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Right-wing groups hit Boston Children’s with barrage of threats over trans health program

A pedestrian passed the Longwood Avenue exterior of Boston Children's Hospital.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Doctors and other staff who care for transgender children at Boston Children’s Hospital are facing a barrage of threats and harassment that started last week with an online campaign, prompting the hospital to seek help from law enforcement and remove doctors’ names and images from its website.

The hospital, which in 2007 established the nation’s first pediatric and adolescent transgender health program, issued a statement late Tuesday saying that it “has been the target of a large volume of hostile internet activity, phone calls, and harassing emails including threats of violence toward our clinicians and staff.”

“We are deeply concerned by these attacks on our clinicians and staff fueled by misinformation and a lack of understanding and respect for our transgender community,” the statement said.

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The targeted clinicians work in the hospital’s Gender Multispecialty Service Program, where they care for children and young adults with gender dysphoria, a condition in which people identify with a sex that’s different from the one assigned at birth.

Such “gender-affirming care” has become a flashpoint on the far right, which falsely accuses caregivers of “carving up” children to change their sex. In fact, gender-affirming care starts with prolonged counseling, sometimes followed by hormonal treatments and surgery. Contrary to the online accusations, Boston Children’s said it does not perform genital surgery on people under age 18. The hospital does breast surgery on children as young as 15 in certain circumstances and with parental consent.

Doctors associated with the clinic did not respond to requests for comment, and the hospital did not make anyone available for an interview.

“We condemn these attacks in the strongest possible terms, and we reject the false narrative upon which they are based,” the hospital’s statement said. “We are working with law enforcement to protect our clinicians, staff, patients, families, and the broader Boston Children’s community and hold the offenders accountable. We will continue to take all appropriate measures to protect our people.”

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The attacks against Boston Children’s started last week when a Twitter account called “Libs of Tiktok” posted videos and screenshots from the hospital’s website describing genital surgery.

Alejandra Caraballo, who tracks online attacks against children’s hospitals that provide gender-affirming care and other organizations in the LGBTQ+ community, said she’d noticed an escalation of attacks in the past week.

A clinical instructor at Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic, Caraballo said she has been urging Twitter for months to remove accounts by people who are leading these targeted campaigns.

“From a personal perspective, it is absolutely, morally disgusting and reprehensible that people are attacking a children’s hospital,” she said.

“They are borrowing the same pages from the antiabortion playbook,” Caraballo said, which include stalking and publicizing the personal information of individual providers, a practice known as doxxing.

Boston Children’s is not the only target. In the past week, some influential anti-LGBTQ Twitter accounts have posted attacks on Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, for gender-affirming services it offers. One such post received over 2,000 replies.

Another Twitter account encouraged its followers to protest outside hospitals offering these services, declaring, “There should be rallies outside of hospitals that butcher children. There should be marches on Washington with hundreds of thousands of people. I will try to get this ball rolling.” That post notched over 28,000 “likes” and more than 4,000 retweets.

After a friend at Boston Children’s Hospital shared what was happening late last week, Caraballo organized a Twitter thread chronicling the attacks. That Twitter thread sparked a deluge of threats against her from the same account.

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“They don’t just go after the target,” she said, “they try to isolate the people speaking out for them and try to quiet them down, too.”

Although Boston Children’s is a high-profile target, every major medical center provides gender-affirming care, said Dr. Carl G. Streed Jr., the research lead for the Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery at Boston Medical Center.

Such harassment is nothing new, but “it is happening at a much faster rate, and it is becoming more dangerous,” Streed said, including death threats, visits to doctors’ homes, and efforts to get people fired. “This is not new. This is just a different flavor and more intense.”

Legislation such as Florida’s “don’t say gay” law that bars discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity among schoolchildren up to third grade, and Texas’s declaration that transgender care amounts to child abuse opens the floodgates for attacks, he said.

“As a clinician and researcher, it’s always frustrating to see politicians not talk to experts about the evidence,” Streed said.

Streed acknowledged that he worries attacks would come his way after speaking out. “I provide gender-affirming care,” he said. “I can’t let them stop us from speaking out about what’s medically necessary and evidence-based.”

Dr. Scott Hadland, chief of the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at MassGeneral Hospital for Children, who is openly gay, said that he’s been called a child abuser and pedophile, painful accusations for a pediatrician and father of two. Such harassment “happens at a low level constantly when you’re caring for LBGTQ youth,” he said. “It’s been amplified in the past six months. … I worry that the national rhetoric has created the space for people to be openly much more threatening toward professionals.”

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Just last week, Hadland published a commentary in the New England Journal of Medicine titled “Professionals as Targets in the Culture Wars,” in which he mentioned the Florida and Texas actions. “These policies and lawmakers’ rhetoric have marked professionals like us as targets for harassment and abuse, especially when we ourselves identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or questioning (LGBTQ),” he wrote.


Felice J. Freyer can be reached at felice.freyer@globe.com. Follow her @felicejfreyer. Kay Lazar can be reached at kay.lazar@globe.com Follow her @GlobeKayLazar.