is poised to make a deep run in the playoffs. Until, you learn, their main rival has recruited a hulking center who decided he could break more records and block more shots by identifying as a girl.

Think this could never happen? That’s exactly why it’s happening. Frustrated citizens have tuned out their lawmakers, fed up with politics as usual that only seem concerned about taking care of special interests and big donors. But now we have reached a line in the sand—a degree of insanity that calls for action. We can’t stay on the sidelines anymore. We have to let our lawmakers know that we’re not going to let them destroy the last remnants of common sense through mindless “gender identity” mandates. 

These people are pros – and they’ve been doing their homework. Their tactics are a textbook example of Michigan State University communication professor Kim Witte’s Extended Parallel Process Model (EPPM), a theory of the effectiveness of “fear appeals” – scare tactics, if you will. If a fear-based campaign is going to be effective, according to this theory, the first thing you need to do is scare the daylights out of people with a tangible threat. Then you have to (1) give people a sense of self-efficacy –  essentially convince people that they have the power to do what’s necessary to eliminate the threat; (2) give them a perception of response efficacy – that taking action will be effective, and not a fruitless waste of time; (3) create a sense of susceptibility – that the threat is likely to impact them personally in some way; and (4) convince people of the severity of the threat.

If you go back and read the vignettes from, you’ll see clear attempts to induce fear and to encourage all four response factors. If all four factors are present, the outcome, according to Witte, is danger control. And danger control is exactly what the anti-AB 1266 people are after.

I’m not a fear-based person – rather, I tend to live in the realm of optimism and empowerment. However, I am a realist, and I know that LGBTQ activists, advocates, and allies can also learn a thing or two from the Proposition 8 battle. Two lessons, right off the bat:

(1) Don’t get complacent. Supporters of marriage equality really didn’t think Proposition 8 was going to pass – until it did. Even if gathering 500,000 signatures before November 7th seems like an impossible task, don’t let that be an excuse for inaction. More than one million people signed the petition to get Proposition 8 on the ballot. Anything can happen.

(2) Don’t ever assume that someone else will fight the fight for you. Get out there and get active. Carry flyers with you – the Transgender Law Center has a good one – and be prepared to hand them out if you see signature-gatherers. Join the Facebook group “Support All Students. Decline to Sign!” and use the flyers posted there, which are very clear and to the point. Check out the resources available at If you’re a college student, go to your campus LGBTQ group and get them active.

The bottom line is this: If we don’t do what it takes to prevent people from signing that petition, we’ve got another Proposition 8 on our hands. And the opponents of AB 1266 aren’t willing to lose again.

How’s that for a scare tactic?

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Filed under children, gender nonconformity, human rights, psychological research, Sacramento, same-sex marriage, transgender, transphobia, Uncategorized

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