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Concocting ‘Unstoppable Arguments’

Homophobic language and scare tactics take center stage in GOP talking points.

Lawmakers across dozens of mostly Republican-led states, such as Texas and Florida, have passed or introduced a record number of anti-LGBTQ bills this year, a CNN analysis of data gathered by the American Civil Liberties Union shows. This legislative assault has been accompanied by incendiary discourse that demonizes LGBTQ people.

In June, for instance, members of the extremist group The Proud Boys barged into the San Lorenzo Library in California and interrupted a Drag Queen Story Hour. One of the insults they reportedly tossed was “groomer”—a term that maligns LGBTQ people as child predators.

Mere days later, Christopher Rufo, the activist who powered the “critical race theory” panic, invited his fellow conservatives to “start using the phrase ‘trans stripper’ in lieu of ‘drag queen.'” His reason? “‘Trans stripper’ has a more lurid set of connotations and shifts the debate to sexualization. ‘Trans strippers in schools’ anchors an unstoppable argument.”

The following month, Florida Republican State Rep. Anthony Sabatini declared menacingly, “Florida to groomers: Your days are numbered!” Notably, Sabatini intends to propose legislation targeting parents who bring their children to drag shows. 

In March, Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ then-press secretary Christina Pushaw made a claim that stunned and horrified many LGBTQ people and their allies: “If you’re against the Anti-Grooming bill, you are probably a groomer. Or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4- to 8-year-old children,” Pushaw tweeted, addressing opponents of the state’s Parental Rights in Education Act who refer to that legislation as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

Homophobic Language 

This perversion of the term “groomer” can draw attention away from the real scourge of child abuse, often at the hands of straight predatory adults who groom their child victims. Together, these examples snap into focus the prevalence of today’s anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. 

Last week, Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana introduced a measure, which was co-sponsored by dozens of other Republicans, that some describe as a national version of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. “The Democrat [sic] Party and their cultural allies are on a misguided crusade to immerse young children in sexual imagery and radical gender ideology,” Johnson said in a statement about the bill

“Gender ideology” is a decades-old term that many Republican leaders have embraced in recent months that mischaracterizes gender—a social construct of norms and behaviors that doesn’t necessarily align with the sex someone was assigned at birth—as an attack on “traditional” values. Similarly heightened anxieties around gender were detectable in 2016, when so-called bathroom bills sought to block transgender and gender non-conforming people’s access to public accommodations.

According to UC Berkeley philosopher Judith Butler, what the anti-gender ideology movement calls “gender” is a fiction—a phantasm. “It’s not really what people in gender studies mean by gender. [Right-wing extremists are] imagining something that will destroy civilization or the family as we know it. So [they give the term] ‘gender’ enormous power that it doesn’t have.”

Butler, the author of the 1990 book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, explained that most people who work on gender—or ways of thinking about biology, culture, or society—hold to a more interactive model of the world.

“Society affects our biology, our physiology, the environments that we’re brought up in. And what we absorb or fail to absorb from those environments affects who we are,” they said. “When we’re talking about gender identity, it has a psychic and social dimension that’s not determined by biology.”

University of Southern California critical-studies professor Madison Moore expressed similar sentiments earlier this year, as attacks on drag performers appeared to spike in cities across the country.

“If you’re a more conservative-minded person, then you likely have a specific idea of what it means to be in your body and how to live your life,” they told CNN. “Some conservatives see drag as ‘indoctrination.’ I would say that it’s just showing that there are more options. You don’t actually have to be confined to the little box you were assigned at birth.

“If we think about the states denying the healthcare rights of transgender youth or gender-nonconforming youth, including mental-health care, that’s hurting children. It’s hurting children who are trying to move out of the despair of being subjected to a set of social expectations that are just not acceptable to them. Those kids are suffering.”

Or as Emmett Schelling, executive director of the Transgender Education Network of Texas, bluntly put it regarding Texas Governor Greg Abbott describing gender-affirming care for transgender youth as child abuse: “The state’s leadership has said, ‘We would rather see dead children [than] happy, loved, supported, thriving trans kids that are alive and well.'”

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