“Hatred, plain and simple”: “Groomer” trope linked to nearly 200 anti-LGBTQ+ attacks in 11 months

GLAAD and ADL found 356 anti-LGBTQ+ attacks over that span, with nearly half linked to extremist groups

By Areeba Shah

Staff Writer

Published June 24, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

Protesters wrapped in pride and trans pride flags sit on a wall during a trans rights demonstration. (Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Protesters wrapped in pride and trans pride flags sit on a wall during a trans rights demonstration. (Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

A new report by the Anti-Defamation League and GLAAD documented the rise in anti-LGBTQ+ incidents across the U.S., more than half of which were linked to the "groomer" trope co-opted by some right-wing politicians and pundits.

The study found 356 anti-LGBTQ+ incidents nationwide ranging from harassment to vandalism and assault over an 11-month period.

"We also found that there has been a trend in the types of buildings or communities or people targeted by these incidents," said Sarah Moore, an anti-LGBTQ+ extremism analyst at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in partnership with Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD).

Moore pointed out that drag shows and drag performers were a top target, followed by schools and educators, healthcare facilities and providers and government buildings and officials.

Nearly half of all incidents (49%) were perpetrated in some way by people associated with extremist groups, including the Proud Boys, Patriot Front, Aryan Freedom Network, National Socialist Movement as well as local Neo-Nazi groups. 

But individuals who were active in other extremist spaces that aren't specifically anti-LGBTQ+, were also involved in these incidents. The report revealed that anti-LGBTQ+ incidents often overlapped with other forms of hate, with at least 128 incidents also citing antisemitic tropes and 30 incidents citing racist tropes. 

"Back in March, we saw a case where an individual allegedly affiliated with the White Lives Matter network actually firebombed a church in Chesterland, Ohio that was set to hold a drag show in the coming days," Moore said.

Aimenn Penny was charged with malicious use of explosive materials and possessing a destructive device after trying to set fire to the community church. Penny said that he was trying to protect children and stop the drag show event, according to court documents. 

"Penny stated that night he became more and more angry after watching internet videos of news feeds and drag shows in France and decided to attack the church," the documents said. "Penny stated that he would have felt better if the Molotov cocktails were more effective and burned the entire church to the ground."

The baseless "grooming" conspiracy theory, as the report points out, was the most-cited anti-LGBTQ+ trope, "with at least 191 anti-LGBTQ+ incidents of harassment, vandalism and assault making explicit references to 'grooming' or 'pedophilia.'"

But the trope isn't new. It traces back to the late 1970s when singer Anita Bryant began spearheading the "Save Our Children" campaign, an initiative aimed at overturning a Dade County, Florida, ordinance that prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation.

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"As part of her campaign, she actually advocated to remove openly gay teachers from schools under the assumption that they were somehow indoctrinating or abusing students in the process and so we've seen this same kind of iterations of this trope appearing for various decades," Moore said.

More recently, the trope has found its way into the QAnon movement, where there have been conspiracy theories revolving around child sex trafficking, she added, pointing to the example of furniture e-tailer Wayfair also falling victim to the conspiracies.

QAnon started a conspiracy theory that Wayfair was a front for human trafficking and listings for pricey furniture items like cabinets were available online for predators to order children. The #savethechildren hashtag became associated with the movement.

This trope around grooming being specifically applied to the LGBTQ+ community came up in 2021, Moore added. Starting with anti-LGBTQ+ influencers like Libs of TikTok, the trope has also made its way into the mainstream with conversations around the "Don't Say Gay" bill in 2022.

Gov. Ron DeSantis' spokeswoman Christina Pushaw defended the bill by accusing opponents of preying on children and even referred to it as the "anti-grooming bill".

"The Florida press secretary actually called that bill, the anti-grooming bill and that's kind of began this discourse around grooming in relation to these pieces of legislation," Moore said. 

"The use of the term 'groomers' as an anti-LGBTQ slur is just as harmful and slanderous as it ever was," Jay Brown, Human Rights Campaign senior vice president of programs, research, and training, told Salon. "The goal in inciting this moral panic has never actually been about protecting children — it's about hatred, plain and simple and about dehumanizing LGBTQ+ people until we no longer exist."

As part of their data collection for Pride 2023, which isn't included in the report, researchers noticed an uptick in anti-LGBTQ+ incidents across the country compared with the previous year. 

Between June 1 And June 20, there have been 101 anti-LGBTQ+ incidents across the country compared to the numbers in the report from Pride 2022, where they documented 48 incidents. 

"So we've already seen these numbers more than double just in the first 20 days of June," Moore said. "I think that that really reflects kind of this shifting focus both amongst extremist and non-extremists, towards directing their energy into anti-LGBTQ+ activities."

But what's interesting to note is that not all anti-LGBTQ+ activities were carried out by individuals who are a part of extremist groups, Moore said. Instead, half of them are people who were either a part of a local church group or a local parents' rights group, "who are coming out and protesting in front of drag shows and holding signs that reflect some of these false tropes about the LGBTQ+ community."

The report also recorded five deaths and 31 injuries from anti-LGBTQ+ violence, among several other instances of intimidation and harassment. These figures are based on publicly available information and are likely an underestimate of the reality. 

"LGBTQ+ people will always exist,"  Brown said. "No matter how many new slurs our opponents invent, we aren't going anywhere."

By Areeba Shah

Areeba Shah is a staff writer at Salon covering news and politics. Previously, she was a research associate at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a reporting fellow for the Pulitzer Center, where she covered how COVID-19 impacted migrant farmworkers in the Midwest.

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