Blog, Social Justice

How Anti-LGBTQ+ Legislation Co-opts the Language of Anti-Violence Advocates


photograph of an unhappy child resting on a stack of books, surrounded by an aqua border

Just last month, I hopped onto a meeting of the Sex Education Alliance (SEA) to talk about the most recent onslaught of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation sweeping across the U.S. The Alliance is a membership organization for sex educators who are focused on family and child education and we spend a lot of time supporting each other in various ways. But we also look for ways to push the needle forward in support of inclusive, progressive, comprehensive sex education.

During our meeting, however, it became clear that the amount of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation we’d been seeing lately had left us feeling overwhelmed, so much so that we struggled to figure out where it might be best to focus our efforts.

Which to choose??

A Quick Rundown of Recent Anti-LGBTQ+ Legislation

The first case I present to you is that of the Don’t Say Gay bill. In March, Governor Ron DeSantis signed House Bill (HB) 1557, Parental Rights in Education, which proponents say is meant to reinforce parents’ rights to make decisions regarding the upbringing of their children. This piece of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation prevents educators from discussing gender identity and sexuality in K-3 classrooms.

“Parents’ rights have been increasingly under assault around the nation,” said Governor Ron DeSantis, “but in Florida, we stand up for the rights of parents and the fundamental role they play in the education of their children. Parents have every right to be informed about services offered to their child at school, and should be protected from schools using classroom instruction to sexualize their kids as young as 5 years old.” [Emphasis my own, and we’ll get to the use of this sort of terminology later in this post.]

Mrs. White from the movie Clue speaking about flames on the side of her face.

What this legislation actually does, however, is make invisible (or try to) the existence of those outside the gender binary, and those who don’t align with heterocentric norms. And as I’ve mentioned in the past, kids who don’t see themselves reflected in the curriculum can end up experiencing shame and confusion and are placed at greater risk of bullying.

According to a piece that ran in the Guardian on April 11, a shit-ton of conservative states across the country have since attempted to pass similar legislation.

Then there are the attempts to enact legislation that criminalizes gender-affirming care for trans folks. In February, Texas Governor Greg Abbott called on “licensed professionals” and “members of the general public” to report the parents of transgender minors to state authorities if it appeared the minors were receiving gender-affirming medical care. This was on the heels of a statement released by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, which stated that allowing minors to receive gender-affirming care counted as child abuse under state law. (Can I just continue using that same gif from Clue over and over?)

Again, copycat bills have since been introduced around the country, including one signed into law by Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, who has outlawed gender-affirming care for transgender youth.

This despite the fact that research shows that gender-affirming care saves lives.

Moving on, we have the slew of book bans on titles that acknowledge the existence of queer and/or gender-diverse folks. I already wrote about these endless book bans back in February, but let me just reiterate that these bans are yet another attempt to make invisible and silence the experiences of anyone who is not cisgender, heterosexual, and/or white.

I won’t even get into the attack on abortion rights, as it’s outside the purview of this post, but it certainly does add to the feelings of hopelessness and anger. So if you’d like, here’s where the Washington Post is tracking major abortion restrictions and protections across the U.S.

And to wrap it all up with a neat little bow, here’s a piece from my journalist buddy Christine Grimaldi on how the GOP wants to control every body.

The Common Thread Running Through These Pieces of Anti-LGBTQ+ Legislation

You may have noticed up above that I bolded the word “sexualize,” in addition to the phrase “child abuse.” These are just two examples of the terminology conservative folks have been using to demonize resources and behaviors in support of LGBTQ+ youth.

Other terms that have been thrown around a lot lately in an attempt to cause panic and outrage are “grooming” and “pedophilia.”

Those who want to educate youth about sexuality are said to be sexualizing or grooming them. Those considering gender-affirming care for their children are dubbed abusers. Do you see it? In all of the rhetoric around these pieces of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, proponents of these bills are co-opting the language of anti-sexual violence advocates.

In the words of the late, great Inigo Montoya: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

animated gif of Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

Way back when, I wrote that, in the case of anti-abortion legislation, Christian conservatives had created a literal playbook for those who want to dismantle abortion rights. Similarly, when I wrote about the book bans, I mentioned that national groups were providing guidance to local conservatives who, in many cases, had never even set eyes on the books they were protesting.

With these latest pushes for anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, the use of terminology specific to child abuse and sexual violence is no accident.

“The bill that liberals inaccurately call ‘Don’t Say Gay’ would be more accurately described as an Anti-Grooming Bill,” tweeted DeSantis’s press secretary, Christina Pushaw. “If you’re against the Anti-Grooming Bill, you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8 year old children.”

I am eye-rolling SO HARD RIGHT NOW.

But this rhetoric is having its intended effect.

According to Vox, anti-critical race theory activist Christopher Rufo has tweeted that “We are building a new model of conservative activism: waging sophisticated narrative warfare, mobilizing grassroots parent-driven protests, designing robust policies to change incentives, and supporting strong leaders who will stand with families against nihilistic elites.”

Later in his tweet thread, he invites folks to sign up for his newsletter so they can enjoy an upcoming series on “gender ideology and how conservatives can successfully fight back.”

Brandon Wolf, an activist with the group Equality Florida, tells Vox that this strategy hinges on making “so much noise that there isn’t space to have a really deep conversation about who people are.”

Those Words Do Not Mean What You Think They Mean

I find it disgusting that conservatives are using language usually tied to instances of sexual abuse in order to push their agenda. “Grooming,” for example, is a tool used by those who sexually abuse kids. RAINN defines grooming as those manipulative behaviors an abuser uses to gain access to a potential victim, coerce them to agree to the abuse, and reduce the risk of being caught. This includes isolating the victim, gaining their trust, asking them to keep secrets, etc.

This is obviously not what educators and progressive parents are doing. In fact, educators are driven by the same goal most parents have: to keep children safe.

But in the midst of all the outrage this rhetoric has generated, people are losing sight of the truth.

What is the truth? Well, research has shown, over and over again, that in addition to reducing sexual risk-taking behaviors, comprehensive and inclusive sex ed aids students in relational decision-making, provides them with knowledge that protects them from abuse and, hell, makes them feel seen.

And as for the charge that folks like myself (a sex-positive parent and an advocate for comprehensive sex ed) are sexualizing children or conditioning them to be promiscuous or queer or whatever (there’s another one: conditioning), I can’t even.

I like how feminist writer Jessica Valenti frames it in her All in Her Head Newsletter, in an issue titled, “Who Really Sexualizes Kids?”

“[W]ho is actually sexualizing children?” she asks. “People who don’t want LGBTQ kids to feel ostracized? Teachers who want to have inclusive curricula? Or is it those who have zero ability to think about gender identity and sexual orientation without being total fucking creeps about it?”

She goes on to point out that those married to the notion of traditional gender roles have always sexualized young people through the use of things like “purity balls where young girls are expected to pledge their virginity to their fathers, abstinence-only education classes that teach children that boys have uncontrollable sexual urges, or even the bizarre insistence that cancer-preventing vaccines will make girls promiscuous.”

There have also been some pretty fantastic social media posts that have highlighted the hypocrisy of those using the rhetoric of anti-sexual violence advocacy. Like this one from @impact on how the only sexuality kids are being “indoctrinated” into is heterosexuality. And this other one from the same account about how this conservative movement only sees LGBTQ+ folks through the lens of sex, rather than as whole people whose very existence deserves recognition.

Pretty Please Don’t Be Taken In By This Rhetoric

Don’t let it confuse you. Don’t allow it to cause you to doubt the mission of those who seek to improve the overall health and wellbeing of youth.

Because I’m in the sex ed biz, I want to end this post by acknowledging that May is Sex Ed for All Month, which makes this an especially fantastic time to learn more about why the language of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation is bullshit.

I encourage you to sign up for the Sex Education Collaborative’s email list to get information on this event throughout the month. And, well, I’m always here to talk sex ed stuff.

Steph Auteri is a journalist who has written for the Atlantic, Pacific Standard, VICE, and elsewhere. Her more literary work has appeared in Poets & Writers, Creative Nonfiction, VQR, and other publications. Her reported memoir, A DIRTY WORD, came out in 2018. She is the founder of GuerrillaSexEd.org. Favorite Genres: horror, comics, horror comics, and narrative journalism.

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