The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

GOP turns to false insinuations of LGBTQ grooming against Democrats

Michigan state Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D) on April 19, decried the unfounded "pedophile" and "groomer" allegations made by fellow state Sen. Lana Theis (R). (Video: Michigan Senate)
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When Michigan Democratic state Sen. Mallory McMorrow stood on the chamber floor to take on a Republican colleague who had accused her of wanting to sexually groom children, she was denouncing not just an isolated incident, but an onslaught of GOP attacks on the LGBTQ community.

“I know that hate will only win if people like me stand by and let it happen,” McMorrow said in a Senate floor speech Tuesday that swiftly went viral, gaining nearly 12 million views within a day.

The rapid escalation in public support for the LGBTQ community’s rights in recent years had quieted much of the blatant homophobia in the nation’s political discourse. But, in recent weeks, Republicans have reverted to verbal and legal assaults on the community, sometimes employing baseless tropes that suggest children are being groomed or recruited by defenders of gay rights. The efforts ahead of the midterm elections are intended to rile up the Republican base and fill the campaign coffers of its candidates, without offering evidence that any Democrat had committed a repugnant crime.

Coming nearly seven years after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, the rhetorical attacks and attempts to pass scores of anti-LGBTQ legislation nationwide have sent a bracing signal of animus to the LGBTQ community and particularly to transgender youth who have been targeted in many states.

Michigan state Sen. Mallory McMorrow's response to a suggestion she wanted to groom children.

In Michigan, McMorrow had been one of three Democrats to walk out of an invocation that GOP state Sen. Lana Theis gave on the Senate floor a week ago, during which she prayed for children “under attack” from “forces.” After the walkout, Theis accused McMorrow by name in a fundraising email of wanting to “groom and sexualize kindergartners.”

In her response to Theis on the Senate floor, McMorrow called herself “the biggest threat to your hollow, hateful scheme.”

“Because you can’t claim that you’re targeting marginalized kids in the name of ‘parental rights’ if another parent is standing up and saying no. … People who are different are not the reason our roads are in bad shape, or health care costs are too high, or teachers are leaving the profession,” she said.

“We cannot let hateful people tell you otherwise to scapegoat and deflect from the fact that they’re not doing anything to fix the real issues that impact people’s lives.”

McMorrow said in an interview Wednesday that the fundraising letter demanded a public repudiation. “That was the end of it, I couldn’t just say nothing,” McMorrow said.

The viral attention her remarks received “sends a really clear message that we have to stand up and we can’t be afraid of going in on social issues,' she added. “We have to talk about hate and identify it and say it’s ugly and disgusting and what it means as a deflection of other issues.”

Theis did not respond to a request for a comment. But her characterization was in keeping with other attempts to portray Democratic supporters of gay rights as, at minimum, aiding pedophiles.

The new thrust counters the decision by most Republican politicians in recent years to largely avoid the subject of LGBTQ rights given widespread support from Americans. The party in 2004 had mounted multiple state campaigns against same-sex marriage in an effort to boost turnout for President George W. Bush’s reelection effort, but the nation’s views have changed sharply since that time.

Republicans recently have used language similar to Theis’s to attack their critics who speak out against the ramped-up efforts to restrict protections for LGBTQ youth. They have specifically referenced the notion of “grooming,” which is used to denote adults sexualizing children.

Several weeks ago, as Florida Republicans were pushing legislation to ban discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in classrooms up to third grade, Gov. Ron DeSantis’s press secretary, Christina Pushaw, made an audacious claim on Twitter about the measure Democrats referred to as the “don’t say gay” bill.

“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. Silence is complicity. This is how it works, Democrats, and I didn’t make the rules,” Pushaw said. In response to a request for comment, Pushaw said Wednesday that she had not singled out LGBTQ people as groomers “because groomers can be of any orientation or identity.”

Critics responded in outrage while other Republicans made similar accusations.

“The Democrats are the party of pedophiles. The Democrats are the party of princess predators from Disney,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga,) said in an interview she posted on Twitter. “The Democrats are the party of elementary school teachers, trying to transition their elementary-school aged children and convince them they’re a different gender. This is the party of their identity, and their identity is the most disgusting, evil, horrible things happening in our country.”

The language echoes that of QAnon conspiracy theorists, who Greene regularly endorsed during her time as a conservative provocateur before she ran for Congress. QAnon followers believed powerful Democrats were running a secret child sex trafficking ring and that President Donald Trump would expose it.

“We’re seeing the recycling of tropes; there are go-to tropes that people use and this notion that somehow a child being taught in school is “grooming” them to have a particular sexual orientation,” said Sharon McGowan, legal director of Lambda Legal, a national LGBTQ advocacy organization. “I do think we saw a complete disregard for some of the norms during the Trump era, there was a brazenness packaged as, ‘I’m not afraid to say the hard truths;' now they’re wearing the more outrageous, more offensive as a badge of pride.”

McMorrow, the Michigan Democrat, draws a direct line from the QAnon-inspired falsehoods about the 2020 presidential election and the resurgence of anti-LGBTQ attacks.

“If people don’t trust elections then it opens the door really quickly to believing the government is run by a Satanist cabal of pedophiles and they’ll stop at nothing in the name of protecting kids,” she said. “We don’t have that much time, we need to reach out to everybody and tell them, there’s hate and then there’s people who want to make the government work, and that’s the choice.”

The groomer accusation is only one element in the revival of LGBTQ-focused battles popping up in campaigns across the country. Vernon Jones, a Black Republican congressional candidate in Georgia endorsed by Trump, argued recently that gay rights are not civil rights, claiming falsely that a person can choose to “go from being straight to being gay to being transgender and all these other genders.”

Several Republican U.S. senators pressed Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson during her confirmation hearing to define “man” or “woman,” a question intended to denigrate transgender or nonbinary people.

“The fact that you can’t give me a straight answer about something as fundamental as what a woman is underscores the dangers of the kind of progressive education that we are hearing about,” Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) told her.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) pressed Brown Jackson about the legal underpinnings of the Supreme Court’s legalization of same-sex marriage, suggesting it was a faulty decision.

Blackburn’s state is leading the country in the number of anti-LGBTQ bills introduced, according to data from Freedom for All Americans, an advocacy group tracking such measures.

In Tennessee, many of the 31 bills introduced so far this year target transgender youth, including one that expanded Florida’s bill restricting LGBTQ discussion bill to prohibit instruction mentioning gender and sexual orientation education through 12th grade. Another measure would allow school personnel to disregard a student’s preferred pronouns if they don’t match the gender on the student’s birth certificate. A third would create a separate marriage contract for couples of the opposite sex, intended to publicly distinguish those marriages from same-sex ones.

Chris Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, said the trend has been disheartening, but not surprising.

“It’s painful, but I never expected progress to be perfectly linear,” he said. “We take a lot of zigzags to get where we’re trying to go as a community,” he said. “Even when you expect the pain, it doesn’t mean it’s not painful and the anticipation of it can be quite bad too. The right is very innovative and working very hard at the local and state level across the country and I anticipate many culture war battles for years to come.”

Charles Moran, president of the Log Cabin Republicans, a group that supports gay rights, said he was caught off guard by the recent onslaught of LGBTQ-focused legislation, but that he wasn’t opposed to all of it, especially efforts to block discussion of gender with children.

“Gender reidentification is not a gay rights issue,” Moran said. “You can be pro-LGBT rights and pro-parental rights. The far right would love nothing more than to say, ‘Look, we gave them marriage and now they’re going for the whole society’.”

Moran said he doesn’t support using the term “grooming” as some Republicans have — “it does go back to a time when people assumed if you were gay you were a pedophile,” he said — but he slammed Democrats for “screaming about these tropes who spent the last four years calling me a Nazi for supporting Donald Trump.”

But Kate Oakley, senior counsel at the Human Rights Campaign, said while attacks on the LGBTQ community never disappeared, the scale and vitriol have increased recently.

“The escalation is new. The saying the quiet part out loud is new, but the underlying animus of this is the same fear that we have seen,” Oakley said. “It’s just that they’re no longer feeling the compunction to wrap it up in a polite bow.

Caroline Anders contributed to this report.