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Lawmakers across dozens of mostly Republican-led states have passed or introduced a record number of anti-LGBTQ bills this year, per a CNN analysis of data gathered by the American Civil Liberties Union, and this legislative assault has been attended by discourse on the political right denigrating LGBTQ people.
In June, for instance, members of the extremist group the Proud Boys barged into the San Lorenzo Library in California and interrupted Drag Queen Story Hour. One of the insults they reportedly tossed: “groomer” – a term that maligns LGBTQ people as child predators.
Mere days later, Christopher Rufo, the activist who powered the “critical race theory” panic, invited his fellow conservatives to “start using the phrase ‘trans stripper’ in lieu of ‘drag queen’” because the former “has a more lurid set of connotations and shifts the debate to sexualization,” and “‘trans strippers in schools’ anchors an unstoppable argument.”
The following month, Florida Republican state Rep. Anthony Sabatini declared menacingly, “Florida to Groomers: your days are numbered.” This perversion of the term “grooming” can draw attention away from the real scourge of child abuse often enabled by predatory adults who groom child victims. Notably, Sabatini also said over the summer that he intends to propose legislation targeting parents who bring their children to drag shows.
Together, these examples snap into focus the prevalence of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric in our present day. As the midterm elections approach and political leaders test out their values, it’s worth looking a little bit more closely at the issue:
Last week, Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana introduced a measure, which was co-sponsored by dozens of other Republicans, that some describe as a national version of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, as critics call it.
“The Democrat (sic) Party and their cultural allies are on a misguided crusade to immerse young children in sexual imagery and radical gender ideology,” Johnson said in a statement about the bill, which groups sexual orientation and gender identity with pornography and stripping and aims to prohibit “the use of federal funds to develop, implement, facilitate, or fund any sexually-oriented program, event or literature for children under the age of 10.”
Gender ideology: It’s a decades-old term many Republican leaders have embraced in recent months that mischaracterizes gender – a social construct of norms and behaviors that doesn’t necessarily align with the sex someone was assigned at birth – as an attack on “traditional” home dynamics. Similarly heightened anxieties around gender were detectable in 2016, when so-called bathroom bills sought to block transgender and gender non-conforming people’s access to public accommodations. And, this year, the Republican candidate for governor of Minnesota echoed a debunked claim that schools are telling students that they can choose to identify as anthropomorphic cats and use litter boxes.
According to the UC Berkeley philosopher Judith Butler, what the anti-gender ideology movement calls gender is a fiction – a phantasm.
“It’s not really what people in gender studies mean by gender,” they told CNN. “(The movement is) imagining something that will destroy civilization or man or the family or society as we know it. So, gender is given enormous power that it doesn’t have.”
Butler, the author of the 1990 book, “Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity,” explained that most people who work on gender or ways of thinking about biology, culture or society hold to a more interactive model of the world.
“Society affects our biology, our physiology, the environments that we’re brought up in. And what from those environments we absorb or fail to absorb affects who we are,” they said. “When we’re talking about gender identity, it has a psychic and social dimension that’s not determined by biology.”
The University of Southern California critical studies professor madison moore expressed similar sentiments earlier this year, as attacks on drag – which challenges rigid notions of gender and which the measure targets – appeared to spike in cities across the country.
“If you’re a more conservative-minded person, then you likely have a specific idea of what it means to be in your body and how to live your life,” he told CNN. “Some conservatives see drag as ‘indoctrination.’ I would say that it’s just showing that there are more options. You don’t actually have to be confined to the little box you were assigned at birth.”
Butler worries about the risks the anti-gender ideology movement poses to children who are simply seeking out a more livable life for themselves.
“If we think about the states denying the rights of transgender youth or gender-nonconforming youth to health care, including mental health care, that’s hurting children,” they said. “It’s hurting children who are trying to move out of the despair of being subjected to a set of social expectations that are just not acceptable to them. Those kids are suffering.”
Or as Emmett Schelling, the executive director of the Transgender Education Network of Texas, bluntly put it to NPR in February after Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott told state agencies to conduct investigations into gender-affirming care for transgender youth as “child abuse,” “The state leadership has said, ‘We would rather see dead children … instead of happy, loved, supported, thriving trans kids that are alive and well.’”
Johnson’s bill shines a light on another example of anti-LGBTQ language.
“Parents and legal guardians have the right and responsibility to determine where, if, when, and how their children are exposed to material of a sexual nature,” the text reads.
The measure is couched in the noble, ostensibly anodyne language of parental rights. But the bill seems designed less to secure rights for parents and more to quash discussions about sensitive topics, including sexual orientation and gender identity. It’s a strategy that many Republican politicians use to mask their deeper ambitions, according to the Pepperdine University law professor and historian Edward Larson.
Florida, to take one example, “enacted a new statute barring teaching about sexual orientation through third grade. Dubbed by critics as the ‘Don’t Say Gay Law,’ the statute officially carries a Bryanesque title, the ‘Parental Rights in Education Act,’” Larson wrote in a September piece for The Washington Post charting “parental rights” back to the politician William Jennings Bryan’s “crusade against the teaching of evolution in schools” in the early 20th century.
(Interestingly, “parental rights” claims also were commonplace in the 1990s: Among conservatives “who disagree with public school policies on such troublesome issues as sex education, condom distribution, and school prayer, the buzzword these days is ‘parental rights,’” the writer Mark Walsh noted for Education Week in 1996.)
Butler underlined the perils of this kind of parental control, and in particular stressed the value of protecting education as a form of open inquiry and debate.
“I think that the truth of the situation is that people who teach sex education or people in gender studies who seek to teach about feminism, transgender rights and queer movements – these are efforts to open up a conversation that’s been shut down for so long,” they said. “We’re opening up questions that are disturbing for some people, and they’re not willing to live with that disturbance. But that disturbance is necessary for education.”
In March, Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ then-press secretary, Christina Pushaw, made a claim that stunned and horrified many LGBTQ people and their allies.
“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,” Pushaw, who’s now the Florida governor’s rapid response director, tweeted, referring to opponents of the state’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
Her use of “groomer” is part of a resurgence of age-old homophobic language, especially the spurious idea that LGBTQ people are corrupting children.
“Historically, sexual minorities haven’t necessarily lined up with typical sex stereotypes, and, acutely, gay men have been accused of this,” the Georgia State University law professor Anthony Michael Kreis told CNN. “The idea is: This isn’t normal, natural behavior. And for the gay community to maintain a population, gay men in particular must recruit children.”
Maybe most infamously, the former beauty queen and Florida orange juice spokeswoman Anita Bryant weaponized this think-of-the-children rhetoric in the 1970s, when she led the “Save Our Children” coalition to repeal gay rights legislation in Miami and when there was a broader conservative movement to keep gay and lesbian teachers out of classrooms.
It’s hard to overstate the dangers of the “groomer” claim. More specifically, Kreis said, it could fuel various forms of discrimination.
“‘Groomer’ imposes a label that marks someone as predatory. We criminalize people who are predators and would take advantage of children – and rightly so,” he said. “But when you lump a group of people together and suggest, You’re all innately prone to criminal activity, you’re not only opening the door to legal discrimination – you’re enhancing the likelihood of people engaging in violent acts and hate crimes.”
The author Melissa Gira Grant summarized the risks of the “groomer” accusation when she wrote for The New Republic in March, “If your ‘enemies’ are an ill-defined yet pervasive threat to children, what wouldn’t be justified in stopping them?”
The possibility of discrimination is what worries Kreis as the country heads into the midterm elections.
“I fear that the rhetoric will take hold and people who believe it will gain power and attempt to legislate on it,” he said. “That’s the real danger, I think – that people who believe animus-based ideologies will have power and will try to use it to harm LGBTQ communities.”