“Grooming” has become the latest scaremongering on the right. Fox News anchor Laura Ingraham added a segment to her show last month where she claimed public schools had become “care centers” where “sexual brainwashing” takes place. Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene recently tweeted that the Democrats are the party of “Child Care and Relocation.” Last week, One America News hosted Chanel Rion even called President Joe Biden “the head hairdresser.”
For the unfamiliar, “grooming” is a term usually reserved for describing the type of behavior child sexual abusers engage in force potential victims without getting caught. But now some Republicans use it against every Democrat (or company), who disagrees with them on certain political issues. It was a deliberate tactic funded last summer by Christopher Rufo, the same conservative activist who helped confuse the language around critical race theory. “Grooming” is a term that adeptly amalgamates both modern conspiracy theories and old homophobic stereotypes, while conveniently cloaking itself under the guise of protecting children. After all, who can argue against child safety? But in adopting this language to underpin its latest political aspirations, the right is both nodding to fringe conspiracy theorists and employing an age-old tactic to dismantle LGBTQ rights.
“There is no better moral panic than a moral panic that focuses on the potential harms to children,” said Emily Johnson, a Ball State University history professor who specializes in the US history of gender and sexuality.
This latest round of high-profile “nursing care” warnings appears to have started in early March, when Democrats attacked Florida’s law restricting classroom instruction. Republican defenders turned to “grooming” to hit back.
“The law that liberals mistakenly call ‘don’t say gay’ would be more properly called an anti-grooming law,” said Christina Pushaw, press secretary for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. tweeted March 4. “If you oppose the Anti-Grooming Bill, chances are you’re a groomer, or at least don’t oppose the grooming of 4-8 year old children.”
Except that there is no mention of personal hygiene in the law. Instead of this, it forbids “Classroom teaching by school staff or third parties about sexual orientation or gender identity” in kindergarten through third grade, “or in a manner inappropriate for the students’ age or development by government standards.”
So if those who oppose this law are called “pro-grooming,” it’s not based on evidence, where is it rooted? In part, it’s a dog whistle for the party’s most extreme, conspiracy-loving base. The basis of the QAnon conspiracy theory is that there is a mass, secret underground ring of satanic pedophiles whose members are made up of Democratic leaders and Hollywood elites. Painting everyone who defies Florida’s law (i.e. mostly Democrats) as pro-grooming fits seamlessly into this narrative, giving a nod to QAnon supporters without requiring right-wing politicians to actually support the outlandish theory.
But this rhetoric also stems from age-old attacks on the LGBTQ community. According to Marie-Amélie George, law professor at Wake, it was a tactic anti-LGBTQ activists have used since the 1970s in their efforts to suppress or push back LGBTQ legal protections, portraying LGBTQ persons as child predators and their very existence as something of Naturally portraying sexuality Forest University, which specializes in LGBTQ rights. George said that for a long time, many people believed that being gay was the result of child sexual abuse.
“The religious right really modernized and repackaged that claim in the late ’70s and early ’80s, which is that ‘gays and lesbians can’t reproduce, so they have to recruit,'” George said.
Of course, it’s not the 80s anymore. Over the past few decades, Americans’ understanding and acceptance of the LGBTQ community has increased. A series of Gallup polls captures this development: In 1977, only 13 percent of Americans believed that “[b]Being gay or lesbian is something a person is born with,” but as of 2019, 49 percent of Americans were. As this social change took place and the LGBTQ community gained more rights, the “child abductor” narrative became less effective.
Then why is it back? George suspects the reason it’s reappearing is because of the recent frontier of LGBTQ rights: trans rights. “Part of the reason it’s resonating more now is because people have a much less clear understanding of trans identity,” George said. “There is a misconception that people choose a different gender identity instead of realizing what their gender identity is.”
George said anti-LGBTQ activists are capitalizing on this misconception to advance their agenda. George identified this trend in her work published in 2017 in the Wisconsin Law Review. She noted that from 1999 to 2012, voters regularly supported LGBTQ protection in local electoral efforts. But around 2012, anti-LGBTQ activists began emphasizing gender identity protections in these laws, and electoral policies began to fail.
For her part, Pushaw denies that this rhetoric is homophobic. she said Vice News she “never singled out LGBTQ people” and that the “assuming that criticism of grooming is criticism of the LGBTQ community equates LGBTQ people with groomers, which is both bigoted and inaccurate. Do it better. And any adult who wants to talk to other people’s 5- to 8-year-old children about sexual and gender identity issues — and wants to keep it a secret from their parents — is either a groomer or complicit in fostering an environment where grooming is normalized will .”
But what is normalized here is not grooming; it is the use of homophobic rhetoric and conspiracy theory language. And it’s not meant to protect children, but to promote political causes and slander political enemies.