That’s Not What Grooming Means

What should kids be taught about gender identity and sexual orientation?

Protest of Florida's "don't say gay" bill
Martha Asencio-Rhine / Tampa Bay Times / AP

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Soon after, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Question of the Week

What, if anything, should minors be taught or told about sexual orientation and gender identity before they hit puberty? Forget the worst arguments you’ve seen in this debate, and detail how you think things ought to be. What are the optimal roles for parents, public schools, churches, children’s-book authors, companies like Disney and Nickelodeon, and others? How do you define what is age-appropriate? What are the toughest questions? What’s a position you sympathize with even though you disagree?

Email your thoughts to I’ll publish a selection of correspondence in a future newsletter.

Conversations of Note

Last week, Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill that prohibits Florida public schools from offering instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in a manner that is not “age-appropriate.” Instruction on those subjects before fourth grade is banned outright. Proponents say the bill reclaims parental rights over when to expose children to sensitive subjects. Critics call it a “Don’t Say ‘Gay’” bill, arguing that its vagueness and reliance on lawsuits for enforcement will render educators afraid of mentioning the mere fact of gay or trans people.

The law is now at the center of the culture wars. It is already inspiring copycat legislation in other states, including Texas. And some supporters of the law are characterizing its opponents as if they are child predators. Here’s Christina Pushaw, a spokesperson for DeSantis, writing on Twitter:

The bill that liberals inaccurately call “Don’t Say Gay” would be more accurately described as an Anti-Grooming Bill. 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. Silence is complicity. This is how it works, Democrats, and I didn’t make the rules.

Before addressing anything else, let’s dispense with that smear.

“To justify the law,” Michelle Goldberg complains, “the right has taken to accusing anyone who opposes it of wanting to expose young kids to explicit material in order to prime them for abuse … The QAnon idea that the right’s political opposition is a cabal of pedophiles has gone mainstream.”

Despite deploying the word groomer in his own coverage, Rod Dreher acknowledges that the term is being used in a new way, not in accordance with the definition that has long been known to Americans:

About the term “groomers”: it’s usually used to describe pedophiles who are preparing innocent kids for sexual exploitation. I think it is coming to have a somewhat broader meaning: an adult who wants to separate children from a normative sexual and gender identity, to inspire confusion in them, and to turn them against their parents and all the normative traditions and institutions in society. It may not specifically be to groom them for sexual activity, but it is certainly to groom them to take on a sexual/gender identity at odds with the norm.

Even if we were to accept Dreher’s highly idiosyncratic definition of “grooming,” looking past the fact that most invocations of the term make no mention of a new meaning, the notion that all or most people opposed to the Florida bill want to “inspire confusion” in kids or intend to “turn them against their parents and all the normative traditions and institutions in society” is absurd.

What’s more, David French argues, this particular language game is reckless:

While right-wing media personalities know their own game, the word lands differently in the general public. The word “grooming” triggers intense emotion and activates every decent adult’s protective instinct. In fact, throwing around accusations of pedophilia, sympathy for pedophilia, grooming, or sympathy for grooming is a recipe for threats and violence.

It connects with the vicious and deranged QAnon conspiracy, and it tells the public that you believe your political opponents are among the most vile people on the planet, the scum of the earth. And if you think that accusations of child abuse simply stay online, as part of the game people play for social media clout, you’ve forgotten the Pizzagate shooting.

If DeSantis cared to frame the lines of disagreement more honestly, his staffers might declare that, as they see it, progressive educators are wrong about what instruction is age-appropriate for kids, or are acculturating kids into contested, incorrect views of what gender is, or are advancing progressive assumptions about sexual orientation when traditionalist assumptions would be better. Almost anything would be more honest than implying their opponents are would-be molesters, a tactic that can only degrade the ability of Americans to debate this subject.

The Disney Connection

Due to Disney’s stature in both the state of Florida and the children’s-entertainment industry, the company has been drawn into the controversy over the Florida bill, angering people on both sides of the matter. Democrats sometimes express concern about the idea of corporations using their clout to intervene in politics, but in this controversy they had the opposite complaint, as my colleague Ronald Brownstein explained last month:

The refusal of the Walt Disney Company, one of Florida’s most powerful employers, to publicly criticize Florida’s “Don’t Say ‘Gay’” bill as it moved through the legislature has quickly come to symbolize a retreat from the loud public opposition that many companies expressed to earlier state initiatives restricting civil liberties, such as the “bathroom bill” North Carolina Republicans approved in 2016.

Across the broad range of socially conservative initiatives that Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, and the GOP state legislature have advanced since 2021, business has been “silent, silent as fuck, they are so silent,” says Florida Democratic State Representative Anna Eskamani, echoing a complaint I heard across several states from Democrats and civil-rights advocates this week. “Businesses have other priorities, which impact their bottom line and their profits, and they view that as more important.”

At Bloomberg, Adrian Wooldridge captures the predicament of Disney CEO Robert Chapek:

Chapek’s silence over the bill led to complaints, protests and walk-outs across the Magic Kingdom. Staff at Disney-owned Pixar Animation Studios said that they were “disappointed, hurt, afraid and angry.” Fund manager Ross Gerber tweeted that Chapek is the “worst” leader of Disney he can remember and called for a “CEO with a moral compass.” A chastened Chapek is now trying to save his leadership with a combination of groveling apologies (“you needed me to be a stronger ally in the fight for equal rights and I let you down. I am sorry.”) and escalating promises to do better in future …

But the more Chapek apologizes and pledges, the more he infuriates conservatives. Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, lustily lays into the hapless CEO. “The chance that I am going to back down from my commitment to students, and back down from my commitment to parents rights simply because of fraudulent media narratives or pressure from woke corporations, the chances of that are zero,” he said in a recent campaign video.

Republicans are doubling down on the law in part because at least some polls suggest that the issue is a huge political winner. The Wall Street Journal put it this way in a recent editorial:

Polite opinion is almost unanimously against, but open your ears to the vox populi. “When Americans are presented with the actual language of the new Florida law, it wins support by more than a two-to-one margin.” That’s from a new poll by Public Opinion Strategies. Overall, 61% of people said they supported the “don’t say gay” law, with 26% opposed.

Even more notable is the breadth of that sentiment. Democratic voters in the poll support the law 55% to 29%. Among suburban voters, which could be a decisive group for the midterm elections, it’s 60% to 30%. Parents: 67% to 24%. Biden voters: 53% to 30%. Respondents who “know someone LGBTQ”: 61% to 28%. Those figures might come as a shock to Florida’s progressive activists, including those who happen to work at Walt Disney.

There are proponents of the Florida law inside of Disney, too. An “Imagineer” at the company reminds us in a Quillette essay that emphasizes how big and ideologically diverse its workforce is:

Pronouncements from the company declare that “the employees of Disney believe” such-and-such, but … the Disney parks division is an incredibly diverse melting pot of physical, philosophical, religious, and political variations. We largely mirror the surrounding cultures of Southern California and Florida, but with a decided lean toward more conservative tendencies. It turns out that businesses which brand themselves as family-friendly tend to draw employees who like family-friendly content.

For a company that claims to listen to the voices of their cast members, the Disney corporation has spent the last couple years ignoring vast swathes of its own workforce. In recent months, they have gone further, actively supporting one group while actively suppressing or simply ignoring the other … Ignore the bloviating of Disney executive leadership … They do not represent the members of the Disney parks and resorts division. We are as diverse as the country itself, and the company’s attempts to use us as a bloc to push their political agenda is intolerant, exploitative, and profoundly un-Disney.

In a related controversy, footage from an internal Disney meeting on the Florida law was obtained by the populist-right activist Christopher Rufo, who posted clips to his Twitter account.

One features a Disney producer saying this:

I worked at small studios most of my career. And I’d heard things like, oh, you know, “They won’t let you show this in a Disney show. They won’t let you show that in a Disney show.” So I was a little, like, sus when I started. But then, my experience was bafflingly the opposite of what I had heard … my leadership has been so welcoming to my not-at-all-secret gay agenda … Then all that momentum that I felt, that sense of I don’t have to be afraid to have these two characters kiss in the background, I was just, wherever I could just basically adding queerness––if you see anything queer, I was basically just like, no one would stop me and no one was trying to stop me.

Another features the Disney executive Karey Burke saying this:

I’m here as a mother of two queer children, actually. One transgender child and one pansexual child. And also as a leader … We had an open forum last week at 20th, the home of really groundbreaking LGBTQIA stories over the years, where one of our execs stood up and said, “You know, we only had a handful of queer leads in our content.” And I went, “What? That can’t be true!” And I realized, “Oh, it actually is true.” We have many, many, many LGBTQIA characters in our stories, and yet we don’t have enough leads and narratives in which gay characters just get to be characters and not have to be about gay stories.

A third features a Disney production coordinator saying this:

Part of the work I feel like I can put in is, [our show] takes place in modern-day New York, so making sure that’s an accurate reflection of New York. So I put together a tracker of our background characters to make sure that we have the full breadth of expression. We got into a very similar conversation of like, Oh, all of our gender-nonconforming characters are in the background. So it’s not just a numbers game of how many LGBTQ+ characters you have. The more centered a story is on a character, the more nuanced you get to get into their story. And especially with trans characters you can’t see if someone is trans. There’s not one way to look trans. And so kind of the only way to have these canonical trans characters, these canonical asexual characters, these canonical bisexual characters is to give them stories where they can be their whole selves.

The videos embedded in Rufo’s tweets now have millions of views.

Some Americans regard the testimonials as welcome evidence that Disney is living up to its promises to be inclusive and acculturating young people to be wonderfully accepting of difference. Here’s Michelle Goldberg again, after watching the actual show that first speaker worked on:

The results of Raveneau’s agenda seem sweetly anodyne. The show’s main character, Penny Proud, has a flamboyant gay friend who has to deal with bullying, and another character has gay dads. There’s been some reporting about the groundbreaking nature of the show in the entertainment press, but as far as I can see, it hadn’t caused much if any controversy.

Others are more skeptical but not necessarily hostile.

Beneath one of the videos, a Twitter comment with almost 10,000 Twitter likes declares, “I think it’s fine for groups to be represented in proportion to their prevalence in society as a whole. But any company that insists on systematically overrepresenting any groups is trying to do social engineering through the ‘availability heuristic’, as psychologists call it.” To which another user replied, “I don’t have any problem with deliberate over-representation of minority groups in a case like this. Familiarising young audiences with different kinds of people, many of whom they might not have encountered IRL precisely because they’re minorities, seems to me like a good thing.”

Still others hear those testimonials and think, I need to prescreen Disney content rather than just presuming it’s okay for my kids to watch, a reaction Bethany Mandel describes in an opinion piece at Fox News, or I’m quitting Disney programming, a reaction Karol Markowicz fleshes out in the New York Post. “Parents don’t want their small children being introduced to the idea that they may have been born into the wrong body,” she writes. “Children are extremely susceptible to suggestion, and parents don’t want their kids told their gender is malleable. They certainly do not want outside forces instructing their children on gender identity.”

I’ll refrain from including many more opinions here, since this week’s question is about this same controversy––do email your thoughts from any perspective so I can air them in the next edition––but I did think this historical context from The Advocate was worth including:

“Don’t say gay” bills have gotten much publicity this year, but they’re really nothing new. Tennessee made a big splash in this area in 2011, when Sen. Stacey Campfield introduced a bill that would ban any lessons related to homosexuality through eighth grade. The bill failed to pass, and Campfield tried again in 2013, adding a provision that would have required teachers and counselors to out students to their parents. That legislation failed too. Campfield is no longer in office, but other Tennessee lawmakers are trying again.

Before there was “don’t say gay,” there was “no promo homo”—bills that proliferated in the 1980s and ’90s as conservative legislators responded to the AIDS crisis by seeking to ban what they considered “promotion of homosexuality” in schools, especially in sex education courses. These bills became law in states including Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah. The laws have now been repealed or struck down in all but four states: Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas, according to GLSEN.

Provocation of the Week

Julian Sayarer is thinking about homelessness and public transportation in New York City. He writes:

New York City has a new train station; Moynihan, an extension to Penn Station. While many New York subway stations are having benches removed to deter homeless people from sheltering in them, Moynihan has been purpose-built without such opportunities to begin with. There is a separate question to be had about the inhumanity or otherwise of this. Public transport is an essential public service and a vital public good; it shouldn’t have to multitask as the—also essential—public service of providing care and accommodation for the unwell and the destitute, while at the same time providing the necessity of mobility.

As interesting as this, however, seems to be the growing irritation of altogether more bourgeois New Yorkers at the absence of basic amenities such as a bench or a place to sit within a public transport system. Something in this seems significant, and telling of the direction from which change feels more likely to come in the United States, as working and middle-class people come to realise that their country is one in which even they will not be afforded the basic provision of a bench, because all around is such destitution that to provide such a thing would be more social problem than solution. At some point there crystallises the realisation that everyone is going down together.

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