Last week, I had a frightening conversation with ABC News foreign correspondent James Longman about the possibility of Vladimir Putin pulling down the Iron Curtain again in Russia, and how that would adversely impact the LGBTQ+ community. Putin's move to close the country would be devastating, subjecting Russian LGBTQ+ people to even more discrimination than they experience now, including making them increasingly vulnerable to verbal and physical attacks.
I don't want to immix the horror of what's going on in Russia with what's happening around this country with LGBTQ+ kids, particularly in Florida with the "don't say gay" bills; however, the sheer fact that LGBTQ+ children are being singled out and being used as blatant political hostages to win votes is straight out of the playbook of an autocratic state.
Since the start of the year, conservative state lawmakers around the country have filed more than 170 anti-LGBTQ+ bills with at least 69 of them centered on school policies, according to Freedom for All Americans.
"What we're seeing here is anti-LGBTQ groups, on a national level, making schools the new battleground across the board, across various kinds of school policies and various forms of legislation. Schools are the target right now for the anti-LGBTQ movement," Mary Emily O'Hara, the rapid response manager at GLAAD, wrote about a slate of book bans.
Leading the pack is Florida, whose state Senate is taking up the Parental Rights in Education (commonly known as "don't say gay") bill this week. In advance of the debate, state Sen. Shervin Jones tweeted, "As the 1st LGBTQ person elected to the Senate in FL's history, I want to remind my colleagues that I am not a hypothetical, I sit in the same room w/ you, and your actions and words matter."
This weekend, Christina Pushaw, the press secretary to the state's autocratic governor, Ron DeSantis, tweeted about the legislation. "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."
I'm not even going to get into Pushaw's background of being a foaming-at-the-mouth Trump acolyte and a racist who helped organize anti-BLM protests. But I will touch on my own background as someone who's been groomed, and it is a very dark place to go.
First, grooming is nothing to joke about, be dismissive about, or use as a political weapon. There's nothing in the loathsome Florida legislation that remotely refers to grooming -- which, as Rep. Carlos G. Smith accurately pointed out, is heavily linked to pedophilia -- so she's using the word as a radical flashpoint and descriptor to lambast anyone, Democrats mainly, who oppose the "don't say gay" bills. And that's disgusting.
My groomer was an evil, warped pedophile priest who was listed among the Catholic clergy accused of child sexual abuse in the Pennsylvania state grand jury investigation. He was a criminal, and what he did has affected me all my life. The fact that Pushaw and others like her are using this moniker to conflate advocates defending education about LGBTQ+ communities with sexual abuse is incredibly offensive to all of us who continue to deal with the detrimental effects of being groomed.
What Pushaw and her ilk's use of "grooming" is in fact an exploitation of children for purely selfish and destructive purposes. Thus, they are in and of themselves groomers, because the very essence of the definition of grooming is exploiting children.
This weekend on Saturday Night Live, out comedian Kate McKinnon mocked the hateful Florida legislation, by implying that the bill was a way to not use the word "gay" as a negative. "When I was in middle school, in the '90s, I was kind of tortured by the constant use of the word 'gay,'" she explained. "Like, you know, 'That's so gay,' or 'Ew, you're gay.' It made me feel horrible."
She later called the bills "unconscionable." However, while she was setting up the joke, she was painfully correct in talking about how horrible it feels to have the word gay lobbed around as something offensive, particularly when you're a child who is confused about who you are. I was called "Gaysey" during grade school, and that word still haunts me.
And it is particularly gut wrenching when you know you're being singled out for being queer and being made to feel like you're doing something wrong because there are laws against you, which is at the heart of what the "don't say gay" bills do.
The "don't say gay" bills ban classroom instruction "on sexual orientation or gender identity" for students in kindergarten through third grade. The measures also blocks teaching about the subject when it's done "in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards" for all students.
The fact of the matter is, teachers are already teaching what has been determined as age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate per state standards. So the only thing this new legislation will do is fuel and compound all that hate and exceptionalism that children who may be confused about their sexuality, and identity, already feel. It will also embolden all of those who are anti-LGBTQ+ to continue to spew hatred as the government supports the idea that LGBTQ+ communities are fine to be othered.
Proponents of this legislation say that it stops "critical gender theory" and protects parents and children from politically minded teachers who "would encourage kids to explore their gender identity and keep that exploration a secret from their parents."
There is so much wrong with this idea that it's hard to figure out where to start. First, the words are from an article in a wildly right-wing outlet (I'm not going to name it here). And the title of the story should come as no surprise: "Florida's anti-groomer law protects kids and parents from activist educators."
The legislation has nothing -- zero -- to do with activist educators who want to bring "critical gender theory" into lesson plans. There is no such thing as critical gender theory. It's been conceived as nothing more than a perilous political slogan.
Critics of the bills warn that preventing conversations around gender from taking place in schools is political pandering that can fuel hate and violence born of ignorance. It reminds me of the old bumper sticker: "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance."
But a key, less reported on aspect of the bills could be teachers outing children to their parents because they feel that the child's thoughts about their gender or sexuality could lead to a change in their behavior. Imagine a teacher calling ignorant parents making the charge that their son, daughter, or nonbinary child is "sick." What choice does this leave for the child who may not be accepted when he, she, or they return home?
If all this does sound like something out of the Soviet Union, then welcome to the cruel Politburos of Florida, Texas, Arizona, Alabama, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and all the other states seeking to pass discriminating laws against LGBTQ+ children solely, and only, for the purpose of scoring political points.
When I worked on Capitol Hill, children were off limits, and if they were deployed in a political campaign, it was usually through a clip of the politician holding and kissing the proverbial happy baby. Even then we found that exploitive.
Using children, ones who might be queer -- or might not -- as political pawns is wicked. And using terms like "groomer" and "critical gender theory" to defend destructive measures about children is mortifying.
Most of us were confused children at one time or another, and being perplexed about our sexuality or identity was hard enough. Just imagine how much more pressure we would have had if there were laws singling us out as "bad" and prohibiting us from being our true selves because all eyes at school were upon us, threatening to tell our parents?
Here's a list of Florida's state senators. Let those who are Republican know how you feel. Do it to support the hopes and dreams of the kids before the state legislature and the governor crush them to pieces.