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Old-school homophobia is back

Why anti-LGBTQ laws and accusations of “grooming” children seem to be everywhere now.

High school students dressed in bright colors matching the rainbow pride and blue, pink, and white transgender flags carry signs as they stand in a row.
Students in Walpole, Massachusetts, protest anti-LGBT proposals in Florida and Texas.
Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The past month hasn’t been great for queer and trans Americans.

In March, after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill restricting the kind of discussions and instruction public school teachers can have that involve “sexual orientation or gender identity,” copycat proposals popped up in at least three Republican-run states. Conservative proponents of these bills then launched new broadsides against LGBTQ people, accusing teachers of “grooming” school-age kids and queer allies of enabling pedophilia in their criticism of the bills and the chilling effects on school discussions.

In the span of what seemed like a week, old-school bigotry felt mainstreamed. Sitting members of Congress, cable news hosts, and conservative intellectuals coalesced around “ok, groomerdiscourse as a new way to attack LGBTQ Americans — not just the teachers these bills are targeting. Their attacks come in a country that is more accepting of queer Americans than at any other time in history; about eight in 10 Americans back nondiscrimination laws protecting LGBTQ people. But suddenly, it seemed, 20th-century homophobia acquired a modern, QAnon-esque edge.

“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,” Christina Pushaw, DeSantis’s press secretary, tweeted at the beginning of March. On his talk radio show last week, conservative activist Charlie Kirk tied same-sex marriage and the acceptance of LGBTQ Americans to corrupting children: “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.”

The feedback loop of anti-LGBTQ legislation and “grooming” discourse reveals new dimensions to the conservative movement’s efforts to stymie the progress of recent years: Some members of the political right see opportunities to wield their advantages in the nation’s increasingly conservative courts against LGBTQ people — and opportunities to claw back the ground they’ve lost in the culture war as Americans’ opposition to discrimination grows.

What “Don’t Say Gay” and its conservative backers hope to win

Florida’s education law is couched in the language of parental rights and uses vague language to implicitly threaten LGBTQ teachers and allies with lawsuits. Though supporters had said the law bans inappropriate conversations about sexual activity with young students, the text never explicitly references discussions of sex — only explicitly forbidding conversations about “sexual orientation or gender identity.” The ban applies from kindergarten through third grade but leaves an opening for “age-appropriate” restrictions beyond those grades, while also not defining what “age-appropriate” means.

The legislation never uses the words “gay” or “trans,” but advocates argue that queer and trans Americans would be the primary targets of lawsuits by parents and officials behind the restrictions. Echoing the model of Texas’s abortion ban, Florida’s law deputizes parents as watchdogs, providing a path through the courts to punish schools and staff that violate the statute.

Legislatures in Alabama, Ohio, and Louisiana have since advanced similar proposals; Texas’s lieutenant governor is looking at introducing a bill when its next legislative session starts, and lawmakers in six other states, mostly in the South, have supported iterations of restrictions on LGBTQ identity in schools.

Some of these proposals are more explicit than Florida’s — Tennessee’s proposal seeks to ban books or material that support or promote LGBTQ “issues or lifestyle” altogether — but all offer a window into how social conservatives see opportunities to roll back protections for queer and trans people: score victories in the courts and make the cultural fight more extreme.

Their path to win legal fights looks more promising, with Republican majorities in these statehouses passing these bills on to Republican governors, expecting fights in lower courts, and biding time until a conservative majority on the Supreme Court reviews the challenges, Carl Charles, a senior attorney with the civil rights organization Lambda Legal, said.

Drawing on pandemic-era anger over school closures, mask-wearing, and the specter of critical race theory, state Republicans see an opportunity to rile up their most conservative constituents ahead of primaries, general elections, and a new Supreme Court term.

But what these bills communicate coyly, its supporters in media and politics have been saying out loud for quite some time: The way to win back lost ground in the culture war over LGBTQ people is to cast them as morally corrupt villains — and use schools as a starting point for a bigger cultural shift.

The extreme right’s “grooming” line reveals a note of desperation

Radical right-wing activists and commentators in recent weeks have been making literal accusations of pedophilia (in a callback to a trope from the 1970s and earlier) and grooming (which in its true sense means to “gain access to a potential victim, coerce them to agree to the abuse, and reduce the risk of being caught,” according to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network). But they’ve also been increasingly using “grooming” as a casual insult to try to create a vague link between all LGBTQ people and cases of child abuse.

What started on the fringes, with conservative activists riding the coattails of last year’s anti-critical race theory moral panic, crossed over into mainstream media during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson last month. Sens. Josh Hawley (R-MO), Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) questioned the future justice’s thinking on gender, child abuse, and race. As Georgetown professor Don Moynihan wrote about Hawley’s line of attack, the point was “to create an association between Jackson and this broader trope” of child predators running rampant in public institutions. That spawned a universe of outrage in conservative media, further buoying the legislative action underway in Republican states.

Historical examples abound for how these kinds of moral panics bolstered discriminatory action against LGBTQ people since the 1970s. In that decade, California conservatives rallied against gay and lesbian people to prevent them from working in public schools and anti-gay rights activist Anita Bryant led an effort to repeal anti-discrimination protections in Florida with her “Save Our Children” campaign.

Today’s “anti-grooming” line bears a resemblance to these old activist efforts, but it is becoming prevalent at a time when conservatives have lost many of the cultural and legal battles over gay rights and anti-discrimination protections, Cathryn Oakley, a senior counsel at the Human Rights Campaign, told me. Support for same-sex marriage has broad bipartisan support; a large majority of the country believes gay and lesbian people are “morally acceptable.” And those numbers have grown year over year.

“It’s very frustrating to see that we are having the same fight over and over again … but I believe that these folks are desperate. They have lost every fight they have picked on LGBT issues. They lost on trying to criminalize sodomy, they lost on marriage equality, they lost on bathroom bills, they lost on wedding services refusal — and we’re at 75 to 80 percent support for nondiscrimination laws,” she said.

Some of the loudest supporters of this effort have admitted this: “The alternative to the culture war is a culture surrender. There is no neutral option,” one reads. “The right needs to go scorched earth with ‘groomer,’” says another. “We are building a new model of conservative activism” with the grooming messaging, argues Christopher Rufo, a leading anti-critical race theory activist.

The rhetoric complements the institutional work that conservative think tanks are doing in pushing these bills. Lawmakers in these states have consulted organizations like the Alliance Defending Freedom, the Heritage Foundation, and American Principles Project in crafting proposals, Vice reported. (The Alliance Defending Freedom confirmed its involvement in a statement to Vox.) The progressive advocates I spoke with told me they see this feedback loop among radical activists, lawmakers, and think tanks as part of a more desperate ploy to use transgender people as a wedge issue to open the door to more mainstream attacks on trans and queer people in public life.

“We’re at this all-time high with people who are saying, ‘I don’t like anti-LGBT discrimination, I’m pro-nondiscrimination, this is my deal.’ And [conservatives] are losing their foothold,” Oakley said. “Where do they go from here? They pick on trans kids in the first place, because there are lots of well-meaning people who don’t totally understand what it means to be trans.”

This tension between well-meaning or naive Americans and their uneasiness with newer understandings of gender identity comes through in polling, which shows Americans remain a divided public on acceptance of trans people. Even a recent survey asking about Florida’s law shows one in four Democrats supports the policy. That gap worries advocates like Brandon Wolf, an activist with the group Equality Florida, who told me these bills are meant to exploit the general public’s lack of knowledge on trans people and create an opening for further attacks on queer and trans rights. So far, the scorched-earth strategy is working, but its staying power is being tested.

“Part of the strategy of the extremist right is to make so much noise that there isn’t space to have a really deep conversation about who people are,” he said. “We’re so busy trying to fight for the basic dignity and humanity of people that it becomes difficult to find the bandwidth or the spaces to share people’s stories. But that’s our challenge. That’s our job right now.”