Gage Skidmore/ CC-by-2.0
On the heels of their disinformation campaign around CRT, Republicans have found their next target, straight off the QAnon message boards, aimed right at the LGBTQ community.
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For the better part of two years, conservative pundits and politicians have helped incite a nationwide moral panic over critical race theory, using the now ubiquitous term as a cudgel to dismiss discussions of racial discrimination and crack down on the teaching of race and racism in public schools. As a result, dozens of state legislatures have passed and introduced a slew of bills banning the teaching of the complex legal theory, despite the fact that it was never being taught in K-12 schools in the first place.
This sudden hysteria didn’t just pop up out of nowhere, however. It was carefully crafted by conservative activist and Manhattan Institute fellow Christopher Rufo, who weaponized and misconstrued the term in a concerted effort to stoke fear and aggravate white racial grievances. Rufo even publicly admitted to purposefully thrusting the decades-old theory into the public discourse to conflate it with something else entirely and turn people against it. Since then, many rank-and-file Republicans have latched onto this deceptive framing, stripping CRT of its original meaning, and using it as a convenient catch-all term for any discussion of systemic and institutional racism.
Rufo’s CRT disinformation campaign has sparked a notable backlash among mostly white suburban parents, who have become convinced that their children are being taught to hate themselves because of the color of their skin. This has almost inevitably led to a surge in school board protests, teacher firings, book bans, and the prohibition of so-called “divisive topics” in public schools across the country, leaving little room for students’ input in the matter.
Now, however, Rufo and his ilk have created a new buzzword to help fuel outrage and influence public policy. Under the same guise of promoting parental rights and curriculum transparency, the GOP has launched a new plan of attack on public schools, weaponizing the word “grooming” to condemn the LGBTQ+ community and erase any mention of sexual orientation and gender identity in the classroom. Baselessly accusing queer and trans people of pedophilia in order to push forward an anti-LGBTQ+ political agenda is far from new, but its recent reiteration has spread like wildfire. Although Rufo first instructed conservative ideologues to use the terms “political predators” and “ideological grooming” to attack teachers who were supposedly “indoctrinating” students back in August, it wasn’t until recently that this jargon finally caught on and became more mainstream.
Following the passing of Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act, many right-wing lawmakers and media personalities have started using the term “grooming” to try to justify and defend the discriminatory legislation and others like it. Colloquially known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law, the measure imposes an absolute ban on the instruction and discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in grades K-3 and a partial ban for grades 4-12, outlawing the discussion of topics that are considered age inappropriate or developmentally inappropriate.
While proponents of the law have argued that it only prevents young children from being taught comprehensive sex education, Republican lawmakers specifically rejected provisions that would have made that clarification, and the language of the measure is so vague that any mention of LGBTQ+ people and queer history could be subject to legal action from parents who wish to sue their child’s school district.
In response to the widespread outrage over the law, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s press secretary, Christina Pushaw, referred to the law as anti-grooming legislation and accused critics of being groomers themselves for opposing it. “If you’re against the Anti-Grooming Bill, you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8-year-old children. Silence is complicity. This is how it works, Democrats, and I didn’t make the rules,” Pushaw tweeted in early March. Given the severity of the charge, it didn’t take very long before the words “grooming” and “groomer” were suddenly plastered all over the internet and across TV screens around the country.
In just a matter of weeks, social conservatives have successfully revived the “gays recruit” myth and started fearmongering about the so-called “LGBT agenda” again, baselessly accusing LGBTQ+ teachers and allies of being groomers and pedophiles. Parroting Anita Bryant’s Save Our Children campaign in the 1970s — which helped popularize the myth that gay people are predators who need to recruit children to join the LGBTQ+ community — conservative lawmakers and media figures are once again claiming that liberals and LGBTQ+ people are trying to sexualize children and force them to change their gender identity or sexual orientation.
According to Media Matters for America, right-wing media has been particularly guilty of perpetuating these myths, with Fox News hosts like Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson conflating grooming — which refers to the manipulation and sexual exploitation of minors — with the mere acknowledgment of queer and trans people. Ingraham aired a whole segment on the topic, accusing liberals of “sexually grooming elementary students” and “peddling gender ideology,” and Carlson suggested that teachers who talk to students about sexual orientation and gender identity should be arrested and beaten up.
Even Disney has taken a hit due to the company’s belated and — albeit vague — condemnation of the “Don’t Say Gay” law. Accusing Disney of promoting “sexual topics” and “transgenderism” and making movies for the sole purpose of indoctrinating children, Fox pundits have launched a full-throated attack against the corporation and any individuals who work there. Unsurprisingly, this is being fueled by none other than Rufo, who recently unearthed footage of Disney executives calling for more diversity in the media conglomerate’s films and TV shows. This footage has since been aired all over Fox News, with Rufo peddling the notion that Disney is somehow pushing a “woke agenda” to groom and sexualize young children.
This dog whistle isn’t limited to Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act, however. It is also being used to debate and defend the onslaught of anti-trans bills sweeping the nation, which ultimately seek to ban trans youth from playing sports, gaining access to gender-affirming medical care, and using the correct bathroom or locker room at school. In fact, it is now considered child abuse for parents to allow their trans and nonbinary children to socially and medically transition in the state of Texas. In many ways, existing anti-trans sentiment is what has helped fuel and propel legislation like the “Don’t Say Gay” law and other similar measures. Unfortunately, it has always been considered socially acceptable to publicly malign and demonize trans people and trans identity. Now that this rhetoric has been thrust into the public discourse, however, the goalpost has moved to include gay and queer people once again.
As a result of this fearmongering, more than 200 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been introduced this year, more than half of which specifically target trans and nonbinary people. By framing these bills as a way to protect children from being groomed and manipulated into changing their gender identity or sexual orientation, however, conservatives have essentially opened up a can of worms and rekindled the false notion that you can somehow make people queer or trans.
While grooming is a serious offense that should be treated with the utmost severity, it has nothing to do with sexual orientation or gender identity. In fact, throwing around broad and baseless accusations of grooming just to smear the LGBTQ+ community does an immense disservice to actual survivors of pedophilia and child sexual abuse by trivializing their very real experiences.
This antiquated and barbaric “grooming” narrative is more than just a talking point, however. Baselessly accusing the entire LGBTQ+ community of grooming could very well lead to greater conspiracies and acts of violence, especially when the safety of children is involved. With this kind of inflammatory and incendiary language, it’s only a matter of time before teachers become the target of parents’ wrath, especially since some conservatives and centrists seem to have redefined “grooming” entirely in order to denounce a whole host of issues they disagree with. According to ideologues like Rufo and James Lindsay, “grooming” now includes any mention or discussion of politics, race, sexual orientation, or gender identity in the presence of children and teenagers.
As a result, radicals have already started advocating violence against teachers and anyone who is LGBTQ+ or LGBTQ+-affirming. In addition to Carlson’s calls for inclusive teachers to be beaten up and arrested, former Mississippi gubernatorial candidate Robert Foster said that trans people and supporters of trans rights should be “lined up against a wall before a firing squad to be sent to an early judgment.” Doubling down on this violent rhetoric, Foster also told the Mississippi Free Press that “the law should be changed so that anyone trying to sexually groom children and/or advocating to put men pretending to be women in locker rooms and bathrooms with young women should receive the death penalty.”
In addition, a school board president in Wisconsin recently received death threats for supposedly “promoting the horrific, radical transgender agenda.” In an anonymous email to Eau Claire Area School District Board President Tim Nordin, the sender threatened to “shoot up” the next school board meeting, blaming the school district for implementing more LGBTQ+-inclusive policies.
By weaponizing the word “grooming” to associate safe and positive discussions about the LGBTQ+ community with pedophilia, conservatives have created a new boogeyman to further demonize and stigmatize queer and trans identity. This escalation could potentially result in teachers being attacked or even killed based on nothing more than bad-faith talking points and malicious conspiracies. And with the rise of QAnon, it’s only a matter of time before another Pizzagate incident occurs. Except this time, the outcome could be much worse.
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