On Jan. 11, 17-year-old Rebecca Phillips approached the lectern at a sparsely attended city council meeting in Santee, a suburb of San Diego, California. No item on the agenda brought her to city hall that night. Instead, she tearfully recounted how a local YMCA had followed state law and company policy by allowing a transgender woman to use the same locker room that she did. She had no contact with the woman and claimed only to have seen her, but the experience left her “terrified,” she said.
From there, a symbiotic network of local and national right-wing media began passing the story upwards, catapulting Phillips to the airwaves of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight in just six days. But while Phillips earned the adulation of a constellation of conservative and far-right actors—including a former politician himself accused of sexual misconduct in public bathrooms—the subject of her outburst became a national target.
Christynne Lili Wrene Wood, a 66-year-old Navy veteran and retired civil servant, had just returned home from a trip to Palm Springs when a friend from her beloved aqua aerobics class sent her a video on Instagram of Phillips speaking at the city council.
“I just started crying and crying and shaking,” she told The Daily Beast. “I’m neither Sigmund Freud nor Carl Jung; I don’t know what evil pathology drives that. But there’s always got to be that convenient boogeyman. There’s always gonna be that ‘other’ that threatens ‘us.’”
If drag shows have been one focus of recent extremist rage at the LGBTQ community, it appears as if YMCAs may be emerging as a new proving ground for right-wing culture warriors. If so, the story of Rebecca Phillips points to just how swiftly that process can take off.
Phillips’ comments galvanized an existing network of right wing and far-right groups in greater San Diego, according to local disinformation researcher and journalist Brooke Binkowski. “There’s a very strong streak of far-right ideology here that has been here for generations,” she told The Daily Beast.
Santee specifically has an established reputation of extremism, earning it the moniker “Klantee.” The city has tried multiple times over the years to rehabilitate its image, most recently after news coverage of a man shopping at a local Vons wearing a Klan–style hood followed by a separate incident of a Santee Food 4 Less customer wearing a swastika face mask.
“The QAnon-friendly crowd and their adjacent groups have been demonizing trans people and throwing around the ‘pedo’ and ‘groomer’ labels for years now,” Binkowski said.
Little is known about Phillips and her own politics, and neither she nor her parents could be reached for comment. Her father works as a retirement consultant while her mother, Susanna Hodge, is a Christian blogger and homeschools her six children. Her LinkedIn lists her as a director for a Christian homeschooling company.
Whatever the details of the teen’s own ideology, it took virtually no time at all for extremists to latch onto her.
The day after Phillips spoke at city hall, a screen recording of her comments appeared on the Instagram page for SanteeParents4Choice, a group that emerged in the thick of the pandemic in opposition to masking requirements in Santee schools. Tracie Thill, the group’s founder and a former special education aide in the Santee School District who says she was fired for refusing to adhere to the district’s COVID testing policy, ran a failed campaign for school board in 2022.
SanteeParents4Choice held a rally in front of the YMCA on Jan. 18 that was reportedly attended by a range of actors outside the group, including right-wing and far-right locals. The YMCA closed early as a safety precaution after receiving threats—threats that have rippled to locations across the country, according to Shelly McTighe-Rippengale, the group’s executive vice president for San Diego County.
“Our YMCA and our staff continue to be the target of credible threats, negative attention, and electronic attacks simply for serving our mission and obeying state law,” she said in an email to The Daily Beast.
Thill could not be reached for comment.
A local news station that has been linked to the right, KUSI, picked up the story a day after SanteeParents4Choice, running it online with the headline “Santee YMCA allows naked man to use women’s locker room with underage girls.” In a television segment, KUSI brought on Carrie Prejean-Boller, a former Miss California USA who first obtained political notoriety when she came out against gay marriage in the televised finals of the 2009 Miss USA competition. In 2021, she received attention for appearing at a local school board meeting to decry mask mandates, declare the pandemic over, and threaten to run for school board (she did not).
Prejean-Boller praised Phillips as a “hero” for sharing her story.
Phillips herself also appeared on KUSI, this time expanding the scope of her attack against the YMCA to its gender-inclusive policies for sleepaway camps. (According to the San Diego YMCA policy, sleeping arrangements and group assignments should “reflect each child’s identified gender” and staff will “not disclose information regarding a camper’s identity without their express consent.”)
In quick succession, the story traveled from KUSI to the New York Post and Daily Mail. A game of telephone played out in the process, with Mail, OAN, and The Daily Wire reporting that Phillips had seen a penis in the locker room. But Phillips herself had said in her city council comments only that she had seen a “naked male.” On local TV, she got a bit more specific, saying that she “did not see the man’s front side.”
In fact, it would have been impossible for the teenager to see a penis, because Wood underwent gender-affirming surgery in 2016.
That did not stop misinformation from propagating all the way up to Santee’s representative in Congress, Darrell Issa, who told an anchor on KUSI that “a male with a male organ exposed himself to a minor, that’s what actually happened in Santee.” After the anchor corrected Issa, the congressman stumbled, first saying that “it’s not what was said and it’s not what I understand” before offering a word salad of general statements.
The story told by Phillips’ supporters about what happened in the locker room grew still darker—and more deceitful. At a rally organized by SanteeParents4Change, the closing speaker, Carl DeMaio, a former San Diego city council member who now hosts an AM radio talk show, falsely described Wood as a “sexual predator” and “child abuser.”
“Don’t you find it just the least bit ironic?” Wood told The Daily Beast in response, pointing to two allegations against DeMaio of sexual misconduct in public bathrooms. The first allegation came from DeMaio’s former colleague in the city council Ben Heuso, who told a news outlet that he had caught DeMaio masturbating in a City Hall bathroom in 2009 during a council meeting. Then, in 2014, a former staffer came forward to accuse DeMaio of exposing his penis to him in the office restroom.
DeMaio has steadfastly denied the allegations. When reached for comment, a spokesperson pointed out that another ex-staffer who alleged sexual harassment later pleaded guilty to forging a threatening email he told investigators was from DeMaio. (DeMaio also denied those allegations.)
A nearly identical media cycle to the YMCA uproar played out in San Diego less than six months ago, according to Kathie Moehlig, founder of TransFamily Support Services, a nonprofit that offers a panoply of services to gender-diverse individuals and their families. After she advertised an LGBTQ-friendly Halloween party for children and families through a local school district, parents and right-wing groups rallied to protest “Boo Bash.” The issue caught the attention of first local and then national media when conservative Christian organizer Brittany Mayer, also a former Miss California USA who goes by the name Rooted Wings on social media, spoke out at a school board hearing.
Mayer, too, appeared on KUSI and then on Tucker Carlson’s show.
While Boo Bash still went forward, Moehlig said she received threats of violence from unknown actors, prompting her to reach out to local law enforcement and the FBI. She brought in metal detectors and private security for the event, and limited full face masks and replica weapons. The FBI declined to confirm or deny details of an investigation; the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Moehlig says that many of the same people involved in organizing against Boo Bash are also involved in the Santee YMCA fracas. “They’re showing up on Megyn Kelly and Tucker Carlson and the local conservative media, and it’s getting their name out,” she told The Daily Beast.
Indeed, Phillips has made her own star turn on one of the most-watched cable news shows in America, where Carlson gushed in praise of her. “It’s amazing that you had the courage to do this and the ability to describe it so vividly,” said Carlson to Phillips. “I’m so impressed about that.”
Meanwhile, the YMCA previously found itself in conservative crosshairs for its trans-inclusive policies at least two other times in just the last six months.
In Port Townsend, Washington, 80-year-old Julie Jaman became a favorite of conservative media in August after reportedly getting banned from the local YMCA pool for making “disrespectful” statements to an 18-year-old transgender staff member. The confrontation took place after Jaman saw the teen accompanying two children from the day camp to the bathroom, per YMCA policy.
In a suburb of Dayton, Ohio, a local pastor prompted a small local controversy in November when he complained that his wife had encountered a transgender woman in the locker room. The YMCA defended its policies as inclusive and in compliance with Ohio state law.
Now, the machine set in motion by Phillips’ tears appears to be training its sights at the broader YMCA organization. Mayer—who has said in media appearances that she speaks with Phillips and her family—is pushing an effort on her social-media accounts to “expose” the YMCA for its gender-inclusive policies, asking for parents to reach out with stories of their children being “exposed to any gender ideology” at a YMCA camp or encountering “a member of the opposite sex” in a YMCA bathroom or locker room. Mayer did not respond to a request for comment.
The Santee YMCA shut down again on Saturday for another protest, which reportedly featured local far-right figure Mike Forzano, multiple individuals wearing Proud Boys attire, and a man with a swastika tattoo.
Even so, Wood plans on continuing to attend water aerobics class daily—refusing to let the right-wing golden girl of the hour bring her down.
“All I know is I’m a woman who’s found her home and her social group and her family of aqua-sisters at that Y, and I’ll be damned if anything they do will ever drive me away from it. Period.”