Stacy Langton sought for six months to get two books she considers obscene banned from Fairfax County schools in Virginia. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
The spokeswoman for Florida’s Republican governor tweeted in early March that anyone who opposes a bill forbidding teachers from talking about gender identity or sexual orientation with students in early grades is “probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8 year old children.” A few days later, Fox News host Laura Ingraham asked on national television, “When did our public schools, any schools, become what are essentially grooming centers for gender identity radicals?”
And, speaking before the Tennessee House of Representatives in February, country music star John Rich compared librarians who allow children access to graphic books to sexual predators — adding he believes that there is “bona fide grooming taking place” in the state’s public schools.
“What’s the difference between a teacher, educator or librarian … or a guy in a white van pulling up at the edge of school when school lets out?” he asked. Students “can run away from the guy in the white van.”
In the charged debate over what and how children should learn about sexual orientation and gender identity, some mainstream Republicans are tagging those who defend such lessons as “groomers,” claiming that proponents of such teaching want children primed for sexual abuse. The argument draws on previous tactics adopted by the right to oppose the erosion of traditional gender roles at moments of societal transition, experts say. They point out that, while groomer rhetoric seems designed to appeal to fringe partisans, it is part of a conservative effort to foster a moral panic that will help limit how and what educators teach — by restricting history lessons, banning books, and curbing discussions of systemic racism and LGBTQ issues.
Last month, Florida lawmakers passed a bill forbidding educators from offering instruction “on sexual orientation or gender identity … in kindergarten through grade 3.” Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the Parental Rights in Education bill into law on March 28.
“The bill that liberals inaccurately call ‘Don’t Say Gay’ would be more accurately described as an Anti-Grooming Bill,” DeSantis’s spokeswoman Christina Pushaw tweeted March 4. In response to questions from The Washington Post, she elaborated: “Those who read the bill and decide they do support teaching kindergartners about sexuality and gender transition may or may not be trying to exploit children themselves — but by sexualizing young kids and normalizing sexual conversations between adults and children, they are contributing to an environment that endangers children by exposing them to inappropriate content while eroding parental rights.”
Similarly, a bill introduced — and tabled — in the Virginia Capitol in January would require “written parental consent before a student is permitted to check out from the school library any such printed or audiovisual materials that could be considered grooming video or materials.”
In part spurred by the Florida bill, talking points on the right have coalesced around the idea that children will become vulnerable to sex abuse by receiving certain forms of sex education. As Max Eden, a research fellow at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, argued in a Newsweek op-ed, parents are not being told enough about what happens in schools. They must wonder: “Is there anything obscene or immoral that public schools might start doing to my child?”
The lack of visibility into the classroom is reason for worry, many parents and activists now say. Tamra Farah, an executive director at Moms for America, a group that says it “empowers moms to raise patriots and promote liberty,” said she is “concerned” about grooming, although she noted that she cannot “authoritatively” say if it’s occurring in classrooms.
“But I want to put that back on educators,” she said. “You prove to me that won’t happen, and you prove it to me through studies — prove that what you’re doing won’t harm children.”
In Florida, Rick Stevens, a founder of the conservative educational advocacy group Florida Citizens Alliance and the pastor of Diplomat Wesleyan Church in Cape Coral, said he frets about the potential grooming of young schoolchildren.
“We don’t have any evidence that it’s happening, either deliberately or accidentally,” he said. “But anytime you start to desensitize kids and normalize certain behaviors, then it makes it easier for someone who wants to recruit them for sex trafficking, or anything else, because the kids don’t know the difference.”
Sophie Bjork-James, an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University who studies evangelical politics and the white-nationalist movement, said the religious right has advanced similar lines of argument in the past. In the 1980s, for instance, when women were entering the workforce in large numbers and placing their children in day-care centers, she said, some Christian conservatives drove what became known as the “satanic panic” — the false alarm that day cares were sites of satanic ritual and sexual abuse.
She said focusing on the sexual predation of children is an effective tactic because it paints political opponents as inherently evil. “Every decent person wants to protect children from grooming, sexual assault and sexual predators,” Bjork-James said. White evangelicals, she added, are especially focused on child sex abuse because of the importance the movement places on sexual purity and innocence.
Fears about “grooming” are spiking at a moment when long-marginalized LGBTQ identities are starting to appear in popular culture and to become more accepted, Bjork-James said. A Gallup poll released in February found that a record number of U.S. adults — 7.1 percent — identify as LGBTQ, with 21 percent of Generation Z, those born between 1997 and 2003, reporting that they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or something other than heterosexual.
“It’s a strategy to unify the right,” Bjork-James said of groomer rhetoric. “Both White evangelicals but also the more radical right like QAnon supporters — for a while that movement was really focused on saving children from purported sexual predators, so it’s a clever strategy.”
Advocates of expanding sex education in schools say that lessons for young children include learning the proper names for body parts and teaching them how to recognize when they are being abused. And more high schools are piloting efforts to teach teenagers about consent, with the aim of preventing sexual assaults.
“Children who have learned that teachers or school personnel aren’t supposed to do certain things … are much more likely to go to an adult to report it,” said Charol Shakeshaft, an education professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who has studied educator sex abuse for more than three decades. Multiple studies have shown that students who receive sex education have a better grasp on what constitutes abuse and to whom to report it.
Learning, too, about what it means to be gay or transgender can help children understand how to treat those different from them, curtailing bullying down the road. Lesbian, gay and bisexual teens reported being bullied at twice the rate of their straight peers and were three times as likely to contemplate suicide, according to a 2019 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We can introduce the fact that there are families that look like theirs, and there’s families that don’t look like theirs,” said Christine Soyong Harley, president and chief executive of SIECUS: Sex Ed for Social Change, a group devoted to advancing sex education. “It just gives them the ability to understand difference of families.”
Educators and LGBTQ advocates warn that “grooming” charges will harm both LGBTQ teachers and students.
Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, the executive director of LGBTQ education group GLSEN, said she is already hearing reports that teachers in Florida — since the bill passed the Florida Senate on March 8 — are being instructed to remove pro-LGBTQ signage and stickers from their classrooms.
“There is a chilling effect on educators, in order to silence and marginalize and invisibilize support for LGBTQ-plus students,” Willingham-Jaggers said. “The real effect of this stuff is diminishing opportunities for LGBTQ young people.”
Some mainstream Republican activists and strategists say the intent of legislation like the Florida bill is to restore power to parents who should rightfully control when and what their children learn about these sensitive, complicated and controversial topics.
Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said conservative parents feel “like we’re living in a bizarre-o universe.” He said that this population began paying closer attention to their children’s lessons during the pandemic and that many were shocked to see the amount and the substance of education focused on issues such as gender identity and sexual orientation. For these people, Hess said, laws like Florida’s Parental Rights in Education bill “feel very much like defensive measures.”
Parents “are saying, ‘Wait a minute, how did schools start talking about gender identity to first-graders anyway?’ ” Hess said. “ ‘Wait a minute, when did anybody ask us if we wanted children in grades K through 3 to be taught about gender fluidity? We never discussed it!’”
Conservative parents say they have lost trust that trained educators in the public school system can teach about sex and gender in an evenhanded, nonideological way — and some say they do not think educators should be addressing the topics at all.
One of those parents is Jamie Merchant, a Florida mother and a member of the Florida Citizens Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for parental choice in education. She said she was “thrilled” to see the bill pass. Asked about her concerns with early sex education, Merchant said she opposes it because she wants to keep children innocent as long as possible, although she did not mention grooming.
“There is a time and place for everything,” she said, “and I think parents have the ultimate decision whether or not to have discussions with their children on certain topics, sexuality and orientation being one of them.”
Hess said he thinks most Republican opponents of early sex education share sentiments similar to Merchant’s. He said he thinks only a few far-right pundits and politicians are pushing the “groomer” line of attack — mostly because they know it will rile their base and drive clicks and donations online. He added that focusing on these people unduly is unfair, and he pointed to the text of the Florida bill, which he noted “in no way suggested that teachers, based on their sexual identity or gender, were less needed [or] should be evaluated or inspected based on that.”
Still, the regular drip-drip of groomer rhetoric has begun to inform how activists and parents on the ground approach their work.
At a school board meeting in Northern Virginia last month, mother Stacy Langton walked to the microphone during the public-comment period and slammed the Fairfax County Public Schools board for denying her repeated requests to remove from school libraries the books “Gender Queer” — a graphic novel about being nonbinary — and “Lawn Boy,” a novel that features a sexual encounter between two male fourth-graders. Langton had alleged that the books are pornographic and obscene, but a school system review determined that the texts have literary value and that neither depicts pedophilia.
“I am asking a pro-communist, pro-pedophile school board to remove the child grooming books,” Langton told the board at the meeting. “These perverse books sexualize and confuse children to the point of causing profound mental illness.”
Karl Frisch, an openly gay member of the Fairfax board — whom Langton accused without evidence in her remarks of admiring pedophilia, a charge he denies — wrote in a text message that “this is about the chilling message these attacks send to LGBTQ young people who deserve our compassion and protection.”
Jesse Kelly, a conservative pundit with 400,000 Twitter followers, recently posted a long thread of messages arguing that “every Republican in America should be running ads” targeting Democrats who support early education on sexuality: “Call them groomers and pedophiles,” Kelly wrote. “Put THEM on the defensive. Make THEM afraid. … Stop worrying about what the media says. If they parrot Dem talking points, call them groomers too.”
Sexual assault — perpetrated by students and adults — is a concern at elementary, middle and high schools, where staff are often ill-prepared to investigate complaints. In the 2017-2018 school year, the Education Department tallied nearly 15,000 reports of sexual assault on K-12 campuses, a massive jump from the previous school year. But there is no evidence suggesting a link between sex education and sex abuse, Shakeshaft said.
Shakeshaft has studied hundreds of cases of teacher sex abuse and has not found any in which an educator groomed a student — much less a classroom full of them — under the guise of teaching them sex education. Her work has shown that the most common scenario involves male teachers preying on girls.
In some cases, Shakeshaft said, educators who are actually attempting to groom students will talk explicitly about their own sex lives in private settings. And the vast majority of the time, when a teacher discloses their sexual identity to a student, “it’s not to groom them. It’s to give them courage and strength to know they have supporters.”
In classrooms, LGBTQ teachers are reconsidering how much of themselves they are willing to share with their students — including LGBTQ children who might be searching for mentors.
“We heard of a principal telling a transgender teen that they can’t talk about being trans even privately to friends while on campus,” said Nadine Smith, director of the LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Florida. Her organization has been flooded with calls from school administrators, teachers, parents and students who are confused and concerned about the effects of the bill, she said.
D. Rae Garrison, the principal of a middle school in West Jordan, Utah, who is openly LGBTQ, said her phone pinged with a text from an unknown number last year. The stranger wrote saying, “We know you’re a lesbian and we’re not comfortable with you being around our young girls,” Garrison said. She contacted police, but they were unable to trace the message.
She said that she cannot recognize America these days, that it is no longer the same country that felt so welcoming when she came out in 2007. Then, Garrison felt proud. Now, she just feels scared.
It feels, she said, like society is “pushing all of us back in the closet.”