From "grooming" to "child abduction": Right's accusations against LGBTQ advocates get even worse

A student-led group in Virginia promised to protect trans kids. That sparked a massive right-wing freakout

By Kathryn Joyce

Investigative Reporter

Published October 6, 2022 6:30AM (EDT)

A student holds signs during a rally in support of LGBTQ student rights in Falls Church, Va. on July 14, 2022 (Eric Lee for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
A student holds signs during a rally in support of LGBTQ student rights in Falls Church, Va. on July 14, 2022 (Eric Lee for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Last spring, as the right began using the word "grooming" as a slur against LGBTQ people and their allies, journalist Melissa Gira Grant noted at the New Republic that the word provided a way to "say both the quiet and the loud part." Contorting a term long used to describe real instances of child sex abuse into a weapon to be deployed against LGBTQ people and commonplace policies — for example, that their existence can and should be acknowledged in schools — was the "loud" part. It was a shocking but pithy means of demonization; as Gira Grant wrote, the "right is using the reality of child abuse to raise unfounded fears and panic about criminal and predatory behavior hiding in plain sight." The quiet part was the secondary implication: If one's "enemies" really are "an ill-defined yet pervasive threat to children, what wouldn't be justified in stopping them?" 

This week, that quiet part got noticeably louder, as right-wing activists escalated the already-dangerous rhetoric of "grooming" — language that multiple social media platforms have banned from use as an insult related to LGBTQ issues — and graduated into claims that LGBTQ people and liberals are literally kidnapping and trafficking children. 

There's a backstory: Last week in Virginia, some 12,000 high school students at close to 100 schools walked out of their classes to protest new guidelines proposed by Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin on how Virginia's public schools should handle transgender students. In 2020, Virginia's General Assembly passed legislation requiring school districts to adopt policies granting students access to bathrooms and facilities that correspond with their gender identity, using students' requested names and pronouns, and protecting students' privacy related to sensitive issues like gender or sexuality. But to Youngkin, who was swept into office last fall on a wave of anger around "parents' rights," those guidelines were "a big mistake" that "excluded parents" from vital decisions, as the governor told "Fox & Friends" last weekend. 

So last month, Youngkin proposed a new set of guidelines, which are currently under a 30-day public comment period that has already drawn close to 60,000 responses. Under the proposal, trans students would be compelled to use bathrooms and locker rooms that align with their biological sex at birth; parents must give written permission before teachers can use students' preferred pronouns or names; students can't talk to school counselors about their gender without parental permission; and, perhaps most important, schools can't conceal any information they learn about students' gender identity from their parents. 

That last measure was particularly concerning to many of the students who walked out of school last week, following a campaign by the student-led group Pride Liberation Project (PLP). 

"We are worried that trans students will not be safe in their schools and they will not be safe at home," said Ranger Balleisen, a senior at McLean High School in Fairfax County who works with PLP. "One of the main provisions in the model transgender policy is that schools have the responsibility to out any LGBTQ students to their parents. It's likely that doing so will harm some students, especially those who are not in safe situations." 

Virginia's existing guidelines on trans kids — which Youngkin wants to roll back — "quite frankly saved my life," says 18-year-old Aaryan Rawal.

Aaryan Rawal, the 18-year-old director of PLP, agreed. The existing guidelines "quite frankly saved my life when I was in Virginia," said Rawal, who graduated from high school in Fairfax County last spring and is now in his first semester at Harvard. "I've never come out to my parents, and I don't think those conversations would go well if I was to have them," he continued. "But when I was coming out of the closet in my junior and early senior year, those guidelines made sure I could be myself, and ask teachers for things as simple as proofreading my college essays." 

Youngkin's proposed guidelines, Rawal said, "essentially say that if a student expresses that they aren't cisgender, a teacher has to forcibly out them. And it prohibits schools from passing guidelines that say you can't out students who aren't heterosexual." That would have meant, Rawal said, "If I had shared my college essay with a teacher, I'd most likely have been outed." 

But this week, Rawal, along with other youth organizers at PLP and their allies, have been targeted in a different way. In the days after the walkout and the tremendous media coverage it generated, PLP's internal communications — including a private Zoom meeting and a message board created for students — were accessed by conservative activists who subsequently began sharing screenshots and other information from the group online and with right-wing media. 

On Tuesday, Luke Rosiak of the right-wing outlet The Daily Wire published a story charging that PLP activists on that message board were plotting to "rehome" LGBTQ youth who run away from home with "queer friendly" guardians, quoting from posts written by Rawal and others. In a section of the message board providing "Resources for Outed Students," Rawal had written, "In the event of you needing to leave your home, we can provide you with emergency housing from a supportive, Queer friendly adult." The resource page also noted that PLP could help provide money to cover such costs as an Uber ride for students who need to leave home in an emergency, or could help students set up online fundraisers if they found themselves on their own.

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It's indisputable that LGBTQ youth face disproportionate rates of homelessness or housing instability, often related to mistreatment or the fear of mistreatment at home. Rawal says, however, that so far PLP has never actually helped any student make an emergency exit from their family. But the desire to provide such resources emerged from a real situation where the group found itself unable to help. Within weeks after PLP was founded, Rawal said, a freshman at his school had come out to his parents, who responded by threatening to put him in conversion therapy — a debunked pseudoscientific process meant to change someone's sexuality or gender identity — even though such therapies have been banned for minors in Virginia. 

"That student left the house and had literally nowhere to go," Rawal said. "He did not have access to a car. There was no public transportation he could use. He had no friends willing to take him in. He was completely alone and isolated." Ultimately, the student was able to return home and was not sent into conversion therapy. "But it highlighted for us that when a student needs to leave their home immediately because it's physically dangerous for them to be in that space, they sometimes need support, from money for an Uber so they can get to a police station or housing shelter, to making sure they have a place to sleep that night so they can recover and file a report with child protective services in the morning." 

Rawal added that PLP has made "very clear" that its "mutual aid" resources for students in that type of crisis aren't meant as a substitute for long-term social services. "It's also not meant to be something to use just to escape an unsupportive household," he added. "It's something to use when your life is in danger." 

Nonetheless, and unsurprisingly, news of PLP's resource page almost immediately sparked a new narrative on the right: LGBTQ people and their allies are no longer just "grooming" children, but are "trafficking" them as well. 

Reports about the student group's resource page sparked an immediate narrative on the right: LGBTQ advocates have moved from "grooming" children to "trafficking" them.

Before the Daily Wire's story was even published, one conservative advocacy group was already promoting the narrative online: the Virginia Project, a now-defunct right-wing PAC based in South Carolina that played a significant role in advancing the panic around critical race theory that helped elect Youngkin 2021. Led by IT engineer David Gordon — who in 2021 referred to CRT activists as "terrorists" — the Virginia Project started tweeting about PLP on Monday, warning, "If the folks working [with] 'Pride Liberation Project' don't want to spend the rest of their lives in prison, it's time to high tail it out of Dodge right now. …We have hard evidence of your child smuggling network." 

In subsequent tweets, the account called PLP a "kidnapping racket," the "Virginia Democrat Child Abduction Project" and the "school to prostitution pipeline." Gordon called for everyone involved with the group ("including Democrat officials who pushed this") to be "arrested and kept in prison until trial," declared that "Gender radicals are straight up kidnapping your kids now," and boasted that this supposed scandal would become "THE story" of the midterm elections, "and nothing short of nuclear war is going to switch the subject." 

That kind of inflammatory rhetoric might, in normal times, hamper efforts to jump-start a new political narrative. But Gordon and his PAC weren't the only groups promoting the story. It was also shared by former Trump White House staffer Andrew Kloster, Virginia Republicans communication director Garren Shipley and Virginia state Del. Nick Freitas. It caught the attention of multiple right-wing news outlets as well, from Glenn Beck's The Blaze to talk radio host Chris Plante (who tweeted, "Democrats are the party of child abductions and human trafficking") to American Conservative columnist Rod Dreher (who warned, "These predatory fools are sooner or later going to mess with the wrong Dad"). Moms for Liberty retweeted it, as did Parents Defending Education — a Koch-related group founded in 2021 that played a decisive role in boosting Youngkin's campaign — with founder Nicki Neily calling for PLP to be investigated by the police. The group's former vice-president, Asra Nomani, now a fellow at the Independent Women's Network, leaned into the story hard, declaring PLP's offered resources amounted to "nothing less than trafficking." 

On Wednesday afternoon, Rosiak published a follow-up Daily Wire story, noting that a leader of the National Association of School Psychologists, Amy Cannava, had participated in PLP's student message board and was listed among the group's "Resources for Outed Students" section as an adult who could provide confidential information. Rosiak observed that Cannava has also been an outspoken opponent of Youngkin's new guidance — challenging school district officials to "defend staff who continue to act in the best interest of students," even if that runs afoul of the new proposed guidelines — and has advocated defending LGBTQ students' interests even if that means "break[ing] rules." In an aside that became a focus of attention on right-wing Twitter, Rosiak also discussed Cannava's sexuality. 

The Virginia House Republicans and Moms for Liberty of Loudoun County quickly shared the story on Twitter, adding to conservatives' contention that last week's student walkouts were "adult-driven" the charges that school staff are deliberately circumventing parents' rights or targeting autistic students. The Virginia Project took it a step further still, tweeting, "at this point I would not be surprised if they were secretly using the removed body parts from the trans surgeries in Satanic rituals."

All this is happening against the backdrop of a heated House race in Virginia's 10th congressional district, which includes part of Fairfax County and all of Loudoun County — the center of last year's bitter parental rights conflicts. In a recent debate between Democratic incumbent Rep. Jennifer Wexton and her Republican opponent, Hung Cao, an audience member asked the candidates about issues related to Youngkin's proposed guidance, and what role parents should play. Their answers instantly became fodder for conservative social media: Wexton said that, as a guardian ad-litem, she had seen "plenty of instances where there are parents who abused their children, and heard from kids who came out as trans who were abused by their parents," while Cao responded, "That right belongs to the parents, always, always, always." 

On Twitter, Nomani shared the video with the hashtag #TerryMcAuliffeMoment — a reference to the Democratic former governor's 2021 statement that parents shouldn't be able to dictate what schools teach, which was widely credited with fueling the "parents' rights" movement that got Youngkin elected. In a Tuesday appearance with the right-wing radio host Vince Coglianese, Nomani linked Wexton's House race to the PLP controversy. 

"It's really important that we heard what Congresswoman Wexton said, because what she did as a legislator set up this hostility between children and their parents," said Nomani. "Now you have the state — Jennifer Wexton — saying, 'What about all those abusive parents,' and get that idea into the kids' heads. And then you have this activist group parachuting in and saying, 'Oh, not only that, we're going to send you an Uber! We're going to send you to the home of an adult!" That, Nomani concluded, was "nothing less than trafficking." 

Nomani compared PLP's offer of support to the systematic theft of Native American children from their families during the era of forced assimilation, residential homes and adoption projects, and said of liberals, "They have gone from having a war for the hearts and minds of our kids to now having a war for their bodies and for the children themselves." Faced with that, she said, "we have to be the last person standing between that kind of abduction and children." 

PLP director Rawal has repeatedly been described as an "adult political activist." He graduated high school last spring and is 18 years old.

Inevitably, this intense backlash has led to a number of PLP students and their supporters becoming targets for violent threats. Attacks on one 10th grade PLP organizer who'd appeared in media coverage of the walkouts (including a right-wing Twitter account posting screenshots of animal photos they'd liked or shared) led them to make their social media accounts private. PLP director Aaryan Rawal has repeatedly been described as an adult political activist (because he graduated high school last spring and once had an internship in a Virginia politician's office) who was manipulating younger students and proposing that they be trafficked. He also received numerous homophobic and racist slurs and threats, including a message hoping that he "die[s] and rot[s] in hell." 

"I haven't even been 18 for six months yet," Rawal said. "I think the whole narrative comes down to the reality that these people believe queer people are predators. That's evident by the way they're describing me as an adult former Democratic staffer. The reality is I'm literally just a teenager whose life was saved because of the [existing] guidelines, not this seasoned political activist who can mind-wash students across Virginia." 

"What's really disturbing is the targeting of underage students," said Christina McCormick, a Fairfax County parent of two LGBTQ students, including a current high school freshman who participated in last week's walkout. "I'm so proud of him for that, but if he had been outed or doxxed like that on social media, I'd be incredibly upset." 

"The walkout was really effective in its message, and it appears to me that some  conservative groups feel threatened by that success," added McCormick. "One of the easiest things to do then is counter that with falsehoods."

A retired Fairfax teacher, Robert Rigby, was also targeted, largely because the Daily Wire published his picture and described him in the PLP story as a vocal LGBTQ advocate in the county. He received a barrage of insults on Twitter after the story ran, and was called a "groomer" and a "sick POS." Nomani also named both Rigby and Rawal in a series of tweets that tagged Virginia's governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general as well, adding a screenshot of a Fairfax County Public School website that lists Rigby's current role as a substitute teacher. 

"Dear @GovernorVA @WinsomeSears @JasonMiyaresVA, Isn't it illegal for ADULTS to give $ to MINORS to whom they are NOT parents, then HOUSE those MINORS with NO parental consent?" Nomani tweeted Tuesday night. "@fcpsnews teacher @RobertRigbyJr1 does this. Isn't that child trafficking? They use @actblue to raise $." 

Nomani also tweeted directly at Rigby, "Have you housed children who are not your own kids without parent consent? How do you legally justify this?" (Rigby answered, "No.") At Rawal, Nomani tweeted, "You are an adult. How many minor children have you arranged to house with adults without parent consent?"

After Fairfax County NAACP education chair Sujatha Hampton tweeted her disgust over the attacks — describing Rigby as "among the most lovely caring honest good men I've ever met" and saying that Fairfax students had "petitioned for a hallway to be named in his honor" — Nomani accused her of covering "for the activists pushing this program of moving minor children" into the homes of "adult strangers," and complained that Rigby hadn't answered her question about his role in PLP. 

The answer, Rigby told Salon, is that he has no formal role in PLP, but speaks with Rawal often and other students more occasionally — primarily, he said, to warn them not to "let adults co-opt [their] advocacy." 

"I grew up with [anti-LGBTQ activist] Anita Bryant, school desegregation and the murder of Harvey Milk," Rigby said. "It feels very much to me that we've time-warped back to 1978, with 'Save Our Children' and 'the gays are coming to recruit your children.' And I know from personal experience how scarring this public attack rhetoric can be to LGBTQ children, and all marginalized children." 

"It is clearly an effort to frighten people, a terror action to frighten adult leaders, to frighten children and to provoke school boards," Rigby said. "It is basic demagoguery — a blood libel to get people out with pitchforks."

When Rigby was a college student at Dartmouth in the 1980s, he recalled, one of his classmates, future Fox News firebrand Laura Ingraham, "sent a spy" into a meeting of the school's Gay Student Alliance to record and then publish their discussions. "That's what [the Daily Wire's Luke] Rosiak has done," Rigby said. Rosiak may not have infiltrated the PLP message boards himself, Rigby continued, but he'd used "private discussions among children, to which an adult got access by misrepresenting themselves." 

All of this, Rigby says, is inextricable from this year's political campaigns, as conservatives make an effort to replay the "parents' rights" coup that got Youngkin elected in 2021. "Last fall, right before the governor's election, there was a sudden interest in 'pornography' and 'pedophilia,'" said Rigby. "And here we are again." 

"This has been ramping up for weeks, with all these people talking about 'grooming' and 'mutilated bodies,'" he continued. "What the students did has been taken as an opportunity to escalate the talk to people stealing your children. We've gone beyond 'grooming' to 'human trafficking.' It's an electoral narrative by people without souls." 

It was also something worse, he suggested: an incitement to violence. "It is clearly an effort to frighten people, a terror action to frighten adult leaders, to frighten children, and particularly to provoke school boards," Rigby said. "It is basic demagoguery — a blood libel to get people out with pitchforks." 

When conservative activists began talking about "pedophilia" before the 2021 gubernatorial election, Rigby recalled, he encountered hostility both at school and around Fairfax County. Now, after the Daily Wire published his picture, Rigby has moved out of his home, at least temporarily, out of "an abundance of caution," he said. "But I really, really worry about the children's safety. Our conservative talk radio station has spent the day talking about the Pride Liberation Project kidnapping your children and human trafficking. It's extraordinarily dangerous to those children, and they can't leave." 

By Kathryn Joyce

Kathryn Joyce was an investigative reporter at Salon, and the author of two books: "The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption" and "Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement."

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Education Far-right "groomers" Lgbtq Media Reporting Schools Trans Rights Virginia