In June of last year, Nashville drag queen Veronika Electronika arrived at a studio space for what she was told was an interview on her views regarding the struggles faced by children in the trans community, and how the lives and mental health of LGBTQ+ people were being affected by the recent slew of bans and restrictions on gender-affirming medical and drag performances.
Elektronika did not recognize her first interviewer, a woman she chatted with for several minutes before a man she did know entered the room.
“I have a question for you guys,” Electronika asks her hosts once they are seated together. “What do you guys do when you’re not in front of the camera?”
The woman replies that they spend time with their family.
“What are your last names?” Electronika presses.
“Starbuck,” the couple replies.
It’s at that moment that Electronika attempts to end the conversation, realizing that the interview wasn’t what she’d been led to believe.
The interviewers, Robby and Landon Starbuck, are both prominent right-wing activists who, like many conservative commentators, have made vitriolic criticism of the LGBTQ+ community — particularly the transgender and drag communities — a staple of their content. Earlier this month, Electronika’s experience with the couple became public as part of a film titled The War On Children. Robby Starbuck, who headed the project, released the film to great fanfare among the right, with the trailer garnering more than 30 million impressions on X (formerly Twitter) after being promoted by Elon Musk.
In June, Rolling Stone reported on accusations from LGBTQ+ individuals, activists, and allies approached for the movie that Robby Starbuck and his production team used deceptive tactics in order to entice them into participating in the then-upcoming film project. The practice is a staple within a growing right-wing media ecosystem which, as Rolling Stone has reported, is increasingly using the “documentary” format as a way to bypass social media and platform guidelines prohibiting hate speech against minority communities. The film is now available to the public, and new emails and recordings obtained by Rolling Stone show that Starbuck’s misleading tactics extended well beyond what has been previously reported.
When the production team first approached Electronika, they offered her the opportunity to participate in an upcoming documentary “tentatively titled ‘It Takes A Village’ from an award winning director.” The production assistant wrote that the film aimed “to delve deeper [into] exposing how these recent drag bans and gender-affirming care bans have been made, look at how it has affected the mental health of trans people and look forward into what future progress will look and sound like.”
“When I saw Mr. Starbuck walk through the hallway, I was like, ‘Wait a minute. I know this fucker,” Electronika tells Rolling Stone, adding that when she attempted to end the conversation “they tried to convince me to stay and I said, ‘You need to stop recording right now.’ The little red light kept going … and then they wouldn’t stop. So I started recording myself.”
The film depicts the couple pressing her to “denounce behavior that is sexually explicit around children,” showing her a zoomed-in photograph of another drag queen whose underwear became exposed while doing the spits, with a child in the audience as an example.
Electronika’s personal recording of the encounter, which she provided to Rolling Stone, makes clear that her conversation with the Starbucks was heavily edited to make it seem like she was completely unwilling to condemn the exposure of children to sexual material. In reality, Electronika affirmed she cared about the safety of children; that performers should respect their audiences and laws governing explicit material; told the Starbucks she felt “misled” about the nature of the interview; requested she not be used in the film; and emphasized she was refusing to answer questions “because of the setting that we’re in” — which turned out to be something very different from what she had been led to believe. Some of her answers were omitted entirely, others were used piecemeal. In at least one instance, a comment Landon Starbuck made before Electronika began recording was inserted into an exchange Electronika did record.
In June, Starbucks told Rolling Stone that the film was “not the type of thing where you can expect unethical editing of any kind.”
Electronika was one of only two LGBTQ+ individuals or allies the Starbucks interviewed face-to-face who were explicitly identified for the audience as representing opposing views to themselves. Others who were approached were made aware of the nature of the documentary — many through the work of activist Eli Erlick who discovered the ruse — and either pulled out or refused requests to participate.
In emails, Starbuck’s staff used pronoun preferences in their signatures, and provided working titles for the film such as Identity Rising and It Takes a Village. They described the project in similar terms as they did to Electronika, and suggested a desire to discuss the “importance of inclusion among young folks” and exploring “the experiences of trans people and drag queens, with a special focus on trans youth.”
In several instances, potential interview subjects were told the documentary would be directed — and even “self-produced” — by “award-winning” cinematographer Matt Rodgers, with staff omitting Starbuck’s name from communications and making no mention of another co-director or producer. They also told participants that the documentary would be distributed by a “household name” streaming service, and were given blank release forms. In a June 2023 tweet, Starbuck himself hinted that he was working on a “top secret documentary.”
When individuals asked for more details about who was behind the film, production staff pointed to non-disclosure agreements as the reason for the lack of transparency. When one individual — having been tipped off that Starbuck was behind the film — attempted to secure answers about his role in the project, a staffer reassured them that they would be treated fairly because an unnamed woman participating in the documentary would be “representing a different view from Robby’s.”
Almost all of this turned out to be misleading or outright false. The War on Children is a stark departure from the project titles offered to LGBTQ+ individuals and activists. The film was both directed and produced by Robby Starbuck and his media company, with Rodgers credited as cinematographer. The film was not released by a “major streaming service,” but rather made available through pay-per-view on X, the right-wing video hosting website Rumble, and My Movies Plus. The unnamed woman providing a “different view” from Starbuck — whose identity he declined to confirm to Rolling Stone in June — was actually his wife and fellow activist, Landon Starbuck.
Most importantly, as Electronika’s experience demonstrates, the treatment given to members of the LGBTQ+ community and their allies deviated drastically from the “fair and honorable approach to each individual” that Starbuck promised in his past comments to Rolling Stone.
“I don’t think a lack of transparency contributed to any hesitation” among potential interview subjects, Starbuck told Rolling Stone in an email. “It’s par for the course that left-wing media like Rolling Stone are more interested in writing a negative story about some subjects we asked to interview being upset than to examine the War On Children that we exposed in our film. The focus of this story should not be Robby Starbuck, Landon Starbuck, or any of the people who claim to be upset,” he added.
When asked to explain the discrepancy regarding what potential interview subjects were told about Rodgers’ role in the film, Starbuck wrote that Rodgers “wore many hats during production including him directing and producing many parts of the film. There are many roles both of us took on that are uncredited as often occurs on small crews.”
Starbuck did not directly address a question about why the production staff failed to disclose Landon Starbuck’s identity when claiming to potential interview subjects that a co-host would express a different view from his own. Instead, he wrote that “it’s very regressive to think she shares all of her husband’s opinions.” (In the context of the film, one would struggle to pinpoint a moment where the two hosts were not in agreement with one another, or operating as a team. “We’re the Starbucks,” Landon narrates in the film’s opening segment, explaining that the pair left the entertainment industry “because we knew that a silent war was being fought for the minds of America’s children.”)
Robby Starbuck adds that that’s why the couple is “here now, to expose the war on children.” The introduction sets the tone of their dynamic throughout the film: Both co-hosts use inflammatory rhetoric to describe their subjects, tag-team interviews, and provide the framework for the film’s narrative.
Electronika was not the only drag queen the film attempted to rope into the production. Starbuck notes in the film that California-based drag queen Lil Miss Hot Mess had pulled out of The War on Children after initially agreeing to participate. In the film, the Starbucks describe an academic paper written by Lil Miss Hot Mess on childhood interactions with drag queen story hours as an admission that “pride and drag for kids was meant to be political.” Landon Starbuck adds in a voiceover that exposing children and young people to drag performances is intended to “sexualize” them and aimed at “creating lifelong left-wing voters.”
The “team absolutely misled me about the premise and tone of the documentary,” Lil Miss Hot Mess tells Rolling Stone in an email. “In fact, they went to great lengths to hide their identities and true intentions, it only became clear later that the Starbucks were behind it.”
Lil Miss Hot Mess adds that she disagreed with the treatment they gave her work, clarifying that her writing “thinks about what children can learn from drag performers, and vice versa.”
“The Starbucks are absolutely wrong,” she says. “Programs like Drag Story Hour don’t just teach about LGBTQ+ people or subjects — and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that — but about a broader way of thinking that is creative, playful, and imaginative.”
When she realized who she was dealing with, and stopped responding to their production assistant, Lil Miss Hot Mess says the couple “became incredibly disrespectful.”
The pair left her a voicemail, which was provided to Rolling Stone, in which they questioned why she chose not to be in the documentary and said they wanted to have “civil discourse” with her. Robby Starbuck then asked “Mr. Hot Mess” why “you believe it’s a good thing for grown men to dress up as women and do sexual dances for them” and what “you thought about the people who’ve exposed their genitalia to children, and why that would be OK?”
“I wanted to ask you about why you thought that drag in front of children … was explicitly about politics — not even about inclusion or sexualizing them — but really about politics and making sure that they turned into the little left-wing red guards that you guys would like them to be,” Robby Starbuck adds.
The tone of the message was a far cry from a series of sample interview questions provided to her in earlier communications.
“They claim that they wanted to have balanced ‘civil discourse,’ but that’s ridiculous,” Lil Miss Hot Mess told Rolling Stone. “They not only misrepresented who they were and what their goals were, but then turned and began using incredibly offensive language about me personally and LGBTQ+ communities more broadly.”
Lil Miss Hot Mess’ experience with the Starbucks lays bare the general tone of The War on Children — which couldn’t have been further from the positive-sounding, inclusive forum described in the production’s communications. The pair refer to LGBTQ+ individuals and allies — particularly those advocating transgender acceptance and inclusion — as “pro-mutilation activists,” and describe movements supporting diversity and inclusion as a “far left cultural revolution that is meant to destroy our country.” The film is a synthesis of the right’s fear-mongering over LGBTQ+ issues and attacks against the LGBTQ+ community — one with a forgone conclusion, little room for nuance, and a $12 access price.
The film focuses heavily on staple issues of the right’s now-ubiquitous attacks against gender-diverse individuals and their push for civil rights and access to resources. As the title suggests, The War on Children is centered primarily on how these issues relate to children, highlighting the stories of “detransitioners,” parents of young children who’d questioned their identity, child trafficking victims, and family members who’d lost loved ones to suicide. It asserts that those issues are the result of widespread efforts — primarily led by the left and LGBTQ+ activists — to medically and surgically “mutilate” young people through gender-affirming care, sexualize them through social media, drag, or the introduction of pornography to schools, and normalize sexual relationships between adults and children. This “war on children” will ultimately usher in the destruction of society if not won by warrior parents, the film argues.
“Obviously, parents can dictate what materials their children are exposed to,” Electronika says. “There are no drag shows, or drag story hours, or LGBT events that are happening where children are showing up unaccompanied by a guardian or an adult. … When we do have a drag event that is happening, where minors may be present, it would be a rare occurrence for anything sexually explicit to be occurring on stage.”
The War on Children dismisses the established and ever-growing body of research and medical knowledge around gender and sexual identity as propaganda by the pharmaceutical industry and activists. The World Professional Association for Transgender Health standards advises against gender-affirming surgery for children and adolescents, which is already extremely rare. Instead, medical standards recommend supportive care alongside work with a mental health professional for young children, and continued supportive care with the option to explore the use of puberty blockers for adolescents under the guidance of medical professionals. Medical experts agree that detransitioning is also a rare phenomenon, with one study review of 8,000 trans patients finding that only one percent of those who had gender-affirmation surgeries regretted it.
In one email obtained by Rolling Stone, Starbuck’s production team tells a potential participant that the documentary has secured interviews with “experts in the fields of parenting, drag, gender-affirming care, inclusion and lawmaking” to paint a full and complete picture of the landscape surrounding issues of gender and identity. While it sounds comprehensive, in reality the documentary is a who’s who of right-wing commentators and activists. The film prominently features Chaya Raichik, the influencer behind Libs of TikTok, as well as anti-trans activist Riley Gaines, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and representatives from The Heritage Foundation and the anti-abortion group White Rose Resistance.
In an interview with Buck Sexton and Clay Travis given shortly after the film’s release, Starbuck described his conversations with LGBTQ+ allies and activists not as discussions, but as “confrontations.” As individuals withdrew from the production, or outright refused to participate after becoming aware of who was involved, they switched strategies, and had their film crew record their attempts to directly contact activists over the phone. Tennessee, where the majority of the documentary was filmed, only requires one party’s consent to record conversations, and many of those who spoke to Rolling Stone were not aware that their names and recordings of their calls had been included in the film.
Starbuck includes a portion of a phone call with Colorado state Rep. Brianna Titone (D), one of the only transgender lawmakers serving in elected office. While introducing the call, he accused Titone of supporting a “trans youth trafficking bill” allowing minors to circumvent state-level bans on gender affirming care, and misgendered her. The portion of the call put in the film is brief, with Titone reiterating her refusal to participate in the project and hanging up the phone shortly after, to which Starbuck tells the camera that “everyone on this pro-child mutilation advocacy side, they avoid conversations at all costs.”
Titone tells Rolling Stone that “this is exactly the kind of thing that I expected from this charlatan,” claiming that Starbuck had edited out the moment on the exchange where she’d called him out on the likelihood that he was recording their conversation without disclosing it to her. When asked if he had informed those he called that they were being recorded, Starbuck told Rolling Stone that “yes, they were told that we were making a documentary at the beginning of the calls or were told before we called in some cases,” adding that recording disclosure was not necessary given Tennessee’s one-party consent law.
Regarding the accusation that she supports “trans youth trafficking” through her support for Colorado’s shield law, Titone clarified that “the bill shields the providers of gender-affirming care and abortion care from outside government trying to get information, or sue, or subpoena, and try to find out who’s coming here to get that kind of health care.” The law was created to protect patients and health care providers amid the rise in state laws restricting access to gender-affirming care, and efforts from prosecutors in conservative states to target medical providers in other states.
“The law is for gender-affirming care, and that’s for anybody — it’s not even for children [specifically],” Titone added. “It’s for anybody who’s transgender who wants to get care. They’re banning adults from getting gender-affirming care in some states.”
Titone had a similar experience to other individuals who were approached to participate in the documentary, and while initially receptive to the request, she pulled out of the interview after being tipped off by fellow activists. Ultimately, she feels she made the right call, accusing Starbuck of “sensationalizing” her work in the Colorado legislature “just to make money.”
The Starbucks also recorded their attempts to contact Dr. Marci Bowers, a transgender, board-certified gynecologist specializing in gender-affirming surgery and an expert in clitoral/genital reconstruction for survivors of female genital mutilation and cutting. “Why does this ideology not allow questions?” Landon Starbuck asked Bower’s office manager after the employee reiterated that Bowers would not be participating in the film. “Isn’t that a sign of grooming?”
Bower’s employee, who Rolling Stone has agreed not to name to protect their privacy, was not aware that the recording of the call had been used in the film. “I think [Bowers] isvery brave in saying yes to a lot of interactions with folks that we already know don’t agree with her,” the employee says, adding that the clinic regularly gets calls from individuals who are intent on pressing their own views, but that Bowers takes all media requests seriously.
Bowers tells Rolling Stone that her office had already been aware that a pseudo-documentary connected to Starbuck was approaching activists for interviews without disclosing his involvement in the project. In 2021, Bowers was one of several individuals duped by The Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh into participating in his anti-trans film What Is a Woman? Walsh’s production team used a tactic that has become a template for projects like The War on Children, implementing pseudonyms and creating a shield organization titled “The Gender Unity Project” to mask the films’ association with The Daily Wire.
“We were on the lookout and skeptical of anything being proposed,” Bowers says. “They have this sweet little title and, you know, sounding like they’re just doing a nice little nice documentary piece and it’s all deceptive.”
“They use disinformation and scare tactics to rally the general public against us. So someone who is in the vast ideological middle, if they aren’t really familiar with transgender health care, they have no idea,” she adds. Bowers characterizes the rare instances of gender-affirming surgery being performed on young teens and even children as outliers generally antithetical to medically-accepted best practices, a view consistent with that of accredited medical organizations.
Across the board, the individuals who spoke to Rolling Stone — including Bowers — affirmed that they’re perfectly willing to speak to individuals expressing a genuine interest in their work and perspective. What they’re not willing to do is play along with right-wing influencers who attempt to use their names, work, and public image to malign their communities.
The methods used by the Starbucks and others on the right have created a chilling effect among many LGBTQ+ influencers and activists, who now feel that they need to constantly be on guard and take extra precautions to avoid inadvertently becoming entrapped in a similar scheme.
“I get requests to be interviewed all the time from a lot of different people,” Titone says. “Whether it’s the college student who’s doing a report, or someone who’s doing a podcast or whatever. It wasn’t until this whole thing happened that now I have to be super careful about all this stuff.”
“People who reached out to me had legitimate reasons to interview me — because they were interested in me as a person and what I stand for, not to try to bait me into some film that he’s going to try to make money on and destroy people’s lives,” she adds, describing Starbuck as a “shoe bomber” who’s helped “ruin for everybody” the standard good-faith expectation between activists, advocates, and those looking to hear their perspective.
Multiple individuals who spoke to Rolling Stone added that their relief over not participating in the documentary was compounded given the slew of anti-trans, anti-drag laws that have been passed in Tennessee, where much of the filming took place. “At best, I figured that they wanted to misrepresent me in this sham documentary; but at worst, by inviting me to Nashville, I did not know if they wanted to directly harm me in some way or perhaps try to set me up to be arrested, as this was during the time when Tennessee’s anti-drag bill had passed and before it was stayed by the court,” Lil Miss Hot Mess says.
“While I’m happy to speak with people who I disagree with, I also don’t waste my time on unserious people who are just trying to stir up trouble or misrepresent what I have to say. And if someone can’t show the basic respect of approaching me with the dignity or truth I deserve, then why should I even bother to respond?” she adds.
Electronika feels similarly. “If you’re gonna go into a conversation with a deceptive stance, I mean, that eliminates all potential honesty going forward,” she tells Rolling Stone. “If you can’t go into an interaction with your true colors waving then how can you be trusted in any moment that happens afterwards?”