Gov. Lee calls for investigation of VUMC transgender health clinic after accusatory social media posts
Conservative commentator Matt Walsh alleged that the clinic performs gender-affirming procedures to draw in profits and does not tolerate employees’ personal and religious concerns.
September 23, 2022
UPDATED: This piece was updated at approximately 3 p.m. CDT on Sept. 23 to include a comment from Chancellor Daniel Diermeier. It was further updated at approximately 1 p.m. CDT on Sept. 24 to include a response from Del Ray Zimmerman, director of VUMC’s Program for LGBTQ Health and Office of Diversity Affairs. It was updated again on Sept. 26 at approximately 7:45 p.m. CDT to include information from the Multicultural Leadership Council’s statement.
Governor Bill Lee called for an investigation into Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s transgender health clinic on Sept. 21 in response to a Twitter thread by conservative political commentator Matt Walsh. The tweets accuse the clinic of engaging in gender-affirming procedures for their high profitability, disregarding employees’ personal and religious objections to performing procedures and unethically treating minors.
VUMC denounced the allegations in a Sept. 21 statement, stating that they are a misrepresentation.
“VUMC began its Transgender Health Clinic because transgender individuals are a high-risk population for mental and physical health issues and have been consistently underserved by the U.S. health system,” VUMC’s statement reads.
A banner was posted outside Sarratt Student Center at approximately 11 a.m. CDT that reads “Trans kids deserve love, support & healthcare.” The banner was sponsored by the Vanderbilt Lambda Association and Hidden Dores. Additional posters were sponsored by Lambda, Hidden Dores and VSG, the latter of which did not respond to The Hustler’s request for comment.
Sophomore Sechan Tak, Hidden Dores vice president, said in a message to The Hustler that Walsh’s comments are “violent” language against LGBTQ+ life on campus. An executive board member of Lambda declined to comment on behalf of the organization at this time due to threats and safety concerns they said LGBTQIA+ leaders on campus are facing due to the allegations. They are being kept anonymous for safety purposes.
Vanderbilt’s Multicultural Leadership Council posted a statement in solidarity with transgender individuals and VUMC’s transgender health clinic on Sept. 26 at approximately 12 p.m. CDT. The statement explained aspects of gender-affirming procedures and acknowledged the struggles transgender individuals may face as a result of being misgendered, including gender dysmorphia, stress, anxiety and depression.
“Concerning the Twitter thread by Matt Walsh, his characterization of the Transgender Health Clinic attempts to demonize this life-saving healthcare provided by VUMC,” the statement reads. “The first step to providing a safe and secure environment for transgender individuals is educating oneself on their identities and experiences.”
A queer, undergraduate student at Vanderbilt who said they are engaged in trans advocacy stated that they are “appalled” by the allegations against VUMC. They also expressed disappointment at the university’s administration for their silence on “these attacks on Vanderbilt’s trans community.” This student is being kept anonymous for safety concerns.
“Harassment from Matt Walsh and other transphobic right-wing pundits and politicians is causing the KCPC [KC Potter Center for LGBTQI Life] and queer students to receive harassment also,” the student said in a message to The Hustler. “We are not safe on a campus that calls itself a safe space for LGBTQ people.”
The KC Potter Center did not immediately respond to The Hustler’s requests for comment.
Diermeier sent Vanderbilt University community members an email at approximately 3 p.m. CDT offering support to those affected by the allegations against VUMC, particularly those in the LGBTQI+ community. Vanderbilt University has been entirely separated from VUMC since 2016 and has no relation to VUMC medical policies, according to an email sent to The Hustler on Sept. 22 by a university representative.
“We have worked, and continue to work, to build an institutional culture of belonging where all members of our community are valued and respected and where their identities are affirmed,” the email reads. “In the days since the story broke, we have been coordinating with VUMC to engage with and support students, faculty and staff—particularly those who have been directly affected by reaction to news reports. The university and VUMC are also coordinating with Vanderbilt University Public Safety to address safety concerns.”
According to the Associated Press, Lee passed his concerns about the clinic to Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skremetti. A representative from Skrmetti’s office told AP that Skremetti is aware of the allegations and will use the “full scope of his authority” to ensure compliance with state laws. Neither Lee nor Skremetti’s office has stated if VUMC broke a law nor have they responded to the Washington Post’s questions seeking clarity on this matter as of print.
“The ‘pediatric transgender clinic’ at Vanderbilt University Medical Center raises serious moral, ethical and legal concerns. We should not allow permanent, life-altering decisions that hurt children or policies that suppress religious liberties, all for the purpose of financial gain,” Lee’s statement reads. “We have to protect Tennessee children, and this warrants a thorough investigation.”
As of print, the Program for LGBTQ Health’s website for patients redirects to the VUMC homepage. The general website for the program has similarly been down since Sept. 21, according to the Washington Post. The website for VUMC’s transgender clinic has also been down since Sept. 21.
The tweets include a video segment depicting a woman who Walsh identifies as VUMC physician Dr. Shayne Taylor. In the video—which Walsh claims is from a 2018 lecture, the woman highlights the profitability of gender-affirming surgeries and their necessary follow-ups. The woman specifically refers to female-to-male bottom surgeries as “huge money makers.”
There is money involved—it’s not free—but that’s not why she does it. I can’t think of a person who’s more understanding of the trans community than her…Vanderbilt really puts the trans patients first. It’s not about the money—it’s never been about the money.”
— Olivia Hill
The Hustler’s Sept. 22 message to Taylor’s email address associated with the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine failed to deliver, and The Hustler could not find another means of reaching her.
Another video that Walsh posted shows a woman who he identifies as VUMC physician Dr. Ellen Clayton. In the video, the woman states that it is “problematic” for employees to assert “consciousness” and “religious” objections to performing certain procedures and that doing so will warrant “consequences.” The woman further adds that any individual who does not want to conduct such procedures should not work at Vanderbilt. Clayton declined to comment in a Sept. 22 email to The Hustler.
Walsh does not list where he obtained either video he posted, nor does he state the setting of the video regarding objections to providing care. The Hustler was unable to confirm the validity of the videos. Walsh did not immediately respond to The Hustler’s request for comment on these matters.
VUMC’s statement reads that its policies allow employees to decline to participate in any services that violate their personal or religious beliefs, including gender-affirming care. Furthermore, a message accessible through the medical center’s employee portal emphasizes that it is “not true” that VUMC requires its employees to provide gender-affirming care. It states that employees can request an accommodation if they find any care “morally objectionable.” This message was made available on the portal in response to the posts at 9:21 a.m. CDT on Sept. 23.
VUMC did not immediately respond to The Hustler’s request for a copy of these policies or for additional requests for comments.
Tak said he disapproved of VUMC’s policies allowing employees to morally object to providing care.
“It’s disappointing to see VUMC/the university fold so easily,” Tak said.
Walsh also criticized VUMC’s Trans Buddy program in his tweets, referring to the program as “a gang of trans activists” that forces VUMC employees to comply with providing gender-affirming care. The Trans Buddy volunteer group is made up of people who have been involved in other LGBTQ+ projects or have an interest in the health care of marginalized communities.
“[Trans Buddy’s] purpose is to provide peer volunteers who support persons who are seeking highly personal care in an unfamiliar environment, and who may have been refused medical services in the past or avoided seeking them out of fear of being met with hostility,” VUMC’s statement reads.
Olivia Hill, a retired transgender Vanderbilt employee, said she has been a VUMC Trans Buddy for nearly four years. She affirmed that Trans Buddies can accompany transgender patients to VUMC appointments, as Walsh mentioned in one of his tweets. She emphasized that the Buddies act as general resources for patients.
To become a Trans Buddy, Hill stated that completion of an eight-hour class and additional reading material is required and administered by VUMC. According to Hill, Del Ray Zimmerman, director of VUMC’s Program for LGBTQ Health and Office of Diversity Affairs, runs this training. In a Sept. 24 email to The Hustler, Zimmerman stated that he was unable to comment further on the matter.
Hill said Walsh and his supporters misconstrued the efforts of the Trans Buddy program and the clinic as a whole.
“[The tweets are] really a lot of uneducated people talking about things they don’t understand,” Hill said. “It’s misinformation, it’s not true.”
Hill stated that she has served as a Trans Buddy in Taylor’s office specifically. She said the video that allegedly depicts Taylor describing the financial benefits of gender-affirming care was taken out of context.
“There is money involved—it’s not free—but that’s not why she does it,” Hill said. “I can’t think of a person who’s more understanding of the trans community than her…Vanderbilt really puts trans patients first. It’s not about the money—it’s never been about the money.”
Hill filed a discrimination lawsuit against Vanderbilt University in September 2021, alleging incidents of harassment, sexism, transphobia and workplace safety concerns. She worked at the Vanderbilt Power Plant for 25 years and received gender-affirming treatment—in part at VUMC—during her time at the Plant. The lawsuit was settled on Sept. 29, 2021, and Hill said in an interview with The Hustler that she was “very pleased” with its outcome.
Walsh’s tweets further allege that the clinic has been unethical in its care toward minors. Walsh states that, in allegedly offering gender-affirming procedures—including hormone therapy and surgeries—to minors, Vanderbilt “castrate[s],” “sterilize[s]” and “mutilate[s]” them.
VUMC’s statement reads that it requires parental consent for “transgender care” involving minors and “never refuses” parental involvement in the care of transgender minors.
In an April 27, 2021, interview with The Hustler, Cassandra Brady, a VUMC pediatric endocrinologist and then-co-director of the clinic, gave an overview of the typical protocols she and her team follow when providing care to transgender minors. As of Spring 2021, Brady is one of three people at the clinic who “provide pubertal blocking and gender-affirming hormone therapy.”
“Our protocols typically require that a patient and a family work with a mental health provider, that [the] mental health provider has confirmed gender dysphoria and that parents are involved and supportive and willing to provide informed consent for these minors,” Brady said.
Vanderbilt drugs, chemically castrates, and performs double mastectomies on minors.”
— Matt Walsh
In a Sept. 22 email, Brady directed The Hustler to VUMC’s News and Communication Office for comment. The office stated that it is not responding to individual requests for comments at this time.
Boston Children’s Hospital was similarly subject to criticisms due to its pediatric and adolescent transgender healthcare program. The climax of threats and harassment allegedly made toward Boston Children’s Hospital employees came in late August when the hospital received a bomb threat.
Walsh posted another tweet on Sept. 21 calling the clinic’s work “barbarism.” He stated that he has met with Tennessee State Representative William Lamberth and Tennessee Senator Jack Johnson to craft a bill to ban gender-affirming care for minors in Tennessee. Lamberth similarly tweeted about this initiative, referring to the care VUMC provides to minors as “child mutilation” and stating his intentions to outlaw these procedures in Tennessee.
Providing gender-affirming care to transgender youth has long been a topic of controversy in Tennessee. House Bill 1027—which bans hormone therapies and blocking therapies to pre-pubescent minors in Tennessee—was introduced in the 2021 legislative session and has since passed.
Brady noted in the April 2021 interview with The Hustler that HB 1027 does not affect any of the transgender clinic’s medical practices because a patient must already be in puberty to start receiving a hormone blocker or gender-affirming hormones. Rather, Brady believes the bill aims to draw stigma to the transgender community.
Several anti-transgender bills were introduced in Tennessee’s 2022 legislative session as well. One of these bills—HB 0527—aimed to ban all pre-pubescent minors from receiving gender affirmation and surgery, but it did not pass. It also would have required all minors who wish to undergo these procedures to obtain parental or guardian consent and recommendations from three different physicians.
During the same legislative session, bills were passed that imposed on transgender athletes’ ability to participate in middle and high school girls’ sports. HB 1895 allows the Tennessee Department of Education to withhold a portion of funding from schools that do not determine students’ gender based on their “sex at the time of birth” for middle and high school sports participation.