A GOP House candidate came under fire this week following allegations his campaign used photographs of a transgender veteran on billboards without her permission.
In the heated race for California’s 8th U.S Congressional District, Republican Tim Donnelly took out displays attacking incumbent Paul Cook — who is also a Republican — for allegedly not being conservative enough. A billboard on display in San Bernardino County criticizes Cook for voting down a bill that would have banned the military from funding gender-affirming care for trans soldiers.
“Ask Paul Cook Why He Voted To Allow Our Military Funds To Be Used For Sex-Change Surgeries!” reads the signboard, which also features the image of a transgender woman with a short blonde bob wearing a Navy uniform.
Allison Hannan, the woman pictured in that photo, told INTO she was “paralyzed” when she found out it was used without her approval.
“I could not believe that something so positive and wonderful was bastardized in this manner,” said Hannan, who was so devastated that she had to take the day off work. “It was horrible. I don’t want to be associated with that horrible sentiment.”
The photograph originated in a 2016 shoot in which nine former and active military members discussed their experiences serving while trans as they put on their old uniforms. Cassidy DuHon, a D.C.-based photographer, was inspired to take on the project by a friend who served “semi-openly” before the ban on transgender enlistment was officially lifted in 2016.
Many of the interviewees DuHon spoke with served under intense discrimination. When Hannan enlisted in the late 80s, troops would have been met with an immediate discharge if they disclosed their gender identity.
By highlighting the struggles trans people faced to live as their true selves, DuHon hoped to advocate for further progress in the U.S. armed forces.
“At the time it looked like the ban would get overturned and this was just going to keep going and get better,” he said, noting the spread debuted in OUT magazine prior to President Trump’s unsuccessful attempts to block transgender military service. “Of course, that has not happened. This billboard is yet another setback.”
One of the women featured in the spread alerted DuHon to the billboard’s existence after discovering a snapshot posted in a pro-military Facebook group.
DuHon immediately reached out to Donnelly’s campaign, hoping to resolve the matter privately. He intended to explain — in a clear, calm, and professional manner — that he holds the copyright to Hannan’s photo and any use of those images without his permission is illegal.
But it immediately became clear that the candidate had no interest in taking the billboard down, DuHon said.
When DuHon sent a message to Donnelly’s Facebook page, a member of the Republican’s team responded by criticizing the quality of the photo posted on Facebook. Snapped on a camera phone, a man is pictured standing underneath the billboard on Twentynine Palms Highway with both his arms raised.
“It’s hard to tell if you’re flipping the sign off, though, or simply pointing to it, due to poor lighting,” the campaign responded, seemingly intended as a jab at the photographer’s artistry.
When DuHon informed them it was merely a snapshot that was passed along to him, Donnelly’s team again dodged accountability.
“Interesting,” the campaign said. “The BB has since been defaced.”
“Sorry to hear that!” Duhon responded, adding that he couldn’t have been the one responsible due to living on the other side of the country. “Wish it was me, but I’ve been thousands of miles away.”
After replying with an “LOL,” Donnelly’s team went silent.
The Republican did not respond to requests for comment prior to the publication of this story. In a statement emailed to Southern California’s Desert Sun, Donnelly also declined to answer allegations that the billboard amounts to stolen property.
“When 8th District Republican Women Federated groups are holding bake sales to buy boots for our troops, the question asked by the billboard is more than fair,” he told the paper. “Why in the world would Paul Cook, a former Marine Col., vote to waste hundreds of thousands of dollars on a sex-change surgery instead of putting that money into properly outfitting our troops or taking better care of our veterans?”
Cook has further discredited the billboard by calling his opponent’s allegations false. In 2017, he was one of two dozen Republicans to vote against the Hartzler Amendment — an anti-trans rider attached to a defense spending bill — because it would have been filibustered by Congressional Democrats.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis personally requested conservatives vote the amendment down to ensure the bill’s passage, as Matt Knox, a spokesperson for Cook’s campaign, claimed in September.
“It’s unsettling that Donnelly would oppose our president and put our troops at risk just to make a cheap political point,” Knox said.
Donnelly’s attacks on his opponent in the race for California’s 8th are particularly noteworthy because neither candidate supports LGBTQ rights. Cook scored a 16 on the Human Rights Campaign’s 2017 Congressional Scorecard. The paltry rating illustrates that he’s voted against nearly against every piece of pro-equality legislation that’s come across his desk.
Meanwhile, Donnelly has referred to the teaching of LGBTQ history in California public schools as “censorship.” When the state voted in favor of policies allowing trans students to use bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity, he pulled his children out of school.
The few ideological differences between the two candidates further illustrated to DuHon that the billboard is intended to “mobilize voters based on fear.”
“In this congressional district in California, there’s no pressing issue about trans-related legislation,” he claimed. “There’s no ballot initiative. There’s no particular reason that trans issues need to come up.”
After his attempts to resolve the issue with Donnelly’s campaign proved unsuccessful, DuHon has reached out to the American Civil Liberties Union and other firms to represent him in court. He wants proceeds from the case to be donated to a trans advocacy group of Hannan’s choice.
While Hannan would also like to see the billboard taken down, she hopes a potential lawsuit reaffirms the dignity of transgender veterans.
When Hannan traveled from her home in New Jersey to meet DuHon two years ago, she thought the project was an exciting opportunity to highlight the positive contributions of trans members of the military. When she was in the Navy 30 years ago, she never dreamed she would one day have the opportunity to be celebrated both as a transgender woman and a veteran.
“It was thrilling for me and it was thrilling to see how much we’ve moved forward,” Hannan said. “Who we are doesn’t necessarily put us in a box. We are all different. We come from different walks of life, and we have contributions to make to this country.”
“To have this twisted in such a horrible way, it’s devastating to me,” she added.