Opinion As a gay kid, I felt the instinct to hide. I feel it again now.

(John Paul Brammer/The Washington Post)
(John Paul Brammer/The Washington Post)

I wasn’t too young, at age 6, to hear that “queers deserve a bullet between the eyes,” nor too young, at 7, to be called a “faggot” by my classmates, despite not knowing what the word meant. I wasn’t too young to start skipping the classes where I knew I’d be bullied right under the nose of an apathetic teacher, or too young to reach the conclusion I’d be better off dead. Before I was allowed to be a kid, before I had the chance to figure myself out, I was given an all-consuming directive, spoken and unspoken: Hide.

Years later, coming down from the highs of political victories into the throes of a moral panic where kids are being used as an excuse to target the LGBTQ community, I could swear I hear it again.

Last month — Pride Month — dozens of far-right extremists in Idaho were detained before they were able to incite a riot at a family-friendly event celebrating LGBTQ people. The same day, the Proud Boys descended on a California library’s children’s book reading to harass a drag queen, just one of many recently targeted. “Christian fascists” crowded Pride festivities in Dallas, strangers assaulted Pridegoers in Utah and online provocateurs described queer people as depraved or perverted or sick, all month long.

Now, Pride Month is receding, and with it much of the visible support we queer people get from outside our community. What will linger is the fearmongering, especially as legislation enshrines it: Eighteen states are targeting the relatively few transgender athletes who play youth sports. In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) instructed state agencies to investigate the parents of trans youth for child abuse. (The same day Abbott made the order, a 16-year-old trans boy attempted suicide. Weeks later, his family was investigated as alleged abusers.)

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Florida’s “don’t say gay” legislation is still the clearest way to explain this moment. Undergirding that law — and the rest of this panic, too — is a fresh attempt to cast all queer people as predators. The trope, now varnished in “groomer” Q-speak, asserts that LGBTQ people are collecting children to make more LGBTQ people. We’re sexualizing vulnerable youth, indoctrinating them into a degenerate lifestyle with the goal of bringing down the moral pillars of society, the nuclear family, God. It’s pure 1970s Anita Bryant, proselytizing that “homosexuals cannot reproduce, so they must recruit.”

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On an intellectual level, I’ve long understood that what we call “progress” isn’t guaranteed, that it’s not just as easy as saying “love won.” Bryant managed to win a rollback of queer people’s modest gains in the '70s; maybe Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), Libs of TikTok and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas can do it now.

But no amount of intellectualizing prepared me for the emotional toll of watching such a cultural regression. A knot in my stomach takes me back to my childhood, because I know kids will be the people most hurt by this cynical fear campaign that purports to protect them. Conservatives have even gone so far as to attack the Trevor Project, an LGBTQ youth-focused nonprofit that offers lifelines to prevent suicide.

To be so callous, you have to convince yourself that there is no way a young person could possibly know they are different somehow — that they would never come to identify as anything but cisgender and straight were it not for the nefarious interference of adults with ulterior motives. As a kid who was tormented nearly to death in rural Oklahoma, who didn’t know any gay adults and only found out what “gay” was thanks to the straight people who tarred him with the word, I know this is untrue. Like I was, today’s kids are not “too young.” They are not the political props reactionaries pretend them to be, with no inner worlds.

Of course kids are vulnerable, and of course the LGBTQ community has isolated bad actors. Every community does. Kids are hurt every day by their parents and their churches, by their teachers and their classmates, by the frightening, dangerous world they have inherited. What won’t hurt kids is encountering an adult saying it’s okay to be different, or, God forbid, a glammed-up queen reading “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.”

I can’t say I have much faith in the utility of pointing out the contradictions within homophobia and transphobia. Moral panics feed on illogic. What I do hope is that no one who considers themselves an ally stays silent but, instead, speaks up against this creeping hate. So many of us feel the old instinct to make ourselves invisible; tell us we don’t have to.

Silence, I know from personal experience, is where kids go to hide, and sometimes never come out again.