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Opinion: LGBTQ supporters are not ‘grooming’ children

This new definition of ‘grooming’ creates a dangerously false narrative around those who support the LGBTQ community

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Participants begin to leave the state Capitol during the Rainbow March and Rally before heading to Liberty Park in Salt Lake City on June 6, 2021. The event was part of Pride Week activities to support Utah’s LGBTQ community.

Annie Barker, Deseret News

I came across a child groomer on an Amtrak train once, maybe five or six years ago. He was coating a high school student with compliments so brazen, I was disgusted. The target was one of three athletes traveling together. Because the oiliness was mixed into normal conversation, and because I was not part of their talk, I felt helpless to intervene. As a society we are better attuned to open aggression. 

There were subtle signs the boy was aware of his plight. He showed reluctance to answer a question now and then (“How much can you bench?”). Finally, when the groomer stepped away, I leaned over and said, “Watch out for that guy.” 

In the last two years, “parents’ rights” has become a slogan on the political right. It began with anger at school closures for COVID-19. Even I, a liberal, felt our yearlong lockdown in a New Mexico district resulted from laziness and lack of risk-taking leadership. 

Soon, a moral panic around sex and gender infiltrated this fairly reasonable version of “parents’ rights.” QAnon narratives, diluted somewhat from their bonkers myth about liberal pedophile cannibal human traffickers (yes, just reading that aloud sounds insane), began slipping in.

Sex panics are a deep part of American history, from early obsessions over slave men’s supposed danger to white women to the collective freakouts over Elvis in the 1950s and the “homosexual agenda” of the 1990s. No doubt massive social change is the condition for their emergence. But someone has to take advantage of the disquiet. 

The outlines of these myths show us not the real shape of things they claim to represent, but the madness of the ones who dream them up. Or, in the case of the term “groomer,” the cynicism of the operative who hit upon it, Christopher Rufo.

Rufo has taken the term “grooming” and redefined it to associate groomers with ideas he is opposed to. In May, he tweeted “‘Grooming’ does not necessarily mean ‘physical sexual abuse.’ Kids can be groomed into a sexual identity, groomed into an ideological system, and, in some cases, yes, groomed for abuse. It’s a spectrum of behavior in which adults isolate and sexualize kids for their own ends.”

He then said in a speech to Hillsdale College in April, “You have to be very aggressive, 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.” 

Rufo’s redefining of the word “grooming” is problematic in how it frames other political ideologies, and his “something good” is smearing, as evil, anyone who teaches tolerance for the LGBTQ community.

His use of “groomer” is not an allegation rooted in facts. It is a propaganda dirty bomb meant to stain anyone close to it. In other words, a widening circle of people starting from transgender rights activists and out to liberal teachers like me and LGBTQ students — are tarred with trying to “sexualize” children and prey on them. This lie is so breathtaking and so vicious it can only be classified as fascist (see Jason Stanley’s book, “How Fascism Works”). 

Fascist movements use lies so big one does not really know how to respond. Where do you begin when there is not a shred of truth to it? There is the temptation to not even take it seriously. No one could believe that, we think.  

But slurs used as propaganda are not about belief — or objective reality. They are meant to create a new reality out of shared hostility, a new conventional wisdom about Jewish people, gay people, migrant people or transgender people. Birtherism was perhaps the beginning of our modern American trend of collectively imposing, online, a slur against and over the facts. Donald Trump rode it to electoral victory.

And what does the deliberate abuse of this term mean for people who have been actually victimized by sexual abuse?

Utah state Sen. Daniel Thatcher said to NPR, “This idea of grooming, I’ll tell you, to me as a survivor of childhood sexual assault, I’ll just tell you, I find it personally, deeply offensive. So why do they do it?

I fear this redefined meaning of “grooming” for myself and for people like me. My 8-year-old son carefully combs his hair and ties it up in front like a little unicorn horn: his own creation. I suspect he likes boys over girls. He is affectionate, willful, exuberant and innocent. Who he is will be and always has been, up to him. I also fear “groomer” for our country. If the slur continues to spread, it will mean fascism, which exploits moral panics for fame, is metastasizing.

And with fascism, violence is always on the horizon. 

Brian Harmon, Ph.D., is a high school history and language arts teacher in West Jordan.