Tom Ammiano has heard rhetoric like this before.
Ammiano was teaching in San Francisco when he came out as gay the mid-1970s during a fight for workplace protections.
“The name-calling was not only on the playground but within the teachers lounge,” Ammiano told VICE News.
Social conservatives soon launched a statewide campaign to bar gay and lesbian people from working in California public schools, warning that they were trying to “recruit” children to the “gay lifestyle” and prey on them sexually. Those pushing for the ban weren’t subtle with their message, naming their organization “Defend Our Children.”
Now, as social conservatives introduce a raft of anti-LGBTQ legislation focused on classrooms and LGBTQ teens, like Florida’s new “Don’t Say Gay” law, they’ve resurrected some rhetoric that’s strikingly similar to that used during the 1978 campaign that Ammiano, Harvey Milk, Sally Miller Gearhart, and many others organized to defeat. They claim that anyone who mentions LGBTQ issues in the classroom is sexually “grooming” children, conflating a term that’s long been used to describe pedophiles training kids to accept their sexual assault to smear their opponents as sexual predators.
“There’s a kind of a déjà vu,” said Ammiano, who later was elected as a Democrat to the San Francisco board of supervisors and the California state assembly. “These people are insinuating that you're going to come into the classroom and expose your genitals and talk about sex acts.”
Meet the new right, same as the old right
When LGBTQ activists effectively branded Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Parental Rights in Education bill the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, DeSantis’ allies fired back by accusing them of supporting “grooming.”
“The bill that liberals inaccurately call 'Don't Say Gay' would be more accurately described as an Anti-Grooming Bill,” DeSantis Press Secretary Christina Pushaw tweeted in March. “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.”
DeSantis hasn’t used the term himself, but his language hasn’t been far off. Flanked by signs reading “protect children” as he signed the bill into law last week, DeSantis claimed those who oppose the bill support “sexualizing kids in kindergarten.”
Similar bills have been filed by Republican lawmakers in other states—and Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene pledged to introduce a national version last Wednesday, declaring, “I will do anything I can to protect kids.”
Social conservatives didn’t sound that different back in the ’70s. In 1978, California Republican state Sen. John Briggs, the proposition’s author, framed that debate as “whether or not we’re going to have homosexuals teaching immorality in the classrooms of this country.”
“We cannot prevent child molestation, so let's cut our odds down and take out the homosexual group [of teachers],” Briggs said during one TV debate.
Briggs’ initiative was modeled on singer and anti-gay-rights activist Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign, which successfully repealed an anti-discrimination law in Dade County, Florida, that protected gays and lesbians.
“What these people really want, hidden behind obscure legal phrases, is the legal right to propose to our children that theirs is an acceptable alternate way of life,” Bryant claimed then. “As a mother, I know that homosexuals cannot biologically reproduce children; therefore, they must recruit our children.”
Cathryn Oakley, the senior counsel of the pro-LGTBQ Human Rights Campaign, said the rhetoric she’s hearing now from legislators pushing anti-LGBTQ bills is “the same stuff” as homophobic attacks from decades past—just repackaged.
“What they think is appealing in the moment is implying that kids aren't actually trans, that they can't actually be LGBTQ unless someone is making them be that way,” she told VICE News. “Whether that's their teachers, whether that's something they see in their schoolbooks, whether it's their doctors and their parents ‘forcing’ gender-affirming care on them—that it's not an authentic identity to be respected. It's something that's being pushed and peddled and groomed.”
Ammiano sees a clear political reason why groups now are seeking to connect trans and gay people to the toxic term.
“This is a great fundraiser, a great cash cow,” Ammiano said. “Children are always a good element to use to get people's blood boiling or to convince them that they're in danger.”
The American Principles Project, one of the main organizations pushing this raft of new legislation, deployed the word “groomed” in a recent fundraising plea.
“The Left wants to sexualize YOUR CHILDREN—even in the classroom,” the group declared. “Thankfully, Governor DeSantis passed legislation to protect children from being groomed and sexualized by the Left. However, this means only children in FLORIDA are safe—there are still 49 STATES where this kind of abuse is still legal.”
American Principles Project President Terry Schilling defended his group’s rhetoric and claimed to VICE News that there’s a “new generation of public school teachers who are hellbent on grooming these kids to be LGBT citizens.”
“Maybe it’s a little bit different from a pedophile specifically grooming a child for their own sexual gratification, but this is a form of grooming,” Schilling said. “We have all different types of definitions of rape, right? There’s date-rape, there’s all types of rape. So I think this is a type of grooming, grooming children to be sexually active at the youngest ages. And it’s crazy to me.”
The Oxford English Dictionary defines grooming as “the action by a pedophile of preparing a child for a meeting, especially via an internet chat room, with the intention of committing a sexual offense.” The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), the country’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, defines it as “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.”
‘Call them groomers and pedophiles’
This language is pulled straight out of an old social-conservative political playbook. The first prong of their argument is the claim that LGBTQ people are sexual predators, even though scientific studies have shown that straight and cisgender adults are just as likely to be child abusers as LGBTQ adults. The other longtime “grooming” argument echoes another social conservative scare tactic: that the “gay agenda” involves recruiting children.
Conservatives clearly believe the latest version of this attack has potency.
“Call them groomers and pedophiles if they oppose it. Put THEM on the defensive. Make THEM afraid. Make THEM avoid talking about it,” nationally syndicated radio show host Jesse Kelly tweeted last month. “You have the high ground. Use it to destroy your enemy.”
Fox News host Laura Ingraham did a whole segment on the term, with the on-screen text reading “Liberals are sexually grooming elementary students.” Prominent conservative radio host and blogger Erick Erickson declared, “Progressives really are becoming groomers of children.”
And just like in the ’70s, conservatives are framing the debate as a question of parental rights.
“Parents’ rights have been increasingly under assault around the nation,” DeSantis declared at last week’s bill signing, arguing that the law’s opponents “support enabling schools to transition students to a different gender without the knowledge of the parent.”
That sounds a lot like Briggs, who claimed his proposition would protect “the rights of parents to determine who will be a proper role model for their children in the California classroom.”
Some of those using the term argue they’re not talking specifically about LGBTQ people when they use the term “grooming.”
“I have never once singled out LGBTQ people, because groomers (child predators) can be of any orientation or identity,” Pushaw, DeSantis’ press secretary, told VICE News in an email. “Your assumption that criticism of grooming is criticism of the LGBTQ community equates LGBTQ people to groomers, which is both bigoted and inaccurate. Do better. And, any adult who wants to discuss sexual and gender identity topics with other people’s 5- to 8-year-old children—while keeping this a secret from their parents—is either a groomer or is complicit in promoting an environment where grooming becomes normalized.”
Pushaw said the law doesn’t “single out or mention LGBTQ people,” which is technically true but misleading—the bill specifically prohibits “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity” for children in third grade or younger.
Anti-trans bills reach an all-time high
Schilling’s organization, along with the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Heritage Foundation, have been behind a significant upsurge in state-level legislation to eliminate protections for gay and trans youth or ban discussion of LGBTQ issues in public schools. At least 166 anti-LGBTQ bills across the country are currently under consideration, according to Freedom for All Americans, including 75 bills that, like Florida’s, seek to limit what can be discussed in classrooms. The language of the Florida law is vague, seemingly designed to discourage any talk of LGBTQ issues at any stage of public education.
The Human Rights Campaign tracked an all-time high of 79 anti-trans bills in 2019. That record didn’t last long—there were 150 bills in 2021, and more than 130 have already been filed this year.
Social conservatives claim their nationwide efforts are aimed at protecting children. But many of their bills specifically target LGBTQ youth, such as barring trans youth from high school athletics or preventing them from accessing gender-affirming medical care. The Florida law explicitly bans “discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity” in classrooms for students through third grade and bars discussion of the topic that isn’t “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate” for older students.
The onslaught of legislation is scaring LGBTQ youth, who face disproportionately high depression and anxiety rates and are four times more likely to attempt suicide than other young people.
Two-thirds of all LGBTQ youth—and 85 percent of trans and nonbinary youth—said recent debates about state laws restricting the rights of transgender people have negatively affected their mental health, according to recent Morning Consult polling for the Trevor Project, an LGBTQ suicide and crisis-prevention organization. Two in five LGBTQ youth had “seriously considered” suicide in the past year, according to a late-2021 survey from the organization.
Casey Pick, the Trevor Project’s senior fellow for advocacy and government affairs, said that many kids who’ve reached out to the organization’s 24/7 crisis hotline and forums have brought up the surge in legislation and the “grooming” rhetoric around it.
“They tell us that they are contemplating self-harm or suicidality because of the hostile environment they find themselves in,” she told VICE News.
“This rhetoric is dangerous, and it's a throwback. LGBTQ people have been wrongly accused of preying on children for decades,” she continued. “[Grooming] is a word that has tremendous power and is incredibly dangerous.”
Schilling called the high rates of suicide and depression among LGBTQ youth “tragic,” but he argued it was because pro-LGBTQ people tell them “your body is wrong, and you need to alter it in order for you to not commit suicide.”
But a peer-reviewed study conducted by the Trevor Project found that trans youth were much less likely to contemplate suicide if their family and community affirmed their gender.
The American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics both support access to gender-affirming medical care for trans youth because it saves lives.
Pick personally knows the lasting impact institutional hostility to LGBTQ youth can create. She said when she came out as gay in high school, her mother kicked her out of the house and changed the locks. She spent her senior year sleeping on her best friend’s floor. Her grades tanked from the stress, and she had to attend junior college for a year before she could transfer to college.
She says that even elementary school–aged children have been reaching out to the Trevor Project’s crisis lines—both kids who are LGBTQ themselves and kids with LGBTQ parents.
“There's no age that is too young to talk about welcoming and affirming LGBTQ young people,” she said. “They deserve to be able to talk about their families and include their families in their education, same as any of their peers. We're not a threat. We're just people. And we deserve the same rights and dignities and opportunities as anybody else.”