While "Anti-Grooming" Rhetoric Seems to Come from the Fringe, it Can be InfluentialRoundup
tags: Florida, discrimination, homophobia, transgender, LGBTQ history, Anita Bryant
Mical Raz is a professor of history and health policy at the University of Rochester, and a practicing physician.
Paul M. Renfro is assistant professor of history at Florida State University and author of Stranger Danger: Family Values, Childhood, and the American Carceral State (Oxford University Press, 2020).
During Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearings, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) repeatedly and erroneously claimed that Jackson had been soft on those convicted of possessing child pornography. This baseless line of argumentation was not designed to spark debate over federal sentencing guidelines or to assess Jackson’s qualifications to serve on the Supreme Court. Rather, it seemed to be an attempt to smear Jackson, while courting a growing Republican constituency: adherents to QAnon, an extremist ideology based on a sprawling set of false claims that the FBI has deemed a domestic terrorism threat.
QAnon falsehoods have generated increasing attention over the past several years, many involving outlandish claims concerning organized networks of pedophiles in the top echelons of government. For example, the “Pizzagate” shooter believed that he was rescuing children from an underground network of pedophiles.
But what begins on the ideological fringe can easily move into the mainstream and ultimately into policymaking. Although few mainstream politicians openly embrace QAnon’s radical ideology, these same ideas can be folded into the malleable language of child safety and protection as a means to promote reactionary policies. This has become abundantly clear in Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) have worked to criminalize gender-affirming care for trans children, and in Florida, where officials have portrayed recently signed legislation restricting LGBTQ discussion as an “anti-grooming” measure.
To express their support for these efforts, some conservative commentators such as Rod Dreher and James Lindsay have deployed similar “anti-grooming” language, emphasizing the presumed link between the LGBTQ community and child sexual abuse. Such rhetoric taps into a dark history of smearing members of certain marginalized communities — particularly gay men and trans people — as sexual predators who must “recruit” children.
Fears of sexual “psychopaths” preying on children animated a prolonged panic in the United States from the 1930s to the 1960s. During this time, over half of all states passed laws targeting sexual practices deemed “deviant,” including same-sex relations. In 1947, California created the first state-level sex offense registry, which largely targeted gay men. Many of these same men, who were convicted of lewd conduct or sodomy, would be forced to register as “sex offenders” in the 1990s, when registries and community notification protocols became federally mandated. Such policies deepened the presumed links between nonnormative sexual identities and predatory behavior.