SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (WCIA) – During the second governor’s debate, Darren Bailey deflected when asked about how he would change Illinois’ abortion laws.

Instead of answering the question, Bailey changed the subject, referencing a conspiracy theory about current Governor J.B. Pritzker and his family foundation’s investments in healthcare.

Moderators referenced anti-abortion groups calling Illinois’ abortion laws extreme.

 “Let’s talk about extremism,” Bailey said in response to the question about abortion laws. “Governor Pritzker’s family foundation is funding experimental gender surgeries on children across the nation.”

Pritzker quickly interjected, denying the claim that has become a popular talking point among anti-trans groups online.

One expert on LGBTQ misinformation wasn’t surprised a conspiracy theory was referenced, especially by Bailey.

“It’s not surprising to see anti-trans politicians picking up on it,” Ari Drennan, the LGBTQ program director of Media Matters for America, a media watchdog group specializing in fact-checking conservative misinformation, said. “Even if you kind of wish that they had done like five minutes of vetting before choosing to latch on to this kind of rhetoric.”

When asked after the debate to clarify the statement, Bailey’s campaign referred to an article published in June written by anti-trans writer Jennifer Bilek on the website Tablet Magazine that asserts Pritzker and his family, including his cousin Jennifer, the world’s only openly transgender billionaire, are “using gender ideology to remake human biology”. 

“Pritzkers and other elite donors are attempting to normalize the idea that human reproductive sex exists on a spectrum,” Bilek wrote. “These investments go toward creating new [synthetic sexual identities] using surgeries and drugs, and by instituting rapid language reforms to prop up these new identities and induce institutions and individuals to normalize them.”

Bilek wrote in the article she made up the term “synthetic sexual identities” to use instead of the term “transgenderism,” which she claims has “no clear boundaries.”

Drennan said Bilek’s writings hold no weight. 

“Jennifer Bilek is a conspiracy theorist who believes that so-called elites are, in her words, grooming children into transgenderism as a ‘social bridge between transsexualism to transhumanism,’” she said, referencing the theory of replacing body parts with biotechnology. “She’s the kind of person who’s hard to even really talk about without sounding like you’re losing your mind.”

Bilek has criticized the Pritzker family for its funding of gender affirming care since 2020, even working with a graphic designer to create a flow chart on how J.B, J.B’s sister Penny, Jennifer, and Jennifer’s wife Erin Solaro are funding “the transgender industry” in March 2021. 

Bilek’s misinformation on the Pritzkers have been spread by a variety of right-wing outlets and anti-LGBTQ activists. Right-wing outlets Breitbart and The Daily Wire have both written stories citing Bilek. Chris Rufo, a prominent anti-CRT and anti-trans activist, called her article a “must-read”. YouTuber Sara Higdon created a video using Bilek’s reporting, which was shared by anti-LGBTQ group Awake Illinois. Gays Against Groomers, a popular anti-trans Twitter account with over 110,000 followers, recently called Governor Pritzker “the man funding the trans child revolution”.  

“It’s important to acknowledge that her work has been cited everywhere,” Drennan said. “From guests on Tucker Carlson Tonight to the ravings of the Buffalo grocery store mass shooter earlier this year.”

Miskhan Chicago, a progressive Jewish community, condemned Tablet Magazine in an open letter for publishing the article, calling it a “combination of transphobic and anti-semitic tropes.”

“We are shocked and saddened to see that Tablet would publish such a piece on your site,” The Miskhan Board of Directors wrote. “Playing into the worst stereotypes of Jews and into the most binary and inaccurate understandings of gender.”

A spokesperson for Bailey’s campaign doubled down on the candidate’s claims after the debate.

“The Pritzker Foundation, of which Gov. Pritzker is a principal member, is notorious for funding gender surgeries and hormonal treatments at hospitals, including children’s hospitals, around the country,” Bailey’s campaign said in a statement. 

Bailey also clarified that he does not support gender surgeries on minors after avoiding a question on it at the debate. 

The Pritzker campaign declined to comment on the story, instead pointing to his past record of affirming LGBTQ rights. Pritzker has been openly supportive of trans people, tweeting this month “we will protect our trans and non-binary community” in Illinois and has publicly marched in several Pride parades. At the debate, he said plans on leaving decisions about minors seeking gender affirming care to doctors, parents, and minors themselves.

The J.B. and M.K. Pritzker Family Foundation has three focuses: the Pritzker Community Health Initiative, the Pritzker Civil and Human Rights Initiative, and the Pritzker Children’s Initiative. The Children’s Initiative helps infants and toddlers with “significant resources to expand high-quality early learning”. A spokesperson for the foundation confirmed in an email to WCIA that no part of the Pritzker Family Foundation has ever donated to gender-affirming care.  

Jennifer Pritzker has funded several measures supporting the LGBTQ community through her foundation, the TAWANI Foundation.  According to the foundation’s website, 16.7% of its grants in 2021 went to organizations under the ‘Gender and Human Sexuality’ category.

She did pledge support to Lurie Children’s Hospital’s Gender and Sex Development Program in June 2016 by donating $500,000 upfront and matching another $500,000.

“The team at Lurie Children’s has done an excellent job of initiating and developing a program of local and national significance.” Jennifer said in a 2016 release. “Yet, there remains a compelling need for expanding access and developing comprehensive services for gender-nonconforming children and transgender youth.” 

But this donation is miniscule compared to Lurie’s operating revenue. In 2021, Lurie reported a total income of $134.4 million from grants, gifts and endowments. More than 83 percent of Lurie’s revenue comes from patient care. 

“Bilek is really focused on the idea that all of this is a major profit motive for Big Pharma,”  Drennan said. “Which I think is pretty laughable when you look at the actual numbers involved and the actual profits of Big Pharma.”  

J.B. and Jennifer are also not politically close. A spokesperson for Pritzker’s campaign confirmed that Jennifer has had no involvement in his campaign. State Board of Election records show Jennifer Pritzker donated $800,000 in 2020 to a group working to stop the graduated income tax, one of J.B.’s highest priorities of his first term. Jennifer also donated to several other Republican politicians like Richard Irvin and Bruce Rauner.  

Gender-affirming care, a broad term to describe the medical, surgical, mental health and non-medical services to support transgender people, has been endorsed by several major medical organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association, and the American Medical Association. 

“Pediatric providers have an essential role in assessing gender concerns and providing evidence-based information to assist youth and families in medical decision-making.” Jason Rafferty, pediatrician and psychologist with Brown University, wrote in the AAP’s journal. “Not doing so can prolong or exacerbate gender dysphoria and contribute to abuse and stigmatization.”   

Many children’s hospitals offering gender-affirming care faced online harassment earlier this year, including Lurie. The Chicago Tribune reported Lurie had to temporarily move a trans support group online in September due to an abundance of caution. Bailey’s campaign said it does not condone any harassment or threats.    

“Transgender children, adolescents, and their families deserve care that is grounded in compassion, science and the principles of public health and human rights.” Lurie said in a statement. “These patients and their families are harmed by misinformation, pseudoscience and state-sanctioned actions that deny gender-affirming, lifesaving healthcare.” 

One of the people who boycotted Lurie during that time is Canadian anti-trans activist Chris Elston, who posts online as Billboard Chris. Awake Illinois tagged Governor Pritzker’s account on Twitter of a photo of him protesting outside of Lurie.   

“Jennifer Pritzker donated to start this clinic,” Elston responded to the tag.

Awake Illinois then replied with a link to Bilek’s Tablet Magazine article. 

Before his demonstration at Lurie, Elston attended an Awake Illinois rally outside the capitol. Darren Bailey was also in attendance.   

“God bless everyone, for taking time out of your busy day to come out here today and, and push back against these freedoms that are being stripped away from us, to push back against this damage that’s taking place to our children,” Bailey said at the rally.

Bailey has also received criticism in the past for calling abortion worse than the Holocaust in 2017 on a Facebook livestream. His running mate, Stephanie Trussell, has also received criticism for her old tweets that some called homophobic.