Political operatives in Florida are as aware as anyone that language is a powerful tool. It’s why liberal activists have spent considerable effort unofficially rebranding the “Parental Rights in Education Bill” — a piece of legislation that limits what classrooms can discuss about sexual orientation and gender identity — as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. “Parental Rights in Education” sounds unobjectionable and benign. “Don’t Say Gay” makes the argument that the bill seems concerned mostly with the rights of parents who are squeamish about gay people.
Conservatives have responded with their own unofficial branding, and — oh boy. “The bill that liberals inaccurately call ‘Don’t Say Gay’ would be more accurately described as an Anti-Grooming Bill,” tweeted Christina Pushaw, press secretary for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), last week. “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.”
Lot to unpack here, but let’s start with terminology: “Grooming,” as defined by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), is “manipulative behaviors that the abuser uses to gain access to a potential victim, coerce them to agree to the abuse, and reduce the risk of being caught.” As examples, RAINN lists adults encouraging children to keep secrets, or escalating nonsexual contact, like hugging or wrestling into sexual contact. Grooming does not have anything to do with sexual orientation or gender identity. It’s molesters who groom, regardless of whether they’re gay or straight.
Pushaw’s tweet was telling. It dropped any bland pretense of “parental rights in education” and appeared to allude to a much uglier position: that being gay or transgender, or even talking with kids about being gay or transgender, should be considered creepy and wrong.
Pushaw later told the Florida Phoenix that she wasn’t singling out LGBTQ issues and that she was referring to the mentioning of any “sexual topic” in schools, “whether it’s straight, LGBT or anything else.” Make of her defense what you will. But I find it hard to believe that Pushaw would classify a heterosexual female teacher talking to students about her husband as “grooming.”
The bill’s proponents behave as though the bill — which vaguely prohibits “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity” — is needed to prevent first-grade teachers from screening porn as part of their standard curriculum. But truly, where is that happening now?
“Grooming” has lately become a buzzword in anti-gay politics. It’s a way of expressing bigotry in the language of child welfare. It preys on every parent’s worst fear — someone harming their children — by insinuating that all gay or gender nonconforming people see their children as prey.
“When did our public schools, any schools, become what are essentially grooming centers for gender-identity radicals?” Laura Ingraham demanded recently on her show as she discussed the Florida bill. “As a mom, I think it’s appalling, it’s frightening, it’s disgusting, it’s despicable.”
“Pete Buttigieg’s husband is a groomer,” tweeted Sara Gonzales, a television host with Blaze TV, in response to a viral video of the transportation secretary’s spouse addressing children at an LGBTQ summer camp. In the video, campers repeat after Chasten as he recites a playful “pledge” to the rainbow flag, ending with, “affirmation and equal rights for all.”
In conservative circles online, the clip is presented as if it’s bombshell footage of a secret cult ritual. In actuality the clip is part of a documentary about Pete Buttigieg’s improbable presidential candidacy and his wholesome marriage. Chasten performed no grooming at this camp, unless at some point he and the campers currycombed a horse.
Or unless you presume, as Gonzales apparently does, that teaching children equality and self-acceptance is grooming them for anything other than a well-adjusted adulthood. Would she prefer they take a pledge of self-hatred?
Do people really believe talking about gayness and LGBTQ topics in any way constitutes “grooming” behavior? It’s possible. Homophobia makes people believe a lot of strange, awful things. Whatever the case, the word “groomer” seems to be part of a rhetorical shock campaign designed to end conversations, not to facilitate them.
“Call [liberals] groomers and pedophiles if they oppose [the Florida bill],” tweeted conservative syndicated radio host Jesse Kelly. “Put THEM on the defensive. Make THEM afraid. Make THEM avoid talking about it. You have the high ground. Use it to destroy your enemy.” He continued: “Stop worrying about what the media says. If they parrot Dem talking points, call them groomers too.”
It’s not exactly clear how much of all this is just strategic hyperbole. But whether the people who claim “grooming” understand that their rhetoric is overheated is beside the point. Even the suggestion that children are being somehow preyed on is potentially very dangerous. In 2016, a man entered Comet Ping Pong in Washington and fired a gun. He had been misinformed on conspiracy theory-riddled messageboards that the pizza restaurant was harboring a ring of pedophiles, and he drove several hundred miles to save the children.
To be clear, Kelly is not calling for physical violence. None of these activists or pontificators are. But they are exposing their followers to a loathsome rhetorical tactic based on the dehumanization of gay people. Over time, their followers might become conditioned to think denying gay people respect or acknowledgment is normal, even though it’s awful.
There’s a word you could use to describe that process, but it’s not one you should throw around.