“Grooming” Is Republicans’ Cruel New Buzzword for Targeting Trans Kids

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“Grooming” Is Republicans’ Cruel New Buzzword for Targeting Trans Kids

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.

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