Attempting to defend Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, House Bill 1557, Christina Pushaw, the press secretary for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, accused the bill’s opponents of preying on children. “The bill that liberals inaccurately call ‘Don’t Say Gay’ would be more accurately described as an Anti-Grooming Bill,” Pushaw wrote on Twitter, ahead of a vote in the state Senate. If you are against the bill, she added, “you are probably a groomer.” Those opponents would include gay Florida state Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith, who called this out as a “bigoted attack,” to which Pushaw replied, “A hit dog hollers.”
Last week, H.B. 1557 passed the state legislature and headed to DeSantis’s desk (where he will most likely—but hasn’t yet—signed it into law). The resulting scramble to defend the Florida bill to a national audience has led the “grooming” charge to circulate more widely and perhaps more explicitly than it has before. On Fox last week, Laura Ingraham threw in behind DeSantis and the bill, scolding Democrats for calling the bill “bigoted” when “the real controversy” is “schools peddling gender ideology,” and calling schools “grooming centers.” In the Fox pantheon, “grooming” is being teed up as the next “critical race theory.”
The following day, Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel noted that a repurposed clip from a 2019 Pete Buttigieg documentary was “being passed around like samizdat” on right-wing social media, and commented, “I’m seeing the term ‘grooming’ thrown around more and more frequently to describe stuff like this: Adult gay teachers talking about sexuality to teens.” A few days after that, columnist Monica Hesse ran down these recent examples and asked, “Do people really believe talking about gayness and LGBTQ topics in any way constitutes ‘grooming’ behavior?”
That’s certainly part of it, but with legislation like the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, the imagined bogeyman threatening kids is more specific. Ingraham nailed it: The “real controversy” is what the right calls “gender ideology,” a term itself borrowed from “gender critical” anti-trans activists, who—it turns out—also helped popularize the specifically anti-trans “grooming” claim years before “Don’t Say Gay” made headlines.
The “grooming” claim may have only begun to receive notice after Florida, but it has been central to the massive national
Republican effort to accrue more power by targeting trans and queer children
and teenagers, along with their families, health care providers, and educators.
“Grooming,” after all, is a term one is more likely to come across in discussions
of child sex trafficking to describe the real ways adults try to gain the trust
of minors in order to exploit and violate them. Here, the right is using the reality
of child abuse to raise unfounded fears and panic about criminal and predatory
behavior hiding in plain sight. The right wants to normalize the idea that
anyone who isn’t straight and cisgender should live under the threat of
surveillance, criminalization, and worse. If your “enemies” are an ill-defined
yet pervasive threat to children, what wouldn’t be justified in stopping them?
A survey of where things stand right now with anti-trans legislation can illustrate what the “grooming” charge is meant to win in the so-called culture war. In Alabama and in Idaho, at least one side of the state legislature has advanced bills banning puberty blockers and hormone replacement medications. These are just two of at least 30 such bills introduced in more than a dozen states in the first months of 2022, with the shared premise that gender-affirming health care is tantamount to abuse, that adults who support or provide it are abusers, and that the existence of trans kids is a threat to other kids.
“Alabama lawmakers are casting my daughter as a problem to be fixed, a predator to be thwarted, and an aberration to be erased,” wrote an Alabama parent of a trans child. The Alabama bill, Senate Bill 184, which cleared the state Senate and could come to a vote in the House this week, would not only ban puberty blockers and hormone replacement for anyone up to age 19, it would also consider such treatments a felony, with prison sentences of up to 10 years.
The Idaho bill, H.B. 675, would add puberty blockers and hormone replacement medications to the state’s “female genital mutilation” statute, with a potential penalty of life imprisonment. Parents who travel out of state with their trans kids to seek treatment would also face punishment. Though the Idaho bill passed the state House, on Tuesday, the state Senate majority caucus—all Republicans—issued a statement saying that they could not support H.B. 675 because they believe it infringes on parental rights, but all the same, the caucus “strongly opposes any and all gender reassignment and surgical manipulation of the natural sex of minors.”
Arizona and Tennessee are at the forefront of introducing multiple health care bans and seeing what makes it through. One of the Arizona health care bans was introduced by state Senator Wendy Rogers, who was recently censured by the state Senate after speaking at a white nationalist conference. A different health care ban, S.B. 1138, is awaiting a full vote in the House, having passed the Senate and the House Judiciary Committee. After protests, amendments to S.B. 1138 removed the bans on puberty blockers and hormone replacement medication but preserved a surgical ban. One of the new proposed restrictions in Tennessee, H.B. 2835, would, as in other states, ban puberty blockers and hormone treatments for trans youth under 18, and it requires state employees—like teachers—to report any trans kids to their parents. Tennessee already passed a ban last year on prescribing hormone treatments for trans youth prior to puberty—“which health care providers are not doing,” the Tennessee Equality Project said at the time. “The point of it was a slap in the face and [possible] future restrictions.”
Texas, of course, has set the standard: Bombard advocates and see what gets through. Despite state Republican efforts to pass nearly 50 anti-trans bills when it was in session in 2021, the Texas state legislature failed to pass a health care ban. But that didn’t stop Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who relied on a directive by state Attorney General Ken Paxton to investigate the parents of trans kids for child abuse.
Within days, a mother of a trans child was put on leave from her job at the state’s child welfare agency; she and a psychologist who sees trans adolescents filed a legal challenge earlier this month. Last week, a judge in Travis County granted a statewide injunction. While that challenge makes it through the courts, any ongoing investigations into families should be on hold, but Paxton claims otherwise, with families and health care providers in the state still unclear if they remain targets. They have good reason to worry: In hearings related to the legal challenge, we have learned that Texas child protection investigators were instructed to pursue every complaint concerning trans children, even if they believed it was unfounded, and to keep no records. Before the injunction, nine such investigations were reportedly already in progress, and countless parents planned to leave the state. Given the claims Paxton is making about the injunction and the swiftness with which he and Abbott moved, trans kids in Texas remain in a dangerous limbo—which, many feel, was the whole point. Texas Republicans didn’t even need the law to score this cruel win.
The Abbott and Paxton anti-trans directive coincided with the Texas state primary elections, and Abbott’s campaign said it was a winning issue for them. Maybe that’s the case in a Republican primary, but it doesn’t necessarily stand statewide. Nationally, Texas is now the poster child for the Republican anti-trans moral panic, with women’s and reproductive health groups speaking out, likening the attacks to the Texas anti-abortion bill, S.B. 8. Sixty “major corporations,” including Apple, Facebook, and Salesforce, also called on Abbott and Paxton to stop this campaign, an effort organized by the Human Rights Campaign. When Texas state legislature candidate When Jeffrey Younger—who arguably kicked off the campaign to label gender-affirming health care child abuse as part of his own contentious (and losing) custody battle—made a recent campaign appearance at the University of North Texas, students drowned him out with chants of “fucking fascist.” (Younger, of course, called the students “antifa rioters.”)
Like DeSantis, who still claims his bill doesn’t say what it says, Abbott and Paxton’s defense was to deny that their directives said what they did about child abuse. It’s MAGA old hat to invoke an alternate reality, but it also takes advantage of what the public doesn’t know about trans people. “I think what we’re seeing is an effort to leverage and weaponize misinformation, particularly about trans people, to mobilize a political base in the lead-up to 2022 and 2024,” said Chase Strangio, deputy director for transgender justice at the American Civil Liberties Union, in an interview last week on Democracy Now. The strategy is further fueled by years of voter-suppression efforts, he continued. “This is happening in statehouses across the country that are deeply gerrymandered, that have shifted incredibly far to the right, as a result in large part [of] the Supreme Court’s decision in 2013 to gut the Voting Rights Act with the Shelby County v. Holder decision.”
Viewed this way, this nationwide strategy, developed by conservative and Christian right groups over at least a decade, is both an obvious play to accrue more power and a dangerous attempt to make life miserable and intolerable for queer and trans people. Advocates for trans and queer rights have very clearly laid out how high the stakes for LGBTQ people are and how big the right’s ambitions are. “There is a dynamic process,” said Strangio, “that is mobilizing state control over people’s bodies through voter suppression structures in order to make it harder for people to survive.”
DeSantis supporters like his spokesperson Christina Pushaw use the “grooming” charge in order to reject the accurate assessment that the “Don’t Say Gay” bill is meant to marginalize and stigmatize LGBTQ people by deeming mention of their existence “inappropriate” for children. At the same time, Pushaw claims that H.B. 1557 “doesn’t single out the LGBT community,” that “the only people who singled out the LGBT community are the opponents of the bill, who have been baselessly accusing us of homophobia.” In this way, Republicans advancing these bills are using them to fuel a disinformation economy, in which we are told that if we oppose the bills, we are a threat. That only underscores the worldview these bills are seeking to impose on a country in which there have always been gender-nonconforming people and there have always been queer people, even if those were not always the words we used. These bills are the response to queer and trans communities who have spent decades trying to make the world a bit easier for the generations who followed. These bills say that our self-determination and our care for one another is a threat to children.
In weaponizing “grooming” against not only queer and trans people but all opponents of the MAGA agenda, the Republican Party is drawing on last century’s multiple bad-faith Christian right “Save the Children” crusades, on two decades of a failed “war” on sex trafficking, on deep wells of QAnon feeling, and on gender-critical harassment campaigns. Going after grooming allows you to remain respectable among the Heritage Foundation set while activating legions of people already willing to pitch into everything from online harassment, charging liberals with baby-eating, to joining an insurrection in progress. “Grooming” is saying both the quiet and the loud part. “Grooming” threatens to be a midterm priority and a statement of intent for the future the right wants. It’s a future without a lot of us in it.