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Who’s grooming who?

Co-opting the language of sexual abuse for reckless, political rhetoric harms those living in the aftermath of the real thing

A sign is displayed on the steps of the New York County Supreme Court after protesters called on the Archdiocese of New York, Diocese of Brooklyn and Diocese of Rockville Centre to help survivors of clergy sexual abuse in New York, during a news conference August 14, 2019 in New York.DON EMMERT/AFP via Getty Images

Note: Some names have been anonymized to protect the privacy of sexual abuse survivors.

When a group of Proud Boys recently stormed into a public library in San Lorenzo, California, it was clear what was driving them to terrify a room full of preschoolers, librarians, parents, and a drag queen: One of them wore a shirt that read “kill your local pedophile.” Another shouted “It’s a groomer!”

Of course, there was nothing abusive happening in that room, just people singing a welcome song in preparation for storytime. Facts don’t matter when it comes to extremists tarring LGBTQ people, or even straight people who support this community, with allegations of “grooming.”

They never have.

Right-wing conservatives have justified its bigotry toward queer and trans people by accusing this community of trying to hurt children since at least the 1970s. It’s hard to imagine these attacks have ever been at a fever pitch higher than now.

We know the impact “groomer” rhetoric is having on the state legislative level: We’ve all heard about Florida’s new ban on even mentioning LGBTQ people in the classroom, but it goes far beyond. In just the 2021-2022 legislative cycle alone, legislators have introduced over 125 bills that purport to “protect” minors from the existence of queer and trans people, and at least 17 of those bills have already been voted into law, according to soon-to-be published data from SIECUS: Sex Ed for Social Change.

The real-world violence this rhetoric causes couldn’t be more obvious: In June, a U-Haul full of White nationalists was intercepted en route to literally bash gays at a Pride event in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho. In Wisconsin, one school district received so many bomb threats in response to its investigation of three kids for bullying a nonbinary peer, the rest of the school year was moved to virtual sessions, and the city’s Memorial Day parade was canceled. Incidents like these are horrifying and growing.

Still somehow, so much of the mainstream debate about the rights of LGBTQ people, and especially trans people, is dangerously credulous and equivocal. Are trans people a threat to children? Let’s ask a couple of trans people and then a bunch of people who’ve dedicated their lives to literally eradicating them! This kind of both-sidesism is how the Overton Window of acceptable political discourse gets moved so far to the right that things like authoritarianism and even genocide become possible. (It’s worth noting that the first large-scale Nazi book burning in 1933 targeted a pioneering trans-inclusive health facility.)

It is for each of us to speak up and stop this hateful campaign in its tracks. And we must start by asking the one group most affected but somehow seems most consistently ignored: queer and trans survivors of actual grooming.

I’ve spent some time doing just that. Many of the survivors I talked to emphasized how angry they are. The distress this causes isn’t just psychologically painful. Every survivor I spoke to described real-world effects they’re already suffering as a result of the rise of “groomer” attacks, whether or not they themselves have been specifically targeted by them.

Morgan Jarrett, 41, data entry specialist

“Groomer” has a very specific connotation in child sexual abuse. Using “groomer” in a serious, unwarranted, targeted way is a slap against those of us who were groomed by our abusers. It minimizes the pain of that part of the abuse. It overlooks our shame and hurt.”

The Rev. Lucas Walker, 42, pastoral care provider

“I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian environment, and part of the narrative at that time was if you were LGBT, you were a threat to people. As I was coming out, if I was going to admit that this was who I was, I was going to have to admit that I was a really bad person. My sexual abuser actually used that to keep me quiet.”

Walker says his perpetrator knew he was 12: “He knew that I was gay, that I could not safely come out my family. He knew that I had no other support. This is the threat of misusing this language: It means children will be in greater danger. Because he knew that there was nobody for me to talk to, and he used that. He never even had to threaten me. He knew I knew what would happen to me if I told, and he exploited it. If you start misusing the term ‘grooming,’ then children will have fewer resources to know that something is going on.”

Philippa Willitts, 45, journalist

“As a survivor and a lesbian, it is not only offensive to be called a ‘groomer,’ particularly for supporting my trans siblings, it is triggering and profoundly damaging to all LGBTQ+ people. I hate it. It’s what I remember from the ’80s and ’90s, and to see it making a reappearance whenever LGBTQI+ matters but particularly trans matters, come up is profoundly distressing.”

D. Ojeda, 34, organizer

“Celebrating and coming to terms with my identity has been one of the few healing spaces where I can be myself and not remember the atrocities that have happened to my body. Seeing my identities showcased and deemed as abusive breaks my heart and fills me with so much rage. Since when did they ever care? Suddenly they care about [survivors] when it is an opportunity to dehumanize my queer and trans community.”

E.J. Greer, 21, a nonbinary receptionist

“Last night I went to a queer film lecture series at my local library, and I felt afraid while I was there. I was scared someone would barge in with hateful words or even a gun. I’m afraid to show my nephews affection in public for fear someone will sense my queerness and decide I should pay for it. I’ve become afraid to smile and wave at children passing by. I’m afraid that in the future, my fiancé and I will not be able to adopt. Most of the time, I am able to push these fears down, but they are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. I’m a first-generation American, and my fiancé and I are planning on returning to my father’s country or a country near it because of how bad things are getting.”

Claire L., 40, a trans woman and former teacher

“I’m a CSA [child sexual abuse] survivor myself, so everything about these conversations makes me feel sick. But I don’t even tell people I am a survivor because that would just prove even further I’m a threat: a broken degenerate passing on the demons.”

Perhaps it is not surprising then, that the thing these survivors want people to understand is how harmful silence and inaction, even from well-intentioned people, can be, as Walker says: “To see this resurge in such a way, obviously heavily focused on the trans community but our community as a whole, it’s like this bad dream.”

Jaclyn Friedman is the founder and executive director of EducateUS: SIECUS in Action and author of four books, including “Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape.”