As more states make moves to bar LGBTQ content from schools in the name of parental rights, conservative supporters of such legislation have increasingly accused opponents of the law — especially LGBTQ rights advocates — as “groomers.”
The word “groomer” is a politically-charged term, because it plays on age-old homophobic tropes casting gay men and LGBTQ individuals as pedophiles who intend to sexually abuse children.
Proponents of legislation like Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education” bill (dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by critics) argue that exposing minors to even the mere concept of sexual orientation or gender identity, even in history, biology, or sexual education classes, is inappropriate and will encourage impressionable youth to claim they are LGBTQ.
Conservatives have seized upon parental angst over LGBTQ rights, sexually-tinged topics, and alleged “indoctrination” by schoolteachers as wedge issues ahead of this year’s midterms elections, seeking to rally voters to their cause by painting their opponents as insufficiently concerned with protecting children.
The narrative that schools pose a “danger” to children ties into the ongoing trend of parents — in hundreds of districts throughout the country —feuding with school administrators or school board members over the inclusion of sexually-explicit or graphic novels or books in school libraries, even if the books are not part of the official curriculum, or over LGBTQ-inclusive policies designed to protect LGBTQ children from being discriminated against and bullied or to avoid “outing” students to their parents against their will.
The “protect children” rallying cry also appeals to a segment of the Republican base that had embraced part of the QAnon conspiracy, in which a cabal of globalists — all with ties to the Democratic Party or Hollywood elites — run a secretive, worldwide child sex-trafficking ring.
The “groomer” label seems to have gained traction amid debate over the Florida bill, when Christina Pushaw, the press secretary for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis tweeted that anyone who opposes the bill “is probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8-year-old children.”
She later clarified her remarks to say that bringing up the topic of sexually-related topics with young children creates an overall environment where those children are more susceptible to grooming.
Pushaw later decried accusations that she had defamed the LGBTQ community, writing in an email to Vice News that she “never once singled out LGBTQ people.”
Alejandra Caraballo, a clinical instructor at Harvard Law’s Cyber Law Clinic and a transgender rights advocate, told NBC News that the use of the word “grooming” is “an attempt at the dehumanization and delegitimization of queer people’s identities by associating them with pedophilia and child grooming.”
She noted that data from Twitter shows that on March 29, the day after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill into law, the word “grooming” was mentioned on the social media platform 7,959 times, compared with just 40 times on January 1, 2022.
She also warned that the incendiary nature of the “grooming” narrative — painting LGBTQ people as a danger to children — was likely to ultimately result in violence. “I fear we’re going to end up with another Pulse,” she said.
Right-wing pundits have since embraced Pushaw’s narrative that the bill is essential to protecting children from being “groomed” into accepting LGBTQ identity as “normal,” and have lobbed attacks against Disney for its opposition to the bill, the left-wing media watchdog organization Media Matters for America reports.
Days after Pushaw’s initial tweet, Fox News host Laura Ingraham asked her viewers, “When did our public schools, any schools, become what are essentially grooming centers for gender identity radicals?”
The flames of anger have further been fanned by U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who recently tweeted that “Democrats are the party of killing babies, grooming and transitioning children, and pro-pedophile politics.”
On the same day, conservative podcast host Jack Posobiec urged his 1.7 million followers to buy T-shirts, incorporating the Disney castle logo and signature font saying “Boycott Groomers, bring ammo.”
The shirts were created as part of a backlash against The Walt Disney Company for speaking out — after initially remaining silent — against the Florida bill and choosing to suspend political giving in Florida at the request of the company’s LGBTQ employees.
The day after the Florida bill was signed into law, The Daily Wire‘s Matt Walsh said on his show that, previously, children of his generation were “given space” to go through puberty and figure out their identities. Now, he claimed, LGBTQ identity offers an all-too-easy solution for people struggling with their feelings and insecurities.
“[Y]ou have these predators, these evil, Satanic, disgusting groomers who are waiting there to pounce as soon as a child begins to have any questions about themselves, begins to feel out of place at all, begins to have any questions about their bodies and the changes they’re experiencing,” Walsh said.
Similarly, Candace Owens, of The Daily Wire, speaking during her self-titled show, accused Disney of defending “child groomers” and “predators” in classrooms. Owens urged conservatives to fight back and boycott the company because “pedophilia is around the corner.”
Right-wing talk show host Jesse Kelly claimed during his show’s April 6 broadcast that the country is run by a cabal of “child groomers” and “communists” that have taken over “every single cultural institution.”
He also defended the use of the word “groomer,” claiming the label is accurate and that people who oppose being referred to by the term “groomer” are simply upset because the implications behind it are true.
Other right-wing hosts expressed similar sentiments, noting part of the reason the right-wing has doubled down on using the term is that they’re tired of having their language policed by the political left.
Meanwhile, Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk claimed during his April 8 podcast that gay people are going after children.
Drawing the connection from greater societal acceptance for LGBTQ people to the legalization of same-sex marriage to today’s debates, Kirk said, “We’re talking about gay stuff more than any other time. Why? Because they are not happy just having marriage. Instead, they now want to corrupt your children.”
Even though most medical and child development experts reject the idea that youth who identify as LGBTQ have come to that conclusion through coercion or because of outside influences, the concept that LGBTQ people cannot naturally reproduce and therefore must “recruit” followers dates back decades.
The idea was central to singer and celebrity Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign, which cast LGBTQ people as a threat to children and was credited with overturning a pro-gay ordinance in Miami-Dade County in 1977, and the Briggs Initiative, a ballot measure in California that would have made it illegal for LGBTQ individuals to become or remain as teachers in public schools — an idea that was ridiculed in 1978 and eventually defeated by a nearly 3-2 margin.
Michael Bronski, a professor of women and gender studies at Harvard University and author of A Queer History of the United States for Young People, told NBC News that labeling one’s political adversaries “groomers” has been common throughout American history.
“There’s a long tradition of making accusations against a minority group, potentially an unpopular one, using the notion of violating childhood innocence, which is seen as the worst possible thing that you could do — to abuse the child sexually,” he said. But, he noted, the accusations were “never about the children,” but about “mobilizing power within the culture and doing political organizing around it.”
Asked why the homophobic trope of LGBTQ people as child abusers has reemerged, Bronski cited the legalization of same-sex marriage, important court decisions in favor of LGBTQ plaintiffs, and increased visibility, both in media and in the larger public, where the percentage of adults identifying as other than heterosexual has doubled over the past decade, according to a recent Gallup poll.
“If you have visibility for anything, whether it be for Black Lives Matter, whether it be for feminism, whether it be for LGBTQ identities, you are in fact creating a cultural space for people to learn about it and consider it,” he said. “Any form of social progress engenders backlash.”
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