The ‘Groomer’ Slur

By Aoife Gallagher and Tim Squirrell

16 January 2023

Around the world today, the use of the term ‘groomer’ is used to justify hate, discrimination and violence against the LGBTQ+ community. In the US particularly, the use of this language, along with conspiratorial thinking around queer people, has led to legislation preventing the discussion of LGBTQ+ issues in schools and preventing trans children from accessing gender affirming healthcare, and has motivated attacks on LGBTQ+ individuals.


Attempts to claim that members of the LGBTQ+ community pose a danger to children are nothing new, and such narratives have resurfaced in different geographies for decades. These claims range from attempting to conflate homosexuality with child abuse to those implying children can be manipulated into becoming queer through exposure to the LGBTQ+ community. Despite victories for LGBTQ+ rights in countries across the world in recent years, this narrative has once again surfaced in ‘groomer’ rhetoric espoused by some prominent media, politicians and influential figures.

Grooming in a predatory context is defined by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) as “manipulative behaviors that the abuser uses to gain access to a potential victim, coerce them to agree to the abuse, and reduce the risk of being caught.” According to Cormac McKeown, senior editor of the Collins English Dictionary speaking to the BBC in 2008, the term became popular with the rise of the internet and the use of chatrooms by pedophiles to find victims.

Around the world today, the use of the term ‘groomer’ is used to justify hate, discrimination and violence against the LGBTQ+ community. In the US particularly, the use of this language, along with conspiratorial thinking around queer people, has led to legislation preventing the discussion of LGBTQ+ issues in schools and preventing trans children from accessing gender affirming healthcare, and has motivated attacks on LGBTQ+ individuals.

How have queer people been framed as pedophiles in the past?

In the US, the first mainstream attempts to claim that queer people are a danger to children came in 1977 through singer Anita Bryant and her organization Save Our Children. The Stonewall riots in 1969 had kick-started the gay rights movement, and as societal attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community changed, a reactionary backlash brewed. Bryant’s organization, rooted in evangelical Christian beliefs, was formed in response to the passing of a law in Dade County, Florida, outlawing discrimination against a person based on their sexual orientation when it came to accessing housing, employment or public services.

Save Our Children successfully campaigned to repeal this law, centering its argument on the threat gay people posed to children if they were allowed to become teachers. Adverts and messaging during the campaign promoted the idea that gay people preyed on children and attempted to ‘recruit’ them. They specifically attempted to make homosexuality synonymous with pedophilia. Bryant’s campaign went national and helped to defeat anti-discrimination ordinances across the US, and is thought to have contributed to the rise of the Christian right as a political force in the country.

In the UK, 1988 saw the introduction of Section 28, which prohibited the “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities, effectively banning the discussion of LGBTQ+ issues in schools. The Conservative Party engaged in a campaign claiming that young children were being exposed to texts that “promoted” LGBTQ+ identities, echoing arguments that attempt to portray homosexuality as intrinsically both sexual and deviant. Supporters of the law made arguments about “predatory homosexuals,” attempting to link gay men in particular to pedophilia. Section 28 was not repealed until 2003.

In the 2000s, when revelations of widespread child abuse committed by the clergy in the Catholic Church became public knowledge, attempts were once again made to forge links between homosexuality and pedophilia. The investigations into the abuse found that the majority of victims were male, therefore efforts were made to blame homosexual priests for the abuse. In fact, many of the abusive priests were found to be “situational generalists,” who chose their victims based on who they had access to. Research has consistently found no link between homosexuality and child sexual abuse.

During the fight for civil rights for LGBTQ+ people, some groups sought to co-opt this struggle to pursue an agenda of legalizing or increasing societal tolerance for pedophilia. The most notorious of these is perhaps the North American Man-Boy Love Association (NAMBLA), which was on the peripheries of the LGBTQ+ movement until the early 1990s when it was publicly disowned and excommunicated after its existence became more well-known. The tenuous and contested links between pro-pedophile groups and historic LGBTQ+ liberation movements have been exploited by anti-LGBTQ+ activists to further the argument that queer people are attempting to groom children or are inherently dangerous or deviant.

How did the online world escalate claims linking LGBTQ+ people to pedophilia?

The first two decades of the 21st century saw countries around the world pass laws to give the LGBTQ+ community fundamental human rights. In reactionary parts of the internet, though, attempts were still being made to slander queer people through supposed links to pedophilia.

The notorious anonymous imageboard 4chan, a website that has acted as a breeding ground for extremist movements, harassment campaigns and conspiracy theories, began instigating trolling and smear campaigns against LGBTQ+ activists, organizations and the wider community. From mid-2016, threads appeared on 4chan that claimed that a ‘P’ was added to the LGBTQ+ acronym to represent “pedosexuals,” with users encouraged to try to convince people that the LGBTQ+ community was trying to promote equal rights for pedophiles. These campaigns had some minor success when they were picked up by users on more mainstream platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

A similar hoax was instigated on 4chan in 2017, which aimed to promote a fake sexual identity known as “clovergender.” Intended as a way to mock non-binary and trans identities, clovergenders identified as “a child trapped in a man’s body who is attracted to other children.” Again, the hoax received mainstream attention when it was tweeted by a number of well-known people, including “pharmabro” and now convicted fraudster Martin Shkreli.

One of the most successful hoaxes that attempted to link the LGBTQ+ community to pedophilia came in 2018. This one latched onto a tiny grain of truth: the fact that a small number of pedophiles, and psychologists who study child sexual abuse, refer to pedophiles instead as “minor-attracted persons” or MAPs. The hoax claimed that MAPs had created their own Pride Flag as a way to promote their acceptance and inclusion within the LGBTQ+ community, but fact-checking site Snopes found that the flag originated from a post on Tumblr that was almost certainly a 4chan-style hoax. Its success was almost immediate, when a UK-based LGBTQ+ website Gay Star News unwittingly reported on it as “groups of pedophiles… attempting to be part of the LGBTI community.” From there, the hoax was picked up by the right-wing news site the Daily Caller and made its way around the right-wing news circuit, gaining hundreds of thousands of interactions online.

Offline, far-right activists continued anti-LGBTQ+ campaigns, in particular targeting Drag Queen Story Hour events from 2017 onwards. These events, often hosted in libraries and bookshops, consist of drag queens reading books to children with stories often incorporating child friendly explanations of gender and family diversity. White nationalists, misrepresenting what was happening at these events and seeing them as signs of ‘degeneracy,’ began organizing in-person protests against them.

At the same time, conspiracy theories that put apparent crimes against children front and center of their beliefs were also gathering steam. Pizzagate, a conspiracy theory that rose in popularity during the 2016 election, claimed that Hillary Clinton and members of her campaign were involved in a child trafficking ring out of a Washington, DC, pizzeria. In 2017, with the birth of QAnon, these claims were taken further, and followers of the cult-like movement were bound by the belief that Donald Trump’s presidency was part of a years-long battle against satanic and pedophilic child traffickers who secretly ruled the world. During the pandemic, QAnon spread to a much wider audience through the #SaveTheChildren movement – a diluted and rebranded version of QAnon focusing more on exposing supposed child trafficking and less on the overt political elements of the movement.

Following Trump’s loss in the 2020 election, many of the leaders of QAnon changed tack – their new plan was to encourage their followers to infiltrate school boards meetings and win positions in the decision-making bodies of schools. Once there, parents who had been radicalized by QAnon and other conspiratorial ideas began fighting back against issues such as mask mandates, COVID-19 vaccines, the teaching of issues related to race and diversity. This often took the form of heated exchanges where parents would accuse teachers of pedophilia and sexualizing children through the teaching of issues related to the lives of LGBTQ+. Arguments were often based on cherry-picking segments from LGBTQ+ themed books that were in school libraries and claiming that the out-of-context descriptions of sexual experiences were promoting pedophilia.

The birth of the ‘groomer’ slur

As this was happening in the US, across the Atlantic in the UK, a movement was gaining force that was pushing back on what it believed to be the dangers associated with transgender identities. The ‘gender critical’ movement, often also known as ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminists’ (TERFs) took particular aim at trans women, denying their rights to exist as women and claiming their presence in female spaces posed a threat to cisgender women.

A number of prominent campaigners promoting these views also began criticizing healthcare and support services offered to young transgender people. In June 2019, the anti-trans lobby group Transgender Trend described a service providing free chest binders to trans boys as ‘predators’ who were trying to ‘groom’ young girls. The service was recommended in guidelines from the UK’s National Health Service, meaning it was easily framed as the UK government ‘endorsing’ such activity. Later that year, the TV writer and anti-trans campaigner Graham Linehan began using the term “ok groomer” to reply to his critics on Twitter.

Some 4chan boards soon joined this effort, encouraging users to reply “ok groomer” in conversations about LGBTQ+ issues on Twitter, with conservative influencer Jack Posobiec taking this forward from January 2021. From early 2022, the term’s use reached a crescendo following the passing of an anti-LGBTQ+ education bill in Florida. This came during a record breaking few years for anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, much of it targeting trans youths by banning their access to gender affirming healthcare, or refusing places on sports teams that matched their gender identity.

Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act, which was signed into law by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in March 2022, became a lightning rod in the ongoing pushback against LGBTQ+ rights. The legislation prohibits the discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity from kindergarten to third grade, and limits these conversations for older students to what is deemed “age appropriate or developmentally appropriate.”

Opponents criticized the use of vague language and dubbed the legislation the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill. Supporters, most notably Christina Pushaw, press secretary for Governor DeSantis, labeled it the ‘Anti-Grooming’ bill and branded those who opposed the bill as ‘groomers.’ The term was further popularized through its use by members of the so-called “intellectual dark web” such as James Lindsay and Christopher Rufo, Daily Wire political commentator Matt Walsh, and accounts that engage in targeted harassment of LGBTQ+ people, such as Chaya Raichik’s Libs of TikTok.

The real-world impact of the ‘groomer’ slur

The overall effect of this complex web of moral panics, conspiratorial thinking and old-school anti-gay tropes is an atmosphere where the ‘groomer’ narrative has served as justification for harassment, attacks, discrimination, intimidation and the erasure of the LGBTQ+ community.

Increasingly, the targets have been events involving drag queens – either Drag Queen Story Hours, all-ages drag brunches, or standard drag shows taking place in LGBTQ+ venues. GLAAD, the LGBTQ+ media advocacy organization, recorded 141 incidents in the US targeting drag events throughout 2022. This included armed protesters, members of militia groups, neo-Nazis and Proud Boys showing up at events to intimidate attendees and organizers, instigate harassment against them, accuse them of grooming children and attempt to shut the events down.

In Tulsa, Oklahoma, a donut shop that had hosted a drag event was attacked with a Molotov cocktail in October 2022, with the attacker leaving behind anti-LGBTQ+ flyers. The office and apartment building of gay New York council member Erik Bottcher was graffitied with the words groomer, predator and pedo in December 2022 after his attendance at, and support of, a drag queen story hour that was targeted by protesters days before.

Violent anti-LGBTQ+ attacks further escalated throughout the fall, with a mass shooting at an LGBTQ+ nightclub in Colorado Springs left five people dead and 17 wounded. Although at the time of writing no motive has been released for the attack, a drag event had taken place on the night of the shooting with another planned for the following day – also Transgender Day of Remembrance. ISD analysis found widespread apologism for the shooting online in its aftermath, including prominent influencers claiming the shooting was justified due to the club’s hosting of ‘grooming events’ and continued hosting of Colorado-based drag performers. The shooting was also celebrated by violent accelerationist neo-Nazis online.

The real-world impact of ‘groomer’ rhetoric on education was felt almost immediately in Florida after the passing of the Parental Rights in Education bill. Teachers in schools were warned about discussing LGBTQ+ issues, with some told to remove photos of same-sex spouses from their classrooms, refrain from wearing rainbow colors and remove stickers signifying LGBTQ+ safe spaces. Some LGBTQ+ teachers quit over the passing of the legislation, saying it would in essence put them back in the closet. Across the state, LGBTQ+ themed books were removed from school libraries.

The impact has also been felt outside of Florida. LGBTQ+ book bans are happening across the country, including in Utah and Texas. Also in Texas, a Republican lawmaker introduced an even more extreme version of Florida’s legislation which would also prohibit the discussion of LGBTQ+ issues in classrooms and require schools to out queer students to their parents. Republican lawmakers in Indiana have also said they are drafting their own Florida-style bill.

The transgender community continues to be the target of this increased hate, with transgender healthcare consistently attacked. In Texas, Attorney General Ken Paxton declared that gender affirming healthcare was child abuse and investigations were conducted into the parents of transgender youths, causing some families to flee the state. In August 2022, the notorious anti-LGBTQ+ account Libs of TikTok falsely accused Boston Children’s Hospital and Children’s National Hospital in Washington of performing hysterectomies on children, which resulted in the hospitals being bombarded with threatening messages and bomb threats. In early December 2022, the FBI arrested a man in Texas for making a death threat against a Boston-based doctor caring for gender nonconforming children.

The repercussions of this increased hostility towards the LGBTQ community are not just being felt in the US, but are rippling around the world. In the UK, statistics released by the Home Office in 2022 found that almost one in five hate crimes were motivated by anti-LGBTQ+ hate. Drag Queen Story Hour events have been protested in both the UK and Ireland amid claims that they are grooming and sexualizing children. Multiple countries recorded their highest ever levels of hate crimes against LGBTQ+ people in 2021, according to the OSCE, including France, Italy, Ireland and Germany. ISD has covered this international escalation in anti-LGTBQ+ hatred elsewhere.

Conclusion

LGBTQ+ issues have re-emerged as a central battleground in right-wing political and cultural discourse. Those who oppose letting queer people have access to fundamental rights and healthcare appear to be enjoying increasing success in pushing discourse, legislation and action that both marginalizes and endangers the lives and livelihoods of the LGBTQ+ community.

The mainstreaming of the ‘groomer’ slur, which began as an immature insult used on the fringes of the online world and has become part of the vocabulary of prominent political figures and commentators in a short span of time, represents the latest frontier in this battleground. However, it relies on very old tropes about, and slurs against, LGBTQ+ people, sowing again the seeds of the moral panics of decades past.

The impact of this slur on queer people has been real and marked, creating a sense of danger and atmosphere of fear within the community.

Part of the success of this mainstreaming lies in the ability of fringe actors to manipulate the general public’s lack of knowledge of queer culture and particularly their insensitivity to the plight of trans people. This has been coupled with the most potent fear – that of people harming children, which has been used to justify hatred and irrationality for centuries.

In reality, the ‘groomer’ slur harms those children who are most in need of support – queer and gender non-conforming children. According to The Trevor Project’s 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, 45 percent of LGBTQ+ youth have seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year. Those who attend schools with LGBTQ+ affirming policies reported lower rates of attempted suicide. Vulnerable young people now find themselves facing situations where support systems – LGBTQ+ friendly teachers, books about queer identities, and healthcare – are being taken away from them leaving them with fewer barriers to the stigma they face from society.

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