At his campaign launch on Tuesday, Republican Christopher-Aaron Felker promised to rebuild city sidewalks, hire more police officers and find ways to reduce housing costs if he’s elected to the Burlington City Council in August.
The 40 people who gathered in Battery Park cheered when he vowed to help the city “unite as a community” and “build a better Burlington together.”
But some city residents say Felker hasn’t been practicing what he’s now preaching. Shortly after Seven Days published a story about Felker’s candidacy last week, Twitter-users called him out for his transphobic social media posts — some of which were directed at the very people he now wants to represent.
He has since deleted his Twitter account, @UrOrwellianLife, and his Facebook profile, but Seven Days used the Internet Archive, a nonprofit that catalogues old versions of websites, to dig up Felker’s old tweets.
The website turned up more than 400 posts. In a sampling viewed by Seven Days, Felker used the hashtags #SexNotGender and #GenderCritical to represent his view that people are the sex that they’re assigned at birth, not the gender with which they identify. The ideology has been embraced by “trans-exclusionary radical feminists,” a term for anti-trans people who believe that transgender women are actually men who present a threat to cisgender women.
Felker, who is gay, told Seven Days that his Catholic faith has taught him that “we are all created in the image of God, and none of us are born in the wrong body.”
His tweets reflect those views.
A tweet from 2019
“There is absolutely no such thing as a transgender gay man. Zero gay men have a vagina,” Felker wrote in May 2018. “That’s not a gay man- regardless of what they call themselves.”
In December 2019, he tweeted: “A female is biologically incapable of becoming a man. These people are colonizers. #sexnotgender.”
In January 2020, Felker mocked former gubernatorial candidate Christine Hallquist, a transgender woman, calling her a “Trans Identified Male.”
This past February, Felker responded to President Joe Biden's tweet about the Equality Act, a bill that would prohibit employers, schools and other institutions from discriminating against people on the basis of sex, sexual orientation and gender identity.
“I defend female only spaces I defend women’s sports I defend sex based rights,” Felker tweeted. “I am not alone e Pluribus Unum #SexNotGender Resist Ideological Colonization.”
Jessica Pierce-LaRose, a trans woman who lives in Ward 3, said Felker has harassed her on Twitter. He once called her and her friend, another trans woman, “deranged males with mental illnesses,” she said.
Pierce-LaRose has shot back at Felker online, reposting his tweets with the caption, “Oh, look! The local transphobe.” Still, she admitted, Felker’s words have an impact. “It hurts,” she said.
Laura Hale, Pierce-LaRose’s wife, runs a local nonprofit and has worked on several political campaigns. Hale, who is nonbinary, doesn’t think Felker has a chance of winning the election, but said his candidacy is disheartening and dangerous nonetheless.
“A major political party in our community thought that this was OK to run someone [like Felker] as a candidate,” Hale said, adding that Felker’s candidacy “sends a message to the trans members of the community, both of us included, about where the Republican party stands for our rights.”
A January 2020 tweet
Felker isn’t the only recent candidate to face scrutiny for espousing anti-trans views. Earlier this year, Old North End resident Peggy Luhrs, a lesbian activist and independent city council candidate for the Central District, was called out for her Facebook posts that claimed feminism is “under attack” and being co-opted by transgender women, VTDigger.org reported at the time.
Luhrs lost badly to incumbent Progressive Councilor Perri Freeman, who is gender queer, in a three-way race. Luhrs attended Felker’s campaign launch on Tuesday.
Before her campaign, in January 2020, Luhrs and the group Gender Critical Vermont planned to host a talk about “the unforeseen consequences of the transgender agenda” at Burlington’s Fletcher Free Library. Luhrs canceled the event after community pushback, and Hale scheduled a counter-event at the library to celebrate queer and trans people.
Felker weighed in on the issue on Twitter, typing “#GenderCritical #SexNotGender” in a January 28, 2020, post. Asked about his use of the hashtags, Felker said the phrases “aren’t pejorative.”
"It's just my personal belief ," he said, adding that "people will react how they're going to react, but it's my duty to try and represent my feelings."
Hale sees it differently. “When someone’s deep belief is that your personhood is invalid, it’s hard to say that that doesn't matter,” Hale said.
South End resident Valerie Carzello agreed. Carzello, a cisgender woman who ran for state Senate in 2018, said Felker often trolled her with derogatory, sexist remarks, but “if you were a trans person, he was just downright cruel to you,” she said.
Carzello said the GOP is normalizing Felker’s anti-trans screeds by endorsing him. If Felker won, trans constituents would be “represented by somebody who doesn't think you should exist as a human being.”
“[Republicans] know that is not a winning message, so what are they trying to do other than to rile up bigots?” Carzello asked.
One of Felker’s backers, the Burlington GOP's interim chair, David Kirk, caused his own social media uproar in 2016, when he was a school commissioner. Parents called his posts — which defended the Confederate flag, degraded immigrant students and mocked the Black Lives Matter movement — sexist and racist. He later issued a public apology.
For his part, Felker said he’s willing to speak with the people he targeted online, but that their feelings don’t change his views. He said he deleted his Twitter account because he didn't want the distraction of social media during the campaign.
“If they felt that my past posts were somehow traumatic, then I am pleased that I took them down,” Felker said. “I'm happy to move on from it, because we want to build a better Burlington together, and that means everybody.”
Felker said he doesn’t hate transgender people. He lamented that people would rather discuss “something salacious” and “try and tear me apart” when he said his campaign is about unity.
Felker’s campaign manager, Mendon resident Bradford Broyles — a former Rutland County Republican party chair, filmmaker and provocateur behind the conservative satire website News Done Right — dismissed Felker’s detractors.
“These people are instigators from the far left,” said Broyles, who helped organize a protest against Vermont’s stay-home order during the coronavirus pandemic.
“He's open to everybody,” Broyles said of Felker, “and I don't think he's ever disregarded anybody by gender or sex or trans or whatever.”
Pierce-LaRose isn’t buying it. She said the emergence of two anti-trans candidates in recent elections could be the start of an unsettling trend. “It's a huge impact on my mental health — not feeling safe, wondering what's going to happen next,” she said.
Her wife agreed.
“The narrative that people like Christopher-Aaron hold up has real world impact,” Hale said. “Having to think, ‘Are people trying to get a foothold to make this community even less safe for us?’ To have to have those thoughts is exhausting.”
Felker is one of three candidates running to fill the vacant Ward 3 seat, alongside Progressive candidate Joe Magee and Democrat-endorsed Owen Milne, an independent.