The Word ‘Groomer’ Emerges as an Issue in the Politics of Education

Will this heated, extreme language help Republicans in the midterms?

AP/Phelan M. Ebenhack, file
Governor DeSantis at Tallahassee, Florida on January 11, 2022. AP/Phelan M. Ebenhack, file

Schools should be a slam dunk issue for Republicans in the midterm elections, as it was for Glenn Youngkin in the Virginia governor’s race, but the “groomer” discourse around the passage of Florida’s Parental Rights in Education bill is putting this in jeopardy. 

“It’s a losing strategy,” an openly gay former Trump administration official and political strategist, Gavin Smith, tells the Sun. “I have no problem with Republicans that say let’s use common sense around what’s taught in the classroom,” but deriding opponents of the bill as “groomers” is “politics at its worst.”

The term “groomer” is generally used to describe someone who befriends and establishes trust with a child, and sometimes also with the child’s family, with the goal of commiting sexual abuse. Grooming is illegal and can be prosecuted.

Governor DeSantis signed Florida’s House Bill 1557 — described by supporters as an “anti-groomer” measure — into law March 28. The legislation prohibits “classroom instruction” on “sexual orientation or gender identity” for kindergarten through third grade or “in any manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.” 

This last clause could extend the ban on LGBTQ discussions through high school, based on the subjective term “age appropriate.” The bill allows parents to sue a school district if they think a teacher or staff member has violated a provision.

Debate around the bill — dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” in the press — has been heated from the start. The left says the legislation will send teachers and students back in the closet and ultimately “kill kids.” The right argues the rapid rise in teenagers identifying as trans is evidence of indoctrination in schools. The latest attack line is to call opponents of the legislation and similar bills proposed in other states “groomers.”

“If you’re against the Anti-Grooming Bill, you are probably a groomer or at least don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8 year old children,” Governor DeSantis’s press secretary, Christina Pushaw, tweeted in March. 

Yet “groomer” has a specific meaning and “is not a gay issue,” the director of the advocacy group Enough Abuse Campaign, Jetta Bernier, tells the Sun. 

Other critics say the legislation’s vague language will effectively make all discussion of LGBTQ topics, from a kindergartner’s drawing of her two fathers to hot-button issues like gender identity, subject to lawsuits. 

“Given the vagueness of the statute,” one conservative commentator, David French, writes, “if [parents] don’t like the curriculum, they can litigate.” 

What is clear is that the term “groomer” is catching on and suffocating measured debate. 

“The right has started saying, listen, ‘you call us racist, we’re going to call all of you groomers,’” a former New York Times journalist, Nellie Bowles, said on Bari Weiss’s Honestly podcast. 

After the CEO of Disney announced the company’s opposition to HB 1557, the Manhattan Institute’s Christopher Rufo, who made a name for himself opposing critical race theory in schools, released a video of a Disney employee meeting in which one executive producer discussed her “not at all secret gay agenda” of bringing “queerness” to her show’s animated characters.  

“Disney groomer” started trending on Twitter. The Federalist ran a piece on Disney that declared: “There is no room left to wonder — they are indeed grooming our children.” Fox News’s Laura Ingraham called Disney “propaganda for grooming.” Mr. Rufo retweeted: “The right needs to go scorched earth with ‘groomer.’”

Many, though, including some on the right, are pushing back against the “groomer” discourse. Conservative journalist Andrew Sullivan tweeted: “It seems increasingly clear that this campaign is now driven by vicious homophobia. Moderates take note.” 

Video of an April 19 speech by a Democratic state senator in Michigan, Mallory McMorrow, went viral, in which she pushed back against a GOP colleague who accused her in a fundraising email of “grooming and sexualizing” children in her support of LGBTQ rights. “I am a straight, white, Christian, married, suburban mom,” Ms. McMorrow said on the senate floor. “Hate will only win if people like me stand by and let it happen.”

Democrats likely see in Ms. McMorrow’s speech a tactic for opposing extremist language in culture war debates. Hillary Clinton retweeted the video.

Ms. Bernier, who works to prevent child sexual abuse, says using the term “groomer” for political ends does “a disservice to children” and “does not help at all to protect our children from the real threat by those who would abuse them.”

Journalist and podcast host Katie Herzog summed it up: “This is great news for pedophiles. They are devaluing the term.” 

Opponents of the Florida law and the “groomer” discourse point to the 1977 Save Our Children campaign that successfully overturned a Miami Dade County ordinance banning discrimination in housing and employment based on sexual orientation. The movement equated gays with child molesters and stoked fear in parents. 

Mr. French warns that “if you think that accusations of child abuse simply stay put online, as part of a game people play for social media clout, you’ve forgotten the Pizzagate shooting.” In 2016, a North Carolina man fired three shots with an assault rifle inside a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant, after reading false claims online that the restaurant harbored a Hillary Clinton-run child sex ring in a back room.  

Will this heated, extreme language help Republicans in the midterms? Mr. Youngkin won the Virginia governorship in part by focusing largely on parental rights in education — pandemic-related school closures and masking, eroding academic standards, critical race theory, and Attorney General Garland’s memorandum calling on the FBI to investigate and prosecute “threats” from angry parents in school board meetings.

The Republican beat his election opponent, Terry McAuliffe, by more than 15 points among voters who were parents of school-age children. But while Mr. Youngkin’s playbook focused on parental rights, it also eschewed extremist language. 

“Commitment to the base, to the idealism of party” contributed to Mr. McCauliffe’s loss, Mr. Youngkin’s top political strategist, Jeff Roe, said in Politico’s Playbook podcast in a post-election analysis. Mr. Youngkin focused on local, everyday issues facing Virginia voters. Mr. Roe believes the GOP’s past focus on base issues “drove suburban voters away from the party.” 

But Florida’s governor is doubling down: On Friday he signed the Stop W.O.K.E. Act and revoked Disney’s special tax status in the state. Mr. Rufo spoke at the bill signing, calling out Disney’s CEO by name.  

“I don’t like the idea of passing bills in a culture war so we can fire up our base,” the governor of Arkansas, Asa Hutchinson, tells the Sun. “I don’t believe we ought to take a punitive approach to business simply because you disagreed with something they said.” 

The strategist Gavin Smith says that while he doesn’t think the Florida law or the “groomer” discourse will erode Republican support “in the immediate future,” he argues that “as the party’s base grows younger and younger, I do believe that it will have an impact.” 

The New York Sun

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