Republicans have long relied on right-wing media’s inflammatory rhetoric to mobilize their voters. But with Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, state Republicans have effectively deputized the most Fox-News-and-Facebook-addicted members of the party’s base to act on frenzied smears that LGBTQ teachers are “grooming” children.
Here’s the key legislative text from Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education” law:
Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.
Republicans seem to have drafted the law to be deliberately vague. It does not define key terms like “classroom instruction,” “age-appropriate,” or “developmentally appropriate.” While some conservatives have criticized the “Don’t Say Gay” moniker applied to the law by saying it merely bans discussion of “sex and sexuality” or “sexual topics,” there is no prohibition on such content in the text of the bill. In fact, as the bill moved through the Florida legislature, Republicans blocked a Democratic amendment to replace the phrase “sexual orientation or gender identity” with “human sexuality or sexual activity.”
This vagueness in the law’s text means a wide array of topics may or may not be banned, as Vox’s Ian Millhiser noted:
May a gay teacher display a picture of their spouse on their desk? May a straight teacher do so? Suppose that a third grade student asks a teacher who the highest-ranking openly gay official is in the US government. Is the teacher allowed to respond with the correct answer (Pete Buttigieg), or do they have to blow off the question? What if a book taught in a high school English class has a gay character? Or what if the book has no openly gay characters but a parent reads the book and concludes that it has homoerotic undertones? If a second grade student has two mothers, may a teacher casually mention this fact in the same way they might mention any other student’s parents, or is such a thing forbidden?
But it’s the law’s enforcement mechanism, combined with that vague text, that most empowers the GOP’s right-wing-media-loving base – and imperils Florida teachers. The law lets parents respond to purported violations of its strictures by suing their child’s school district when they think that “classroom instruction” on LGBTQ issues has not been “age-appropriate.” As Millhiser notes, this mechanism “effectively turns the most squeamish, anti-LGBTQ parent in any public school into the bill’s enforcer.” And Fox, other right-wing outlets, and social media platforms are currently priming those parents to assume that any discussion of LGBTQ issues in schools constitutes an effort to “groom” children.
The Florida law effectively weaponizes that right-wing media audience against teachers and schools.
Propagandists at Fox and other Trumpist outlets frequently warn their audiences of the apocalyptic threat they claim that progressives pose to the country and to the physical safety of their viewers. Over the last year, a sizable fraction of this demagoguery has revolved around U.S. public schools, with participants assailing the purportedly genocidal teaching of “critical race theory,” then lashing out over school policies for trans students and the teaching of “gender ideology,” and finally suggesting that critics of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill wanted to “sexualize” and “groom” children and slandering LGBTQ teachers as pedophiles.
Fox prime-time hosts Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson, two of the most powerful figures at the network, with an outsized influence on both its viewers and the Republican Party, have led this disgusting charge. Ingraham defended Florida’s law by describing public schools as “grooming centers” that are pushing “sexual brainwashing.” Carlson argued that teachers who discuss gender identity with kindergartners have sexually abused them and should be not only arrested, but physically assaulted.
Elsewhere in the right-wing media, the mere existence of LGBTQ people is defined as inappropriate “grooming” behavior.
This narrative is reinforcing the anti-LGBTQ frenzy consuming social media spaces on the right. On Facebook, right-leaning news and politics pages are dominating the debate and garnering millions of interactions while making “groomer” language a key facet of their work. On Twitter, the viral troll account “Libs of TikTok” has become a sort of wire service for Fox hosts to source anti-transgender and homophobic content related to teachers and students. The account recently appended the comment “any teacher who comes out to their students should be fired on the spot” to video of a man who says he told his fifth-grade students that he is gay after they asked.
These baseless accusations that the right’s political opponents are actually pedophiles overlap with – and at times become indistinguishable from – the QAnon conspiracy theory, which posits that a global cabal of leftists is engaged in large-scale child rape and sex trafficking, and that at some point in the future they will be caught and executed.
QAnon has crept unnervingly close to mainstream Republicanism over the last few years, even electing devotees to Congress. At its most benign, QAnon inspires conservatives to wallow in a rich and hateful alternate reality. At times, its adherents have attempted to fight back against the leftist cabal in real life, through terroristic threats and acts of violence.
Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law gives parents who are drunk on QAnon delusions or enflamed by Fox’s anti-LGBTQ obsessions a way to take action against the leftist “groomers” that Fox and Facebook have told them are threatening their children. And these extremists may soon be unleashed across the country in response to similar legislation in the works in other red states.