It has been 45 years since voters in Dade County, Florida, voted to strip nondiscrimination protections from LGBTQ people after a campaign by singer Anita Bryant called “Save our Children,” yet the myth that LGBTQ people put children in danger has pervaded since then, with a frightening recent escalation. Right-wing media are intensifying a years-long push to falsely accuse LGBTQ people – along with major corporations like Disney that oppose Gov. Ron DeSantis’ “Don’t Say Gay” bill – of “grooming” children to be gay or trans, or promoting sexual activity.
While accusations that the public existence of LGBTQ people somehow poses a sexual threat to minors have a long and ugly history, the recent wave of attacks reached a fever pitch with the passage of HB 1557, the “Don’t Say Gay” or trans bill in Florida. The bill bans discussion of sexuality or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade, though its vague wording could be used to prevent such discussions at any grade level. DeSantis press secretary Christina Pushaw tweeted on March 4 that “the bill that liberals inaccurately call ‘Don’t Say Gay’ would be more accurately described as an Anti-Grooming Bill,” going on to accuse opponents of grooming 4- to 8-year-olds:
But right-wing media promptly took Pushaw’s messaging advice. The next day, a headline in The Post Millennial proclaimed that “Florida's anti-groomer law protects kids and parents from activist educators.” On March 9, the chyron on Fox News’ The Ingraham Hour falsely stated that “Liberals are sexually grooming elementary students.”
The right-wing attacks accusing LGBTQ people of grooming really hit their stride as DeSantis signed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill into law and Disney announced that its goal was to repeal the law.
Turning Point USA President Charlie Kirk alleged that “gay people feel really motivated … that 6-year-olds need to learn about their incredibly graphic sexual activity.” Fox News host Tucker Carlson said that Disney’s “main, quote, ‘goal’ as a company is now to teach kindergartners in Florida that they can in fact change their gender just by wishing it so. It makes you wonder if kids in Florida can consent to chemical castration with no parental involvement.”
And after a leaked video surfaced in which a Disney executive talked about having more LGBTQ storylines in the company’s material, right-wing media figures on Fox and elsewhere all jumped on the argument that this represented the grooming of children for sexual activity; Carlson even claimed that Disney was acting like a “sex offender.”
The language these media figures and outlets are using to attack LGBTQ people and conflate them with dangerous pedophiles matches the rhetoric used nearly five decades ago in Bryant’s Save Our Children campaign, a six-month tour of hate that led voters in Dade County to repeal one of the first ordinances in the country that prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation. Bryant claimed, falsely, that gays and lesbians were “trying to recruit our children into homosexuality.” As Zack Ford wrote in Xtra, “The nefarious tropes of the 1970s and ’80s never actually went away.”
This faulty reasoning seemed at one point to have become a thing of the past, as most Americans say that they support equal rights for LGBTQ people. But the notion that LGBTQ people are inherently predatory has remained alive, including on social media and in the form of hoaxes that originate on far-right message boards like 4chan. These hoaxes have at times been picked up by anti-LGBTQ media outlets like The Daily Caller, such as in one 2018 example where a viral piece of misinformation claimed without evidence that the LGBTQ community was adding a “P” for “pedosexual” to the acronym.
In 2019, right-wing media tied grooming accusations to drag-queen story hour events at public libraries, with radio host Todd Starnes asserting that “your local public library has been ... turned into a drag queen nightclub” so they can “groom the next generation.” The Heritage Foundation, an influential right-wing think tank, hosted an event that it labeled the “summit on protecting children from sexualization” featuring extreme anti-LGBTQ organizations like the Family Policy Alliance, the Alliance Defending Freedom, and the Women’s Liberation Front. Fox News’ Laura Ingraham was especially vocal in keeping the narrative alive, alleging multiple times that acceptance of trans people would inevitably lead to lowering the age of consent (the two concepts are entirely unrelated).
While Fox News and the broader right-wing media often participated in the whitewashing of former President Donald Trump’s record on LGBTQ rights, they’ve ramped up their attacks on queer and especially transgender people during the Biden presidency. The past several months have seen obsessive negative coverage targeting high-profile members of the trans community like swimmer Lia Thomas and Assistant Secretary of Health Adm. Rachel Levine. The right-wing media has also attacked gay couples including Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttiegieg and his husband Chasten and conservative pundit Dave Rubin and his husband (also named Dave) for having children.
The rising tide of accusations about the existence of LGBTQ people has occured alongside right-wing calls for physical violence. In a series of worrying examples, Carlson argued that teachers who talk to their students about gender identity should “get beaten up.” Kirk issued a “challenge to every man across America” to physically confront trans athletes. Sitting Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) stated that if her daughter had a summer camp counselor who was trans, her husband would “beat” them “into the ground.” A former Mississippi gubernatorial candidate went even further, issuing a chilling tweet that called for “those that want to groom our school aged children and pretend men are women … to be lined up against [a] wall before a firing squad.” This tide of violent rhetoric -- which closely mirrors language used by extreme believers of the QAnon conspiracy theory – represents a worrying threat to the LGBTQ community.