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In March Florida governor Ron DeSantis signed Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law, commonly referred to as “Don’t Say Gay.” Without using the word “gay”—although that is obviously what is intended—the bill forbids public schools from including any “classroom instruction” on sexual orientation or gender identity from kindergarten to the third grade. It also, in highly ambiguous language, bans any instruction on sexual orientation of gender identity in all grades if that instruction is not “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students.” As of mid-April, more than a dozen state legislatures have drafted similar bills, some even harsher.
“Don’t Say Gay” bills’ supporters have opted for the shocking strategy of equating opposition to the bills with being a pedophile. For example, DeSantis spokesperson Christina Pushaw tweeted, “The bill that liberals inaccurately call ‘Don’t Say Gay’ would be more accurately described as an Anti-Grooming Bill.” A blatant appeal to homophobia, she was referring to the myth that homosexuals “groom” or “recruit” children to become homosexuals so they can have sex with them. She quickly followed that with: “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.” When the Walt Disney Company, under pressure from employees, came out in opposition to the Florida bill, Trump supporter and conspiracy nut Candace Owen tweeted: “Child groomers and pedophiles. They have now openly admitted they have a not so secret agenda with your children. This is the death of Disney.”
Don’t Say Gay bills burst onto the scene as part of a suite of campaigns that purport to “defend” children. These include efforts to remove books about race and sexuality from public and school libraries, to block the teaching of the 1619 Project and critical race theory, and the grilling of Supreme Court nominee (now Justice) Ketanji Brown Jackson about whether babies are racist. They are of a piece with states’ bills, such as in Texas, that prohibit medical care for transgender youth, which such laws legally label “child abuse” and cite as grounds for parents to have their children removed from their custody. These have built on the preexisting sentiments, and laws, that ban transgender athletes from competing in sports and using bathrooms aligned to their gender. This is happening in the broader context of an all-out assault on reproductive rights: these include attempts to criminalize the sale and use of medication abortion pills, criminalizing helping women to obtain abortions, and the likely repeal of Roe v. Wade. All under the rhetoric of protecting that “most innocent of all humans: the unborn child.”
This deluge of laws concerned with the “protection” of children is continuous with the time-tested culture war strategies of the religious right. In the past seventy-five years—since the end of World War II—waves of progressive reform have profoundly changed the U.S. cultural and political landscape with regard to civil rights, women’s feminism, immigration reform, environmentalism, social justice, and LGBTQ equality. All of these have been met with resistance. The frantic backlash to these changes from conservatives and traditionalists always seeks to reinstate a blinkered vision of an idealized past.
Don’t Say Gay bills are consistent with this pattern and follow, in many ways, the template of similar laws over the past century. Indeed, they directly copy some: in the 1980s, religious conservatives sought, in some cases successfully, to pass identical law following post-Stonewall gains in gay rights. By understanding how Don’t Say Gay laws fit into this recent history of backlashes against progressive gains, we can then place them in a longer history of obsessions with childhood innocence, purity, and social control. In significant ways, “Don’t Say Gay” laws—and obsessions with “grooming” more broadly—are old Christian fears about sin and danger given a new face, and express this by recycling medieval anti-Semitic tropes of the blood libel, simply substituting LGBTQ people for Jews as the supposed threat to children.
Beginning in the late 1930s, public outrage about a few high-profile violent sex crimes fueled a national panic about a sex crime wave. In hindsight, we can say with certainty that there was no “wave” of sex crimes. However, a variety of national circumstances—the enormous stress of the Great Depression, increasingly sensationalistic journalism (and more vivid photojournalism), population movements of youth from rural communities to cities, the growing visibility of homosexual culture and counterculture more broadly—provided cynical politicians with the opportunity to pander to the electorate with draconian laws to “protect” the public, in particular women and children.
These new laws were abetted by a growing medical discourse—coalesced around the relatively new “science” of criminology—about a novel category of sex offender who was defined by a uncontrollable impulse to commit “sex crimes.” In 1947 J. Edgar Hoover wrote: “The most rapidly increasing type of crime is that perpetrated by degenerate sex offenders. . . . Should wild beasts break out of circus cages, a whole city would be mobilized instantly. But depraved human beings, more savage than beasts, are permitted to rove America almost at will.” So-called sexual psychopath laws were the answer. Under these new laws, the sexual psychopath, understood to be beyond reform, could be detained indefinitely in mental institutions or medical facilities. Between 1937 and 1967, more than half of states and Washington, D.C., passed sexual psychopath laws. In some cases under these laws, sexual psychopaths could be detained without having even committed a crime; they could simply be judged to have the potential for doing so.
The headline-making crimes that instigated the panic were violent attacks on women by men—or at least supposed to be, as in the case of the 1947 Black Dahlia murder that transfixed the country and led to the creation of the first sex offender registry. But in practice, sexual psychopath laws were often used, particularly postwar, against homosexual men who were engaged in consensual same-sex activity, even as they were continually portrayed as preying on young boys.
Two decades later, in response to growing success with LGBTQ legal reforms—mostly antidiscrimination ordinances in cities and counties—another revanchist legal strategy emerged. This new legal strategy claimed not to be about discrimination, or even about criminality per se, but about protecting childhood innocence. A notorious champion of this legal strategy was Anita Bryant, whose moderately successful singing career had landed her a job as the spokesperson of the Florida Citrus Commission. When Miami-Dade country passed an antidiscrimination law in 1977 that prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation, Bryant spearheaded a religiously inspired crusade to repeal the law, on the grounds that it would’ve allowed gays and lesbians to teach in the county’s public schools. As a figurehead for a coalition called Save Our Children—membership was a who’s-who of the emergent religious right, including Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, Sr.—Bryant garnered national attention portraying homosexuals as child predators. The word “groomer” was not yet in use, but Bryant’s insistence that “homosexuals can’t reproduce so they have to recruit” was potent in galvanizing support. In her 1978 book At Any Cost, she wrote: “What these people really want, hidden behind obscure legal phrases, is the legal right to propose to our children that theirs is an acceptable alternate way of life. . . . I will lead such a crusade to stop it as this country has not seen before.”
Save Our Children was effective, and the Miami-Dade antidiscrimination law was repealed; a law prohibiting gay men and lesbians from adopting was also approved. On the heels of this success, multiple other antidiscrimination laws were challenged around the country, and in some cases repealed. Save Our Children also helped drive California’s 1978 Proposition Six Initiative (also known as the Briggs Initiative, after state senator John Briggs who introduced it). Though the initiative failed, it would have banned lesbians and gays from teaching in the California school system and mandated that schools fire those who were found to have “encouraged” children to become homosexuals—an obvious inspiration for “Don’t Say Gay” laws.
By the late 1980s a tremendous backlash to the HIV/AIDS epidemic led to efforts to legalize discrimination against gay men in medical care, insurance, housing, jobs, and even access to public places. The backlash also included a broader set of laws—colloquially labeled No Promo Homo laws—which prohibited any discussion of LGBT issues in the classroom, and sometimes in schools’ extracurricular activities as well, thus banning groups such as gay–straight alliances. These laws also often mandated various other kinds of “traditional family” instruction in schools, such as abstinence-only sex education courses that drew an equal sign between gay sex and AIDS. By 1995 sixteen states had passed such laws, of which Don’t Say Gay is a clear descendent. By then, the word “groomer” was also well established as a slur connecting gay men to pedophilia.
The legal rights of LGBTQ Americans has radically transformed, and flourished, since the days of Save the Children and No Promo Homo. The Supreme Court essentially dismantled the pillars of anti-LGBTQ discrimination when it decriminalized same-sex activity in 2003 in Lawrence v. Texas, legalized same-sex marriage in 2015 with Obergefell v. Hodges, and ruled in 2020 that the firing of employees for being LGBTQ violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
These legal gains have been accompanied by arguably even more dramatic cultural shifts. Many private schools, and some public ones, now fly rainbow flags. News broadcasters such as Anderson Cooper and Rachel Maddow are openly queer. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg is a gay dad. Jason Collins is an out pro basketball player. A list of major corporations with ads featuring same-sex couples would run to several pages. Queer characters appear on many mainstream television shows and even the Disney channel has been featuring gay characters on shows aimed at an audience of primary- and middle-school kids. In 2021 a Public Religion Research Institute poll found that 76 percent of those polled supported LGBTQ rights.
But progress is always met with backlash. The deeper the progress, the more vicious the backlash. This is usually fueled by a strong sense of nostalgia for the past, and, as important, a deep paranoia of what the future holds. The idea of “protecting” children is always foremost a plea for an imagined innocence of the past. As such, it has nothing to do with actual children. Today’s right—both mainstream and fringe—has channeled its paranoia of lost control increasingly into a language of child protectionism. But its direct forebear, with its aims laid more obviously bare, was not framed in terms of protecting children but rather the border: the 2016 Trump campaign was built around the jarring juxtaposition of “Make American Great Again” with the imagine of rapists and drug dealers pouring across the border.
This paranoia/protectionism paradigm has over the past five years simply shifted to a focus on protecting children, but its roots remain patriarchal and Christian ethnonationalist. It is sibling to QAnon’s belief—which a majority of Republicans now endorse—that a network of Democratic elites is running a global child sexual trafficking network. We see the same macho ethnonationalism at play in the torturous questioning of the first Black woman confirmed to the Supreme Court, Ketanji Brown Jackson, who was grilled during her confirmation hearings about whether she was “soft” on pedophiles. No answer she gave could’ve satisfied: that was clear when Marjorie Taylor Greene labeled as “pro-pedophile” the three GOP senators who voted to confirm Jackson. The issue was not how Jackson ruled but who she is.
An influential, Christian Nationalist subset of the right has elected to frame its politics as a theological battle over the very concept of innocence, which is inextricably (if contentiously) bound up with ideas about childhood, sexuality, and ultimately salvation or damnation. For those who are swayed by this politics, as many mainstream conservatives appear to be, enforcing biblical values on the entire United States is a priority. The issues may be pedantic and even hyperlocal—forget same-sex marriage, we’re talking math textbooks, school district antidiscrimination policies, what books are in the library of a one-stoplight town—but the overall discourse here is theological and the battlefield is cosmic.
As multiple controversies raged in mid-April, evangelical conspiracy monger Franklin Graham posted on his Facebook page: “Christians need to pray and vote for the candidates who most closely align with biblical values. Issues like abortion, sexuality, and gender are being politicized like never before, but these are ultimately moral issues that the Bible is clear about.” Graham is correct: all of these culture wars manifest attempts to graft a particular vision of biblical values onto the body politic. And they demonstrate an obsession with the Fall of mankind and the expulsion from Eden. These ideas of a fall from innocence—always connected to sexuality and sin—are at the root of how much of conservative Christianity conceptualizes children. This theological paradigm is at the core of these overlapping laws, conspiracy theories, and fringe idea.
In the Eden myth, Adam and Eve are cajoled by a serpent into eating the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, directly disobeying God’s command. As a result, they are cast out of Eden and doomed to live with the reality of their bodies and the attendant shame. In the garden, Adam and Eve “were nude, yet they were not ashamed.” After their disobedience, “the eyes of the two of them were opened and they knew then that they were nude.” The sin of Adam and Eve—in Christian theology, “original sin”—is not simply one of disobedience, but embodied and sexual in nature. From this, Western cultures inherited ideas about sin, obedience, disobedience, and sexuality that see them as inextricably intertwined. As sixteenth-century theologian John Calvin wrote: “[O]ur nature is not merely bereft of good, but is so productive of every kind of evil that it cannot be inactive. . . . The whole man is in himself nothing but concupiscence.”
The mythology of the Fall is structurally the basis for the nostalgic idea that childhood should be bracketed from the world as a sphere of pure innocence. This in turn has shaped ideas about how children should be educated and treated, and the attitudes of adults toward the institutions of childhood. But it has also overdetermined the regret, envy, and anger that many adults feel about their own childhoods, their eventual loss of childhood innocence, and their rage toward those who do not ascribe to the same fantasies of childhood innocence. Children themselves can easily land on the wrong side of this: they are a theological wild card, in a presexual state of “innocence” but also, in Freud’s view, polymorphic perverse, and thus continually on the verge of grievous sin. This has led to quixotic, intense levels of anxiety and ambivalence toward children in the Western imagination. Children are commonly referred to as both “little angels” and “little demons,” “a joy and a burden.” They are the hope of the future if they do not—as they must—leave the garden. In the meantime, they must be obedient.
Metaphorically the journey to adulthood is the expulsion from Eden. As a result childhood innocence must be maintained, or prolonged, at any cost. Adam and Eve were expelled for eating from the Tree of Knowledge. The best way to protect children is through enforced ignorance. The visceral myth of paradisaical childhood is fueling the extraordinary desperateness of these laws. What we see at play now are measures to “protect” children from the current trinity of forbidden fruit: sex, gender, and race.
To a large degree, the “child” these measures seek to protect is not actual children but the nation. This imaginative merging of children with the nation is evident in the rhetoric. During a recent Christian Nationalist conference at Oral Roberts University, Gene Bailey, senior executive pastor of Eagle Mountain Church, proclaimed:
There’s thousands of people in this room that say, ‘We’re taking our nation back!’ . . . [T]he agenda that’s in our nation right now is good versus evil. . . . If you’re not willing to give up your nation to a woke agenda . . . [that’s] out to destroy the very fabric of this nation, rip your children away from your families. They want to educate your children. They want to take your kids from you. They don’t want you to do anything that resembles Christianity or stand up for what’s right or stand up for what’s truth.
Here, loss of childhood innocence is rolled together with political and cultural loss: loss of parental control over education, loss of the 2020 election, loss of heterosexual norms, loss of traditional gender roles, loss of the centrality of whiteness to American identity, loss of the centrality of Christianity in U.S. life—for some, loss of the Civil War. This great wave of public, political Christianity is reminiscent of the Third Great Awakening that brought with it a new wave of biblical fundamentalism, prohibition, strict sexual morality, and the 1925 Scopes Trial (with its underlying racism around monkeys and humans) that upheld the ban on teaching of evolution in Tennessee schools. It is also reminiscent of the early wave of Christian revivalism of Billy Graham (Franklin’s father) and his huge rallies fueled by anti-communism and a rejection of New Deal progressivism. These both were propelled by calculated moral panics that sought to instill in white voters a fear of losing control to . . . fill in the blank: unbelievers, the immoral, atheists, Jews, immigrants, socialists, communists, Black people, homosexuals.
The recent spate of laws seeks to conjure new, or repackaged, enemies: the woke; critical race theorists; transgender college athletes; East Coast elites who are pulling all the strings, firing their Jewish space lasers, and making everyone wear masks. Beyond the fact that a lot of these touch on traditional anti-Semitic tropes—a Fox News host recently claimed that “Jewish bankers” bankrolled Darwinism—we shouldn’t ignore that most of these fantasies circle around education and wealth. Elites have infiltrated public schools and are promoting un-Christian—un-American—ideas such as critical race theory, acceptance of LGBTQ people, and the upending of gender as conventional understood. Florida’s bill, importantly, was sold to the public as a bill principally concerned with restoring the rights of parents to say what is taught to their children in schools. In other words, the bill is as anti-elite as it is anti-gay.
The Christian right’s obsession with public education isn’t new, of course. As Katherine Stewart noted recently in the New York Times:
Opposition to public education is part of the DNA of America’s religious right. The movement came together in the 1970s not solely around abortion politics . . . but around the outrage of the I.R.S. threatening to take away the tax-exempt status of church-led ‘segregation academies.’ In 1979, Jerry Falwell said he hoped to see the day when there wouldn’t be ‘any public schools—the churches will have taken them over again and Christians will be running them.’
But if these battles have been ongoing since the 1970s—and arguably far before—what has changed that is causing this sudden explosion of laws and policies? In the battle between secularism and traditional conservative religion, the latter is on an extreme losing streak. A 2021 Pew poll showed that 30 percent of Americans now claim no religious affiliation. Yes, Christians still outnumber those irreligious Americans 2-to-1—but in 2007 the ratio was 5-to-1. Is it any wonder then that religious conservatives—who feel that the future of the country (if not civilization) is at stake—are fighting dirty to stay behind the wheel?
It is imperative to better understand the psychology of insecurity that underlies this latest culture war. But this must not keep us from observing the enormous harm that this latest bout of anti-LGBTQ panic is doing by pandering to the primal fears of people frightened about the state of the world. Lest it go unobserved, once again it has become a matter of casual, but very active, public discussion whether gay people are pedophiles. It is galling and frankly surreal and shocking to be back here all over again.
Gays are in good company, not that it is much comfort: Christians have a long history of accusing religious, ethnic, and sexual minorities of abusing, molesting, and killing children. In medieval Europe, Jews were frequently accused of ritually killing Christian children—the blood libel—often to use their blood to make matzah. Fictitious victims—Little Hugh of Lincoln, William of Norwich, Simon of Trent—were even canonized as saints to drum up fervor for pogroms. The accusation that queer people are “grooming” children to be gay or question their gender is just the modern equivalent of the blood libel: the molestation libel. The same was at the heart of the implementation of the sexual psychopath laws against gay men and of Anita Bryant’s Save Our Children campaign. The slightly new twist is that now when politicians accuse school districts or teachers of grooming children, they have in mind that even teaching children that queer people exist is tantamount to an act of pedophilia. Their solution is the complete invisibility of queer people. “Grooming” has become less a matter of seduction than of offering knowledge of the infinite variations of sexual and gender identities in the world. It has become the psychobabble version of tasting the forbidden fruit at the risk of expulsion from Edenic innocence. Even the Disney corporation can now be a groomer under this new understanding (and this will surely have a chilling effect on corporations watching what happens to Disney before deciding whether to speak out).
The issue here is not, and never was, to protect children—if it were, politicians would be banning guns and mandating free school meals—but promoting the idea of childhood innocence. This is no doubt why Disney’s “betrayal” has been so uniquely galling for supporters of the bill. Disney, after all, become one of the most profitable brands in history by shilling a particular kind of nostalgia for childhood innocence, enchantment, and wonder. It is a self-declared “magic kingdom” For “children of all ages.” Yet even the magic kingdom has to keep up with the times. Disney did not introduce LGBTQ characters in their shows as a form of social justice; they did it to keep up with the expectations of their young audience. This is perhaps the real reason the right is so infuriated. Disney’s call to repeal Florida’s Don’t Say Gay was felt by many to be a metaphoric denouncement of their idea of innocence. This, combined with the recent Disney programming that features openly gay and lesbian characters was a stunning—symbolic and commercial—manifestation that the representation and acceptance of LGBTQ people was a social and cultural given and was not going to disappear.
It is vital to understand that, for all its talk about protecting children, the religious right actually fears—maybe even hates—children for who they may become. Their fall from innocence will herald not only a religious failure, conventionally understood, but the likely doom of a Christian nationalist politics. Children not only represent but are the future. If the trends on religious affiliation continue, the right has reason to be frightened not for but of its children. Children with their endless imaginations and potential for growth embody the inevitable—and possibly irreversible—change away from traditional cultural values.
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