'Groomer' Is the New LGBTQ+ Slur—It’s Time To Fight Back
The new rhetoric from the right targets LGBTQ+ people with an insidious, inaccurate accusation.
Back when I first started to go to gay bars and clubs, of course as a far younger man, there was a common trope that “homosexuals” were out to recruit children. They even tried to pass a law in California forbidding gay people from being teachers, with the nasty insinuation that we were a threat to them.
It was a time I hoped never to see again.
But today, right-wing extremists are throwing the word “groomer” around, not just directed toward LGBTQ+ people, but toward anyone whom they want to demonize as pedophiles.
What is going on here, and how do we put a stop to it? That’s what we explore in today’s Big Picture.
— George Takei
On November 19, 2022, a gunman entered Club Q bar in Colorado Springs and began shooting. By the end of his spree, five people were dead and 17 others wounded.
The attack shocked the nation, but to many in the LGBTQ+ community there, the violence was the logical culmination of assaults upon their community by religious zealots and politicians who amped up their hateful rhetoric by accusing drag queens and trans people of sexualizing children.
Senior pastor Steve Holt of the Road at Chapel Hills, a local church, had preached transgender identity is "demonic" and the result of "massive evil." Similarly, Scott Bottoms, a pastor at the Church at Briargate who was elected as a local state representative in November, called drag performers "pedophiles" and then added the death penalty is "too nice for pedophiles.”
Across right-wing media, the hateful word of choice these days is “groomer”—which shamelessly and wrongfully implies children are the sexual targets of not just the LGBTQ+ community but of anyone seeking to educate around questions of gender identity and sexual orientation.
Because the right has co-opted this term and weaponized it to such deadly ends, it’s critical to unpack what’s going on.
What is a “Groomer"?
According to RAINN—the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network—which is the largest anti-sexual violence organization in the U.S., a “groomer” is someone who deploys manipulative behaviors to “gain access to a potential victim, coerce them to agree to the abuse, and reduce the risk of being caught.”
Groomer is thus a legitimate term relating to actual planned or ongoing sexual abuse.
And the right has hijacked the term in a dangerous way.
A true “groomer” is someone like Andrew Tate who, for example, gains young women’s trust by lavishing praise and attention upon them and offering to take them on trips, only to exploit them later when they are away from their families, friends and safety networks.
Why Co-Opt This Term?
The right understands there is something primal in human nature about wanting to protect more vulnerable members of society, such as young children.
Standing on the side of “the children” lends the right a sense of moral righteousness and certitude because, after all, nothing could be more important and good than protecting children from the evils of pedophilia.
For deeply cynical reasons, religious and racial minorities historically have been cast as threats to more vulnerable groups.
Mobs drove out Jews from towns in medieval Europe after falsely accusing them of killing Christian babies. In America, gangs of White terrorists tortured and lynched Black boys and men after falsely accusing them of raping—or wanting to rape—White women.
We hear echoes of the same story with the LGBTQ+ community.
Back in the 1970s, a woman named Anita Bryant campaigned to repeal a Florida ordinance prohibiting anti-gay discrimination. She called her organization "Save Our Children" and warned "a particularly deviant-minded teacher could sexually molest children."
Her fear-mongering worked, and the false label of “pedophile” stuck on every member of the gay community.
At the time, a national survey showed more than 70 percent of Americans agreed with the assertions "Homosexuals are dangerous as teachers or youth leaders because they try to get sexually involved with children" or "Homosexuals try to play sexually with children if they cannot get an adult partner."
But three decades later, only about 15 percent of people responded most gay men were likely to molest or abuse children. That showed a massive shift in public perception, which continued through to the 2020s.
But the right understood one thing clearly.
If it could frighten even a small percentage of the population and motivate them to action, it could wreak a great deal of havoc while providing a clarion call for hardcore extremists and a gusher of small-dollar donations.
Labeling Someone a “Groomer” Works
Unscrupulous politicians such as Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis and members of his senior staff led the attack recently by attempting to link their anti-LGBTQ+ rights and identity agenda to protecting kids.
His administration pressed forward in 2022 with the “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” bill which was based on the false premise educators providing fact-based information about gender and sexuality are somehow trying to “indoctrinate” students.
Facing pushback on the bill, DeSantis’ press secretary, Christina Pushaw, tweeted in March of 2022 that the bill would be “more accurately described as an Anti-Grooming Bill.” And in a follow-up tweet she claimed anyone who opposed the bill was “probably a groomer.”
With this shift, Pushaw was tapping into the murky world of QAnon, a wild conspiracy theory that falsely alleges Democratic politicians and Hollywood elites are kidnapping children to traffic them and harvest their blood and glands for youth serums.
As Aja Romano, culture editor for Vox, noted, this “harvesting the blood of virgins for immortality” tale “comes to us straight from medieval hysteria over witches.” Such conspiracies “sound exactly like the conspiracy theories that have been around for centuries” including the “blood libel” conspiracy that Jews were ritually murdering children.
Yet troublingly, bits of QAnon conspiracy theories have gone mainstream.
Guests on Fox and Friends recently suggested children were “being ripened for grooming for sexual abuse by adults” and America Reports guest Charlie Hurt claimed on the air that affirmative care for trans children “goes beyond just predatory grooming” into “psychological torture.”
Right-wing agitators aren’t even trying to hide their tactics.
Conservative talk radio host Jesse Kelly—advising how to defend the Don’t Say Gay or Trans bill—wrote:
"Call them groomers and pedophiles if they oppose it."
"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."
The “groomer” strategy even made its way shamelessly into the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, proving “pedo” and “groomer” are now just ways for the right to target anything it disagrees with.
After Missouri Republican Senator Josh Hawley falsely accused Jackson of granting lenient sentences to child pornographers (an untrue charge), the right piled on and aimed its rhetoric toward her supporters.
Georgia GOP Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted:
“Any Senator voting to confirm #KJB is pro-pedophile just like she is.”
But it wasn’t just fringe right politicians deploying this tactic shamelessly.
Mollie Hemingway of The Federalist commenting on Utah GOP Senator Mitt Romney’s vote to confirm Jackson, added her own awful take:
"The only new info since he voted against her a few months ago was increased awareness of her 'soft-on-pedos' approach, which makes this new Romney position super interesting."
The Attacks Have Gone Local
It’s one thing for politicians and Supreme Court nominees with lawyers and advisors to come under unfair fire, but the right has now taken the battle to the classroom and local libraries, where educators and librarians are being terrorized and falsely accused of supporting pedophilia.
Benny Johnson, who has over a million followers on social media and hosts a popular conservative show on the Newsmax network, took direct aim at teachers.
"If you believe perverted groomer teachers should be allowed to sexualize kindergartners and parents have no right to know or protest than [sic] you are a sunken demonic person. Find God."
And host Laura Ingraham of Fox News added her own uniquely terrible voice, asking her audience:
"When did our public schools, any schools, become what are essentially grooming centers for gender identity radicals?"
"As a mom, I think it's appalling, it's frightening, it's disgusting, it's despicable."
"Florida just passed a bill to keep this type of sexual brainwashing out of schools."
So How Should We Respond? Be Like Mallory
Mallory McMorrow, Democratic state senator in Michigan, woke up one morning and learned she had been labeled a “groomer” in the campaign fundraising email of her Republican colleague, state Senator Lana Theis of Brighton.
Theis’ campaign email began:
“These are the people we are up against.”
“Progressive social media trolls like Senator Mallory McMorrow (D-Snowflake) [are] outraged they…can’t groom and sexualize kindergarteners… can’t teach… that 8-year olds are responsible for slavery.”
As part of a rousing speech that gained national attention for its tone and clarity, McMorrow responded:
“I didn’t expect to wake up yesterday to the news that the senator from the 22nd District had overnight accused me by name of grooming and sexualizing children in an email fundraising for herself.”
“So I sat on it for a while wondering, ‘why me?’ And then I realized, because I am the biggest threat to your hollow, hateful scheme."
"Because you can’t claim that you are targeting marginalized kids in the name of ‘parental rights’ if another parent is standing up to say no.”
“I am a straight White Christian married suburban mom, who knows that the very notion that learning about slavery or redlining or systemic racism somehow means that children are being taught to feel bad or hate themselves because they are White, is absolute nonsense.”
“No child alive today is responsible for slavery. No one in this room is responsible for slavery."
"But each and every single one of us bears responsibility for writing the next chapter of history. Each and every single one of us decides what happens next, and how we respond to history and the world around us.”
As McMorrow bravely showed, the answer to extremists pointing fingers and shouting “witch!” is to call them out directly for their tactics—to assume the higher ground without apology and without condition.
The right needs deep public fear for its messaging to work.
Liberals and progressives must respond to “groomer” language with condemnation, courage, and conviction.
Importantly, we must unite in support of any person or community unjustly targeted so they cannot win through a divide-them-off strategy.
And when they throw around the term “groomer,” with all it is associated with, we need to turn it back on them.
The groomers are the ones instructing their kids how to hold and fire AR-15s. The groomers are the ones teaching kids how to hate in the name of their religion. The groomers are like right-wing misogynist Andrew Tate, who is sitting in a Romanian jail cell for sex trafficking and raping teenage girls.
In short, we can’t shrink from the fight.
Like Senator Mallory McMorrow, we need to serve it right back at them, online, in school board meetings, and at the ballot box.