Understanding the Groomer Moral Panic
Writer Eve Ettinger explains how we got here
Eve Ettinger is a writer and educator in the DC area. They are on the board of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education and co-host the Kitchen Table Cult podcast. Eve wrote for Men Yell at Me last year with an essay about class, gender, and Mare of Easttown. Today, they are breaking down the conversation about grooming in the classroom.
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I first noticed the conflation of “queer” with “groomer” in May 2020 when writer and academic Grace Lavery was facing harassment from Graham Linehan, a formerly famous TV writer who gained substantial notoriety for his loudmouth transphobia. Linehan falsely accused Lavery of preying on her students at Berkeley, where she teaches 19th-century British literature and critical theory. Twitter banned Linehan for his allegations, and the fun folks over at the harassment mill Kiwi Farms spun this out further, accusing her of being a pedophile.
The mythology of queer people being predators is old and rote but is currently resurging, this time remixed with the QAnon “Democrats are a pedophilic cabal” theme song and garden-variety transphobia. This shift in rhetoric implies that any children who are self-aware enough to identify themselves as LGBTQ+ in some way have been groomed by adult queers preying on them. This messaging has been picked up and championed by Christopher Rufo, a conservative strategist who works at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank that the Koch brothers love to fund. The New York Times reported on Rufo’s messaging back in April, noting that he’s replicating his methods of turning critical race theory into a panic buzzword to achieve a similar reaction to LGBTQ+ rights.
For those who don’t know Rufo, he’s a former documentary filmmaker who shot to fame in conservative circles after a September 2020 appearance on Tucker Carlson’s hit Fox News show, where he first said the words “critical race theory” on air. He added, “Conservatives need to wake up. This is an existential threat to the United States. And the bureaucracy, even under Trump, is being weaponized against core American values.” He then called on President Trump to issue an executive order to abolish “critical race theory” training from the federal government. The next day, according to a profile in the New Yorker, he got a call from the Trump administration, which was known to watch Fox News at night, and was flown to Washington, D.C., to help draft the order against what Rufo called this “destructive, divisive, pseudoscientific ideology.” And now, he is not content to end his crusades with ideas based on race.
“Mr. Rufo is convinced that a fight over L.G.B.T.Q. curriculums — which he calls ‘gender ideology,’” the Times pointed out, “has even more potential to spur a political backlash than the debate over how race and American history are taught.” The conflation of basic information with ideology is both absurd and powerful. It turns anything related to education and access to information about sexuality and gender into an attempt to manipulate and corrupt, which means that children being taught simple, age-appropriate facts gets reframed as sexual predation.
Rufo turning his attention from CRT and stoking racial tensions to rebranding queer issues as pedophilia may seem like a big shift, but it’s not. His larger goal with both these campaigns seems to be undermining trust in educators and public education systems, which in turn creates an opening for the parental rights extremists to step in and push censorship and disinformation on mainstream curricular materials. Building on a decrease in trust of public institutions, the moral panic over “groomers” in school creates a space for revisionist history and bigotry to be taught as legitimate alternatives to conventionally accepted, inclusive educational materials.
It’s vital to pay attention to how Rufo and others successfully turned “critical race theory,” the important but somewhat arcane academic theory, into “CRT,” one of the most hotly discussed, politicized buzzwords of the past few years. His deft messaging strategy has proved dangerous; any attempt to reframe queerness is bound to be both more sinister and more effective, especially now that he has trained conservatives, through the CRT debate, to adopt his methods.
Building on a decrease in trust of public institutions, the moral panic over “groomers” in school creates a space for revisionist history and bigotry to be taught as legitimate alternatives to conventionally accepted, inclusive educational materials.
With what he called a “public persuasion campaign,” Rufo successfully shifted the goalposts in the national conversations about racism through a simple reframing around the definition of the terms. His March 2021 tweet lays it out plainly: “We have successfully frozen their brand — ‘critical race theory’ — into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions,” he wrote at the time. “We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category.”
Rufo distracts from effective conversations and empowers those who want to have their bigotry validated with language and terminology that make them sound intellectually credible.
It’s not just that Rufo’s argumentation style is effective; it’s his persona, as well. Rufo comports himself as a polite, “just asking questions” kind of conservative who flies under the radar while blunderbusses like Tucker Carlson keep us distracted. His senior fellow status at the Manhattan Institute gives him some intellectual cred, and he publishes frequently as the contributing editor of its in-house magazine, City Journal. He crafts articles like “The DEI Regime,” which argues that corporate diversity initiatives are a leftist power grab, and “Disney’s Child Predator Problem,” which asserts that queer representation in Disney films is preying on children sexually—grooming them, even. The overly simplistic framing of these articles and others like them allows Rufo to have an unlimited supply of content to generate that endears him to his audience.
The results of this strategy are still being played out in multiple arenas. School board meetings’ public comment sections are contentious, op-ed columns in major newspapers ask absurdist theoretical questions, and parents believe children are being taught to hate themselves and their families because they’re white. State after state, this past legislative session saw representatives introducing bills banning CRT. And since then, progressives are still stewing over this situation being so very ridiculous (rightly so), but we have to keep our eye on the ball. While we bemoan this battle lost, Rufo has moved on to the next play in his hand: inducing cishet parental panicking about queers being “groomers.”
On Twitter, Rufo has been calling for sources to tell him about instances of “gender ideology” in elementary schools. But what he considers “gender ideology” is expansive and includes lessons about gender, sexuality, and anatomy taught in inclusive ways, which he deems inappropriate and, therefore, as the subtext suggests, grooming them to join the queer community. He’s moving the Overton window, changing the terms of the debate once again. Instead of discussing how varied human experiences of biology and gender are and engaging the issue on the level of questions I hear my queer peers eager to discuss, like, “Is this science solid?” and “Do we understand what gender actually is?,” he’s on the other end of the field talking about how the very concepts of gender fluidity and sexual diversity are inherently harmful and oversexualizing children.
Playing up these fears will be easy because it’s uncomfortable for adults to consider major reframes for how they see the world and because Rufo has greased the gears of the conservative propaganda machine to weaponize similar discomfort in the context of CRT, so throwing queer issues into the mix will be easy listening for his audience.
Of course, “save the babies” as a rallying call is the easiest method of getting people to join a bandwagon. Theoretical children are currently being leveraged against the queer community: save the babies from the groomers. This is already the case in states like Texas, where people are being encouraged to report the parents of trans students as being child abusers, and states like Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis is trying to save children from drag.
Thanks to Rufo using his bully pulpit of the Manhattan Institute to foment terror about educators teaching entirely too much gender, I think this is just the trailhead for this moral panic. Of course, writing about Rufo and his tactics does carry with it a moral quandary. When space is given to the bad rhetoric of the Right in an attempt to ridicule it or show it as a waste of time, it feeds the beast exactly what it wants, and it gives some sort of credibility to these talking points. Outlets then allow writers to spend time on whether or not drag queen story hour is or is not “grooming” children, or how abortion rights aren’t as important as post-natal social support. This, in turn, detracts from urgent issues like how Texas is tearing families with trans kids apart or how Florida’s governor is attempting to prevent trans children from accessing hormones that cis adults can access without hesitation. It’s important to educate ourselves about Rufo’s tactics while also making sure that we take it seriously without giving it undue air.