“Grooming” has become the most recent scare tactic of choice for the right. Fox News host Laura Ingraham included a segment on her show last month where she claimed public schools have become “grooming centers” where “sexual brainwashing” takes place. Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene recently tweeted that the Democrats are the party of “grooming and transitioning children.” Last week, One America News host Chanel Rion even called President Joe Biden “the groomer-in-chief.”
For the unfamiliar, “grooming” is a term typically reserved to describe the type of behavior that child sexual abusers use to coerce potential victims without being caught. But now some Republicans are using it against any Democrat (or company)1 who disagrees with them on certain policy issues. This is a deliberate tactic that was promoted as early as last summer by Christopher Rufo, the same conservative activist who helped muddle the language around critical race theory. “Grooming” is a term that neatly draws together both modern conspiracy theories and old homophobic stereotypes, while comfortably shielding itself under the guise of protecting children. Who, after all, can argue against the safety of kids? But by adopting this language to bolster their latest political pursuits, the right is both giving a nod to fringe conspiracy theorists and using an age-old tactic to dismantle LGBTQ rights.
“There is no better moral panic than a moral panic centered on potential harm to children,” said Emily Johnson, a history professor at Ball State University who specializes in U.S. histories of gender and sexuality.
This most recent round of high-profile “grooming” warnings seems to have started in early March, as Democrats attacked Florida’s law limiting what can be taught in schools. Republican defenders turned to “grooming” as a way to push back.
“The bill that liberals inaccurately call ‘Don’t Say Gay’ would be more accurately described as an Anti-Grooming Bill,” Christina Pushaw, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s press secretary, tweeted on March 4. “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.”
Except there’s no mention of grooming in the law. Instead, it prohibits “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity” in kindergarten through third grade, “or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”
So if casting those who oppose this law as “pro-grooming” is not rooted in evidence, what is it rooted in? In part, it’s a dog whistle to the party’s most extreme, conspiracy-minded base. The foundation of the QAnon conspiracy theory is that there is a mass, secret, underground ring of Satanic pedophiles whose members consist of Democratic leaders and Hollywood elites. Painting anyone who opposes Florida’s law (i.e., mainly Democrats) as being pro-grooming fits neatly into that narrative and winks at QAnon adherents without requiring politicians on the right to actually endorse the outlandish theory.
But this rhetoric also harkens back to age-old attacks on the LGBTQ community. Casting LGBTQ people as child predators and their very existence as something inherently sexual was a tactic used by anti-LGBTQ activists since the 1970s in their efforts to stifle or roll back LGBTQ legal protections, according to Marie-Amélie George, a law professor at Wake Forest University who 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 to be that ‘gays and lesbians cannot 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 evolution: In 1977, just 13 percent of Americans believed that “[b]eing gay or lesbian is something a person is born with,” but by 2019, 49 percent of Americans did. As this social shift happened and the LGBTQ community achieved more rights, it made the “child predator” narrative less effective.
Why, then, is it back? George suspects the reason we’re seeing it come up again is due to the most recent frontier of LGBTQ rights: trans rights. “The reason it’s gaining more resonance now is, in part, because people understand trans identity much less clearly,” George said. “There’s a misunderstanding that people are electing a different gender identity as opposed to coming to realize what their gender identity is.”
George said anti-LGBTQ activists are capitalizing on this misunderstanding to advance their agenda. George identified this trend in her 2017 paper she published in the Wisconsin Law Review. She noted that from 1999 until 2012, voters regularly supported LGBTQ protections in local ballot measures. But around 2012, anti-LGBTQ activists began highlighting the gender-identity protections in these laws, and the ballot measures began failing.
Pushaw, for her part, denies that any of this rhetoric is homophobic. She told Vice News she “never once singled out LGBTQ people” and that the “assumption that criticism of grooming is criticism of the LGBTQ community equates LGBTQ people to groomers, which is both bigoted and inaccurate. Do better. And, any adult who wants to discuss sexual and gender identity topics with other people’s 5- to 8-year-old children—while keeping this a secret from their parents—is either a groomer or is complicit in promoting an environment where grooming becomes normalized.”
But what’s being normalized here isn’t grooming; it’s the use of homophobic rhetoric and conspiracy theory language. And it’s intended not to protect children but to advance political causes and slander political enemies.