‘Grooming’ narratives return to the forefront of anti-LGBTQ2S+ campaigns

OPINION: Sadly, the nefarious tropes of the 1970s and ’80s never actually went away

In a 1978 debate, Harvey Milk famously joked, “If teachers are going to affect you as role models, there’d be a lot of nuns running around the streets today.” The pioneering gay lawmaker was mocking those who believed California law should ban gay teachers to protect youth from being indoctrinated into the perversion of homosexuality. Half a century later, American conservatives are once again fear-mongering over the LGBTQ2S+ “grooming” of youth as if no time has passed at all.

To be clear: the notion that adults can have any impact on whether a kid turns out to be queer has absolutely no basis in reality. Such claims are the product of prejudice—a hopeless desire to prevent kids from being queer and a tragic belief that shame and ignorance are useful tools in that pursuit. Visibility and inclusion have made it easier for more kids to come out, striking panic among unwittingly bigoted parents that non-cis, non-straight identities are somehow becoming more prevalent. As we learned a century ago when the stigma against left handedness dissipated, of course, they were there all along and only now feel safe revealing themselves.

Yet here we are once again with attacks implying that LGBTQ2S+ people (or their supportive parents) are pedophiles seeking to corrupt the nation’s youth. For many onlookers, this barbaric backslide to the “grooming” narrative is most apparent in the discourse around Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” legislation, which is designed to prevent children from learning queer and trans people exist and to equip prejudiced parents with a litigation weapon against any form of queer inclusion in schools. State Sen. Ileana Garcia literally claimed that “gay is not a permanent thing, LGBT is not a permanent thing”; Fox News’ Laura Ingraham recently warned that schools have become “grooming centres for gender identity radicals”; and Gov. Ron DeSantis himself claimed the bill will protect kids from being “indoctrinated with transgenderism and R-rated lessons about sexuality.”

“The narrative that queerness is a threat to kids not only never went away, it has been nurtured in the periphery for years, only to rebloom with the legislation we’re seeing this year.” 

But for anyone who has watched the continued attacks on the trans community specifically, this language is no surprise at all. It’s the language of J.K. Rowling and Dave Chappelle. It’s the language of cis white men with substacks who are “just asking questions.” It was the language of campaigns against “Drag Queen Story Hour” until the pandemic made them moot. The narrative that queerness is a threat to kids not only never went away, it has been nurtured in the periphery for years, only to rebloom with the legislation we’re seeing this year. Because it was focused primarily on trans kids, the efforts over the last few years saw less public scrutiny—but now that conservatives are once again attacking lesbian, gay and bi people and their families, there is massive outcry. If you’re surprised by what’s happening in Florida, you simply haven’t been paying attention.

 

After the Supreme Court marriage equality victory in 2015, too many advocacy organizations, too many foundations and funders and too many reporters turned their attention elsewhere, ignoring the onslaught of bills still targeting trans people. Conservatives suffered a backlash in 2016 over North Carolina’s “bathroom bill” mandating anti-trans discrimination in public spaces, but then they regrouped and launched new, more insidious ways to normalize the marginalization of trans people. Rather than try to ban trans people’s basic right to exist everywhere, they looked for ways to chip away at trans inclusion and to tap into the public’s innate biases without making them feel like they were supporting discrimination. Every single year, more state legislatures have introduced more anti-trans bills that explore more cruelly innovative ways to discriminate that have become increasingly likely to pass.

Children have always been the primary focus of such anti-LGBTQ2S+ campaigns. It’s actually not hard to see the simple pivots conservatives made to maintain this fear-mongering strategy. During the marriage equality fight, they lied by asserting that same-sex couples made harmful or at-best inferior parents. It didn’t work. Then they lied by warning that basic inclusion for trans adults in bathrooms and locker rooms was an inherent threat to children’s safety. It didn’t work. But then they figured out they could scare parents with lies about trans kids. They started by achieving a foothold with bills blocking trans kids from participating in athletics, then quickly built on the momentum of that success.

Conservatives didn’t need to care that anti-gay “conversion therapy” was dying off or that the visibility of same-sex families was flourishing. They were busy claiming that being trans was a “social contagion” that could be spread via YouTube. Prejudiced parents seeking a justification for rejecting their trans kids invented the fake diagnosis “rapid onset gender dysphoria” to convince themselves their kids weren’t actually trans. Lies about how young children were being subjected to surgeries overtook the reality that trans pre-teens were thriving when they were just allowed to be themselves without any medical intervention or with safe, reversible interventions like hormone blockers. 

“As new anti-trans efforts took hold, it was only a matter of time before they ventured to target lesbian, gay and bi people again, too, painting all of us in the queer community with the same brushes of sin, perversion and inferiority.” 

These beliefs metastasized into bills criminalizing affirming care for trans kids and targeting parents trying to do the loving and medically appropriate thing for their trans children. Conservatives could care less that they’re dismissing what all of the major medical organizations have recommended on the matter. Texas is now launching witch hunts against trans-affirming parents and Idaho was considering legislation that would make it a crime for parents to take their kids to another state to find such care. Nobody watching the campaigns against trans people thought “grooming” rhetoric went away, and we are now seeing the tragic results of ignoring these efforts.

As a community, we queer people have been incredibly innovative in exploring the infinite variety of ways to define our orientations and genders, but we’d be foolish to think any of those distinctions matter to our opponents. As new anti-trans efforts took hold, it was only a matter of time before they ventured to target lesbian, gay and bi people again, too, painting all of us in the queer community with the same brushes of sin, perversion and inferiority. The narrative hasn’t changed since 1978 or before that—only the tactics.

The campaign against abortion should have made it clear that this was inevitable. Conservatives never hid their desire to overturn Roe v. Wade, but they spent decades trying to limit abortion access in small ways. They increasingly normalized restrictions on abortion clinics and hurdles to delay and dissuade people from getting abortions. Now, Texas has a law basically nullifying abortion access in the state and the Supreme Court is considering a case from Mississippi with all signs pointing to their intent to gut Roe.

This tactic of chipping away in state legislatures while securing support on our courts is exactly what conservatives have been doing on LGBTQ2S+ issues as well. Their prerogative is the same in both efforts: to control people’s bodies according to their beliefs. It’s no coincidence that Idaho Rep. Julianne Young indicated she supported anti-trans legislation because she believes, “We are not talking about the life of the child, but we are talking about the potential to give life to another generation.”

The rise of Christian nationalism and support for Donald Trump is just as much a part of what has led us to this point. As conservatives were accelerating anti-trans legislation in state legislatures, the Trump administration was doing everything it could to dismantle protections or mandate discrimination for trans people at the federal level. While some actions like the trans military ban garnered national attention, others were drowned out by Trump’s bluster and innumerous other attacks on democracy.

This year, conservatives found a willing—eager, really—Trumpian legislature and governor in Florida ready to advance the next step of their creeping anti-LGBTQ2S+ campaign. The “Don’t Say Gay” bill not only had a path to passage, but even local corporate giants like Disney weren’t going to offer any meaningful resistance. Overnight, conservatives were emboldened to say out loud what they’ve been thinking the whole time: we don’t want our kids to be queer and we’re convinced we’re righteous in our paranoid efforts to prevent these identities from being realized.

“The only adults pushing kids in any direction are the ones trying to somehow force them to be cis and straight.”

Even the Log Cabin Republicans, a purportedly queer Republican organization, was immediately ready to toe the line. They jumped on the “grooming” bandwagon by attacking Chasten Buttigieg for helping facilitate a queer youth group. Astonishingly, a spokesperson actually said: “Figuring life out is hard enough for youth—they don’t need adults pushing them one way or another on things like sexuality. Some would call that grooming.”

Figuring out life is hard for youth, but we still live in a world where it’s generally harder for queer and trans youth. The only adults pushing kids in any direction are the ones trying to somehow force them to be cis and straight; the rest of us want kids to see the beautiful diversity that exists around them and feel safe and supported in determining their identities for themselves.

We owe it to all of the queer kids who might pop up anywhere on this planet to stridently oppose not just Florida’s bill, but all of the anti-LGBTQ2S+ campaigns, including those that have specifically targeted trans kids and their families. We ignored the warnings of victory blindness for too long and are now paying the price. Let’s regroup and fight back—queer and trans folk united in a common cause. Let’s never lose sight of protecting the most vulnerable among us ever again. If we’re going to be accused of “grooming” today’s youth, let’s make sure what we’re modeling is truth, inclusion and a life worth living for all people.

Zack Ford is a queer writer and activist based in Washington, D.C. He served as LGBTQ Editor at ThinkProgress.org from 2011–2019 and his work has also appeared at Slate, Queerty and his personal newsletter Fording the River Styx. When pandemics aren't a factor, he likes to play show tunes at the piano for his friends to sing along.

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