Mallory McMorrow was stunned when she saw it.
With horror, the Michigan state senator, a Democrat, read an email accusing her of “grooming” children. The email was sent by a fellow senator, Republican Lana Theis, who was soliciting funds from her supporters for her reelection campaign.
In that email, Theis wrote that children are “under assault in our schools” by what she called “progressive mobs trying to steal our children’s innocence.”
And then it got personal.
“She accused me by name of grooming and wanting to sexualize kindergartners,” McMorrow tells NPR. “I mean, my heart absolutely sank.”
McMorrow says she kept thinking about her 1-year-old daughter, Noa.
“You know, grooming is the act of befriending a child for the purpose of molesting them,” she says. “Just the most horrific, disgusting, vile accusation that can be thrown at you.”
Lately, that accusation has been thrown at those who support LGBTQ rights —teachers, companies, politicians — in addition to McMorrow: “Grooming” has become an incendiary buzzword of right-wing rhetoric, weaponized in the fight over anti-LGBTQ legislation.
Actual grooming occurs when adults take advantage of a child’s vulnerability to manipulate and coerce the child into sexual abuse. Now that meaning has been warped and corrupted to broadly smear the motives of LGBTQ people and those who oppose anti-LGBTQ legislation.
A few recent examples:
The day after she read the email accusing her of “groom[ing] and sexualiz[ing] kindergartners,” McMorrow stood on the Michigan Senate floor and shot back in a fiery speech that has gone viral, with millions of views.
“I am the biggest threat to your hollow, hateful scheme,” she said in a direct address to Theis, her voice filled with outrage, “because you can’t claim that you are targeting marginalized kids in the name of — quote — ‘parental rights’ if another parent is standing up to say no.”
In that speech, McMorrow made a point of saying, twice, “I am a straight, white, Christian, married, suburban mom,” and she concluded with this thought: “I know that hate will only win if people like me stand by and let it happen.”
Reflecting on that speech now, McMorrow hopes her words will counterbalance some of the hurtful rhetoric LGBTQ people are bombarded with.
“I talked to kids in my district at a high school last Monday,” she says, “and the first question was from a girl, probably 15 or 16, who said, ‘You know, I identify as queer. I’m LGBTQ. Why do they hate us?’ And it’s just heartbreaking.”
McMorrow said she told the student, “I promise you, there are a lot of us like me who don’t.”
The “grooming” accusation hurled at McMorrow, among many others, has a long history. Accusing LGBTQ people of “grooming” or “recruiting” children to become gay or transgender is an age-old trope that feeds off fear.
The “grooming” smear often expands to include accusations of pedophilia and sex trafficking — conspiracy theories spawned by far-right extremists such as QAnon supporters, propagated widely through social media and right-wing channels and spreading through mainstream conservative thought.
“It’s a despicable attack, but it’s not a new tactic,” says LGBTQ rights activist Evan Wolfson. “This is a classic trope of dehumanization and fear that has been used against gay people decade after decade after decade. … Think about the calumny against gay people throughout most of our lifetimes: that gay people somehow are molesting kids, or after kids, or predatory.”
That idea propelled anti-gay activist and singer Anita Bryant’s Save Our Children campaign in the 1970s.
And it led to a 1978 California ballot measure to ban gays and lesbians from working in public schools, an initiative spearheaded by state Sen. John Briggs, who promised, “We are going to restore morality to the classroom and remove openly and blatant homosexuals from influencing and teaching our young.”
The ballot measure failed.
But the homophobic attacks continued, fueling a moral panic.
Wolfson heard those attacks all through the fight he led to legalize same-sex marriage.
Now, he says, there’s an added layer of transphobia.
“The trans conversation is relatively newer,” Wolfson says, “and therefore more susceptible to confusion, to distraction and to primal fear, which is what pushing the button about kids is intended to do.”
Fears stoked about LGBTQ people have surfaced in focus groups and polling conducted by the Movement Advancement Project, a nonprofit think tank that researches public attitudes on LGBTQ issues.
“What the far right often does is they engage people’s reptilian brains, the fight-or-flight instinct,” says the organization’s executive director, Ineke Mushovic. “And so it behooves far-right conservatives to put people in a state of fear, because then they’re reactive. They don’t support change.”
The “grooming” narrative, Mushovic says, “taps into this primal sense of fear and this kind of parental protective instinct. But we know it’s a completely false narrative.”
The “grooming” narrative has been actively promoted by conservative activist Christopher Rufo, who has also led the charge against teaching critical race theory.
Now he has turned his attention to what he calls “gender ideology.” This year, he asked for help from his Twitter followers: “I’m looking for documents, PDFs, audio-video, and training materials related to gender, grooming, and trans ideology in schools,” he tweeted.
In a speech at Hillsdale College in April titled “Laying Siege to the Institutions,” Rufo explained his strategy for steering the narrative about gender and sexual identity.
“You have to be very aggressive,” he told the audience. “You have to fight on terms that you define. You have to create your own frame, your own language. And you have to be ruthless and brutal in pursuit of something good.”
For Utah state Sen. Daniel Thatcher, this distortion of a term as loaded as “grooming” is appalling.
“This idea of grooming, I’ll tell ya, to me — as a survivor of childhood sexual assault — I’ll just tell ya, I find it personally deeply offensive,” he says. “So why do they do it? Well, they do it because it resonates so deeply.”
Thatcher is a Republican. This year, he broke with his party, speaking out against a bill to ban transgender girls from competing in girls’ school sports.
But five years ago, he would have supported that bill, Thatcher says, “because I didn’t know. I had no frame of reference for people who literally feel like they have to justify their right to exist. But I get it now. And because I get it, I can’t un-get it.”
Thatcher says he “gets it” now because of his work with LGBTQ people on suicide prevention.
His position on these issues resulted in an attack from a right-wing activist group in Utah that accused him in an email to its supporters of promoting “grooming of children for gender non-conformity in our public schools.”
Thatcher calls the explicit email “the nastiest thing I’ve ever seen.”
“Grooming is an act that happens as you break down barriers of someone,” he says. “It’s especially heinous when pointed at unsuspecting, trusting, vulnerable children. And so the argument that telling a child that you will support them regardless of who and how they love is somehow equivalent to teaching a child that they’re not allowed to say no or set boundaries — like, to me, that is just reprehensible, to conflate the two.”
Thatcher warns that his party’s emphasis on passing anti-LGBTQ legislation, such as bans on gender-affirming care or trans sports bans, will backfire.
“The path that the GOP is on right now is not sustainable,” he says. “If somebody tried to campaign today on ending gay marriage, they would get so little traction outside the most fringe elements, and yet, even five years ago, that wasn’t an extreme position. … I think it’s only a matter of time. I think this is a stupid, stupid argument to be making, because every day, more and more people know someone who is gay or transgender.”
For his part, Alabama state Rep. Neil Rafferty, the only openly gay member of his state’s legislature, remains optimistic, even in the face of Alabama passing some of the country’s harshest anti-LGBTQ laws.
“People say, ‘Well, Alabama’s gonna Alabama,’ ” Rafferty says. “But I have no choice but to remain hopeful. Because if I don’t have hope that it can get better, if I don’t have hope that we can change it, if I don’t have hope that we can push back, and push back effectively and meaningfully, then what the hell am I even doing here?”
The amped-up accusations of “grooming” have led to a disturbing spike in threats and assaults against LGBTQ people, according to Sarah Kate Ellis, head of the LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD.
“This does lead to real-world harm,” Ellis says. “It absolutely does. We’re already seeing an uptick in violence against the community.”
In response to the wave of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and legislation, GLAAD has launched a media campaign, with a public service announcement airing nationwide that features the Briggle family of Texas.
“Do you want to meet a family with a transgender kid? Here we are,” the mother, Amber Briggle, begins, as she introduces their transgender teenage son.
He’s shown doing backflips and playing his ukulele.
“My family’s just like yours,” Briggle says in the public service announcement. “We love our kids unconditionally, and we will never stop fighting for them. Stand with us. Protect our families.”
Individual stories like this one are crucial, says Wolfson, the LGBTQ rights activist, who crafted messages for the Freedom to Marry campaign that were designed to personalize and humanize same-sex couples.
“When we showed gay people,” he says, “when we elevated the voices of gay people as part of the conversation — and I say this as someone who is gay — we wanted to show the gay people as part of a family, the gay people as part of a workplace, the gay people in this case as part of a classroom. And I think the same lesson applies here too.”
The slogan “Love Is Love” was the lesson learned in the Freedom to Marry campaign.
Now, Wolfson suggests the slogan “Protect All Kids.”
Or, from Michigan state Sen. Mallory McMorrow, this idea: “Hate Won’t Win.”