An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The buzzword grooming is an age-old trope that feeds off fear


One word features in a lot of recent right-wing rhetoric, and that word is grooming.


TUCKER CARLSON: They're grooming 7-year-olds and talking to 7-year-olds about their sex lives.


LAURA INGRAHAM: This isn't programming. This is propaganda for grooming.


J D VANCE: If you don't want to be called a groomer, don't try to sexualize 6- and 7-year-old children.

INSKEEP: OK. That was Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham of Fox News, along with Ohio U.S. Senate candidate J.D. Vance, just a few of those who've been pushing a baseless accusation. NPR's Melissa Block reports it is a smear with a history.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: Mallory McMorrow was stunned when she saw it. She's a Michigan state senator and a Democrat. What she saw was a fundraising email sent by a fellow senator, Republican Lana Theis. In that email, Theis wrote that children are, quote, "under assault in our schools" by what she called progressive mobs trying to steal our children's innocence. And then, McMorrow says, it got personal.

MALLORY MCMORROW: She accused me by name of grooming and wanting to sexualize kindergartners. I mean, my heart absolutely sank.

BLOCK: McMorrow says she kept thinking about her 1-year-old daughter.

MCMORROW: You know, grooming is the act of befriending a child for the purpose of molesting them - just the most horrific, disgusting, vile accusation that can be thrown at you.

BLOCK: So the next day, McMorrow stood on the Michigan Senate floor and fired back.


MCMORROW: I am the biggest threat to your hollow, hateful scheme because you can't claim that you are targeting marginalized kids in the name of, quote, "parental rights" if another parent is standing up to say no.

BLOCK: McMorrow made a point of saying, twice, I am a straight, white Christian, married suburban mom.


MCMORROW: And I know that hate will only win if people like me stand by and let it happen.

BLOCK: That speech went viral. It's been seen millions of times. McMorrow hopes her words will counterbalance some of the hurtful rhetoric LGBTQ people are bombarded with.

MCMORROW: I talked to kids in my district in a high school last Monday, and the first question was from a girl, probably 15 or 16, who said, you know, I identify as queer. I'm LGBTQ. Why do they hate us? And it's just heartbreaking.

BLOCK: The grooming accusation hurled at McMorrow, among many others, has a long history.

EVAN WOLFSON: Well, it's a despicable attack, but it's not a new tactic.

BLOCK: LGBTQ rights activist Evan Wolfson calls it a classic trope of dehumanization.

WOLFSON: Think about the calumny against gay people throughout most of our lifetimes, that gay people somehow are molesting kids or after kids or predatory.

BLOCK: That idea propelled anti-gay activist Anita Bryant's Save Our Children campaign in the '70s. And it led to a 1978 California ballot measure to ban gays and lesbians from working in public schools, an initiative spearheaded by State Senator John Briggs.


JOHN BRIGGS: We are going to restore morality to the classroom and remove openly and blatant homosexuals from influencing and teaching our young.

BLOCK: The ballot measure failed. But the homophobic attacks continued, fueling a moral panic. Evan Wolfson heard those attacks all through the fight he led to legalize same-sex marriage. Now, he says, there's an added layer of transphobia.

WOLFSON: The trans conversation is relatively newer and therefore more susceptible to confusion, to distraction and to primal fear, which is what pushing the button about kids is intended to do.

BLOCK: From charges of grooming, it's just a quick hop to accusations of pedophilia and sex trafficking, conspiracy theories spawned by far-right extremist groups such as QAnon and propagated widely through social media and right-wing channels. It's appalling, says Utah State Senator Daniel Thatcher.

DANIEL THATCHER: This idea of grooming, I'll tell you, to me as a survivor of childhood sexual assault, I'll just tell you, I find it personally, deeply offensive. So why do they do it? Well, they do it because it resonates so deeply.

BLOCK: Thatcher is a Republican. Earlier this year, he broke with his party, speaking out against a bill that would ban transgender girls from competing in girls' sports. His positions in support of LGBTQ rights earned him an attack by a right-wing activist group that accused him of supporting the, quote, "grooming of children for gender nonconformity in our public schools." Thatcher calls the explicit email the nastiest thing I've ever seen.

THATCHER: Grooming is an act that happens as you break down barriers of someone. And so the argument that telling a child that you will support them regardless of who and how they love is somehow equivalent to teaching a child that they're not allowed to say no or set boundaries, like, to me, that is just reprehensible to conflate the two.

SARAH KATE ELLIS: This does lead to real-world harm.

BLOCK: That Sarah Kate Ellis, head of the LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD.

ELLIS: We're already seeing an uptick in violence against the community.

BLOCK: In response to the wave of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and legislation, GLAAD has launched a media campaign with this public service announcement airing nationwide.


AMBER BRIGGLE: Do you want to meet to a family with a transgender kid? Here we are.

BLOCK: The PSA introduces the Briggle family of Texas and their transgender teenaged son. We see him doing backflips and playing his ukulele.


BRIGGLE: My family's just like yours. We love our kids unconditionally, and we will never stop fighting for them. Stand with us. Protect our families.

BLOCK: Individual stories like this one are crucial, says Evan Wolfson, who crafted messages in the Freedom to Marry campaign that were designed to personalize and humanize.

WOLFSON: When we showed gay people, when we elevated the voices of gay people as part of the conversation - and I say this as someone who is gay - we wanted to show the gay people as part of a family, the gay people as part of a workplace, the gay people in this case as part of a classroom. And I think the same lesson applies here, too.

BLOCK: The slogan love is love was the lesson learned in the Freedom to Marry campaign. Now, Wolfson suggests, how about protect all kids? Or, from Michigan State Senator Mallory McMorrow, this idea - hate won't win.

Melissa Block, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.