This is a call to arms for the LGBTQ2S+ community and our allies. The campaigns of hate against us are escalating and we must all step forward to protect each other’s safety and ability to participate in society. If you’ve been telling yourself that the anti-“groomer” campaigns amount to just fringe online bullying, let this be a wake-up call. Our opponents are now using the force of the law and violence to come after us in unprecedented ways.
Many may already be familiar with the efforts of Chaya Raichik (@LibsofTikTok), Christopher Rufo (senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute) and others working to rally hate against queer people online. They create narratives that we LGBTQ2S+ people are threats to children, then they identify random people in the world trying to create safe, inclusive environments and target them for their followers to harass. This harassment is not mere hate mail, but has led to threats to people in their homes and in their workplaces and efforts to make people lose their jobs. And now things are getting worse.
This summer, we have seen these efforts evolve from virtual “mobs with pitchforks” to actual mobs with firearms or anti-LGBTQ2S+ elected leaders using the power of their office to persecute us. A disturbing example is playing out in Florida.
Rufo, who has also fought to ban the accurate teaching of race and racism in schools with his campaign against “critical race theory,” suggested that the right should call drag queens “trans strippers” to paint them as a threat to children. Following this advice, @LibsofTikTok and others shared a 16-second clip of a child dancing with a scantily clad drag performer at a club quickly identified as R House, a Florida restaurant that hosts a weekly drag brunch. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, fresh off the passage of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill banning discussion of LGBTQ2S+ identities in schools, sought to make an example out of R House.
DeSantis sent investigators to R House for several weeks to find any other evidence of children in attendance at the drag shows and anything else he thought was incriminating, like the fact that the restaurant has a kids’ menu. He then filed a legal complaint against the venue, citing a 1947 public indecency law to argue that R House should lose its liquor licence and be forced to shut down. He is literally trying to weaponize the law to punish and close down a queer-friendly space.
This is hardly the only example of these campaigns taking on legal consequences. DeSantis’s effort to prohibit affirming care for trans kids also included a prohibition on Medicaid coverage for trans adults’ care, meaning trans people of all ages will likely be denied their medically necessary care like hormone therapy or surgery if they can’t afford it. A Michigan town decided it would rather shut down its public library than let the library provide LGBTQ2S+-affirming literature. A Nebraska high school shut down its award-winning student newspaper and journalism program after running an issue on the origins of Pride Month and history of anti-LGBTQ2S+ campaigns. These are all just examples from the month of August.
Schools and libraries have also been forced to cancel Drag Queen Story hour events because of threats of violence. At one library’s event in California, members of the far right neo-fascist group the Proud Boys showed up to interrupt the event, prompting a hate crime investigation. At another story hour in Nevada, an extremist showed up armed with a gun.
More recently, @LibsofTikTok and their ilk have targeted medical facilities that provide affirming care to trans kids. Most notably, they targeted Boston Children’s Hospital, but have also targeted other hospitals across the U.S. Not only have doctors at these facilities received death threats, but a bomb threat shut down Boston Children’s Hospital in late August, interrupting care for all people.
These scare campaigns mirror similar mob mentalities from history, like the Salem witch trials from colonial times, or the “Red Scare” McCarthyism of the mid-20th century. The false fear that LGBTQ2S+ people are a threat to children is spreading rapidly, and anybody trying to defend us is similarly smeared by association. Just like QAnon fears festered until insurrectionists besieged the U.S. Capitol, trying to overturn an election, these “grooming” fear campaigns are becoming increasingly malignant. Ignoring this growing hostility is not an option.
I’m personally inspired by the incredible warrior that is Clara Sorrenti, the trans activist better known by her Twitch handle “Keffals.” Keffals was based in London, Ontario, until recently, when she was both “doxxed” and “swatted.” That means that not only was her private information shared online, but it was then used to file false police reports of a dangerous situation, inviting armed officers to her home, expecting violence. Though she is currently seeking safety in Europe, she is simultaneously working to shut down the dark corners of the internet where these attacks are orchestrated. We can support her and act in other ways to resist the hateful campaigns against us.
Anyone who believes in the full safety and equality of LGBTQ2S+ people must start by recognizing the harm in even humouring the concerns raised by accounts like @LibsofTikTok. There may be those among us who don’t like the idea of children seeing any kind of potentially racy content. It’s all too easy, unfortunately, for us to take the bait by joining in the outrage these clips are designed to generate. Understanding who is sharing these videos and why is essential so we don’t further amplify the fear-mongering.
A good way to check our own instinctive reactions is to recognize the hypocrisy of these attacks, which specifically target the LGBTQ2S+ community. Why are conservatives going after drag shows instead of, say, Hooters? Hooters, a restaurant chain known for its large-breasted waitresses wearing low-cut tank tops, has a kids’ menu, just like R House. There is no shortage of photos and videos of kids being photographed posing with the buxom cis female staff. These campaigns likewise don’t object to infant onesies that say “Ladies Man,” or the way young girls are asked if they have a boyfriend or told if they’re conventionally attractive they must be popular with the boys. That’s because our opponents’ goal isn’t to protect kids from sexuality or nudity, but to suggest that it’s LGBTQ2S+ identities that are inherently harmful.
We have to push back on such preposterous claims. DeSantis warned in his complaint against R House of “the sexualization of children.” The implication behind such language is that we LGBTQ2S+ people are traumatizing children merely by existing. Indeed, conversion therapists have long capitalized on the myth that trauma is the cause of LGBTQ2S+ identities, and if the trauma can be healed, the identity can be removed. So, too, do these antagonists imply that we are trying to “recruit” children to be LGBTQ2S+, as if that were possible.
What we actually know is that celebrating kids’ identities as they choose to express them is good for their mental health and development, and good for creating safer learning environments. Parents, educators and drag queens alike who are helping kids understand the LGBTQ2S+ community are making the world a better place for them to grow up in, whatever their identity.
No matter how we feel about what we see portrayed, we must stand by whoever is under attack in our community, because the harassment and threats they are facing are real, whereas the alleged threats to kids are not. No matter who the right is targeting, we’re all being painted with the same brush. Our community can’t be safe and inclusive if we’re willing to abandon some members because it seems too hard or inconvenient to fight for their protection. Every time our community has tried to throw one subgroup under the bus (like, say, abandoning protections for trans people for the benefit of gay, lesbian and bi people), it has backfired and ended up hurting all of us.
We must confront the right’s messaging head-on to show people their fears are unfounded. On topics like drag, for example, we can talk about how much kids can enjoy the flashy outfits, acrobatic dancing and theatrical engagement of a drag show. Indeed, a family who attended drag brunch in the wake of the complaint against R House declared how much fun their children have at the shows and how proud they are to share queer culture with them. We have to quell the “what about the children?!” panic by actually working through those fears and asking, “What about the children?” They’re going to feel safer being who they are, and nothing more. We have to highlight all the good work drag queens, queer teachers, queer parents and others are doing so that we can out-saturate these provocative clips. We have to show how queer kids and the kids of queer and ally parents are happy and thriving—not in spite of their exposure to queer life and culture, but because of it.
This work takes courage, and I implore our community and our allies to summon it. The threat of harassment and violence is only increasing, and those who stand against it will likely be targeted as well. Those who have already been targeted have had to fear for their jobs, their families and even their safety. But we can’t let the fear win. This is an “I am Spartacus” moment for the LGBTQ2S+ movement and its allies to stand up against hate because it’s the right thing to do. Some communities are already showing us how it’s done in standing by their neighbours, and kid-friendly, queer-inclusive programming.
Finally, we must remember that there is no reasoning with our opponents. Those truly dedicated to the destruction of LGBTQ2S+ people will always find new ways to target us. But we can interrupt them. We can limit the impact of their harm. We can educate the broader public to help folks recognize and understand their tactics so that fear doesn’t get the best of them. We can make clear that the queer community and our families are beautiful, safe and deserve to thrive in peace.
Let’s not wait another day to get started. Real harm is already underway and will only get worse the longer we delay.