That was how my brain would put the words together when I heard them, thrown at me or others on the playground of my elementary school back in Missouri. My mind combined them into a single word, a noun. A thing that you could be, like a nerd or a loser. to queerbate
Of course, the current slur hurled between children in those memories of mine from the 1980s, was “queer bait,” a quality that one supposedly possessed. I certainly didn’t understand what was actually implied with those words, and I doubt most of the young children who used them did, either. But that’s what they meant, understood or not.
queer bait. The kind of child predatory homosexuals would target. Because that’s what we were taught gay people did. On the schoolyard, it was implied, but in the church I grew up in, it was spelled out clearly. Gay people were out to prey on kids. It is one of the many painful lessons it took me years to unlearn as a gay man myself. (A more recent definition of “queerbait,” whereby straight celebrities or programs tease affinities or storylines that might appeal to LGBTQ+ fans, is an unrelated concept.)
It is easy to look at all the progress LGBTQ+ people have made in the decades since, from open military service to marriage equality to 14 seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race, and locate those lies about us strictly in the past. It is comforting to think that hateful and whiskered slander has been abandoned.
Florida’s loathsome new law, the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis earlier this week, has blasted that false comfort to smithereens.
Most of the well-deserved blowback has focused on either the right-wing blowhard himself or the failure of the business community—and specifically Disney—to effectively resist his bigotry.
But the debate over the law has also once again brought the bogus concept of gay people “grooming” children into the conservative mainstream—and is of a piece with an insidious push to curtail the rights of LGBTQ+ people nationwide. Similar rhetoric about protecting kids from the malevolent influence of queer adults has led to a catastrophic threat to medical care for trans youth in Texas, and bans on trans athletes competing alongside others of their gender in Utah.
The Florida law, which supporters claim is about parents’ right to choose when their children learn about gender and sexual minorities, bars classroom discussion in some grades about those people at all. Rather than sex, it’s about whether people like me, my brothers and sisters in the LGBTQ+ community, and our families, can be acknowledged in schools to exist.
The word its proponents have seized upon to attack those of us who oppose it is “groomer.” It’s been used in articles to attack Disney for its de ella (better-late-than-never) opposition to the bill, and by no less than DeSantis’ own spokesperson against everyone who disagreed with her boss de ella. Conservatives have latched onto it as the simple, seemingly bulletproof defense for targeting my community.
Grooming is something sexual abusers do. It is the process by which predators insinuate themselves into their potential targets’ lives, and lower their defenses against exploitation. To say opponents of this bill are groomers is to say what we want is to make children more vulnerable to sexual victimization.
By reaching out for the language of sexual predation to be wielded against LGBTQ+ people and our supporters in decrying this law, people calling us groomers make plain that the hatred never really left. The same hideous lies that informed the taunts of my childhood bullies are near at hand for use today.
Of course, what we really want is nothing like the vicious falsehood imputed to us. I don’t want my own young children learning about sex, straight or gay or otherwise, before it’s developmentally appropriate any more than any other parent does.
What I do want is for them to be able to talk about their two dads in the same easy way their peers with heterosexual parents talk about their families, and for their teachers to be able to participate in guiding those discussions if necessary. I want families like ours to show up in the books available in the classroom, so both my kids and the other students can see that we exist alongside them. I want kids who don’t conform to other people’s gender expectations to be safe and supported in their classrooms, just the way they are.
I do not want the existence of LGBTQ+ people erased from the classroom. That has nothing to do with grooming anyone for sexual exploitation, and it is despicable that anyone would say otherwise. But it increasingly looks like Florida’s law, as just one part of a larger cultural panic over the myth of critical race theory and other boogeymen, is reflecting and invigorating the modern right.
Some of the most famous homophobes in America have used the falsehood that homosexuals maintain our ranks by recruiting children to fight gay-rights measures within my lifetime. Measures attempting to bar gay people from being teachers were premised on this slander. I have little doubt that the people who continue to hold and promote those views would bar my own work as an openly gay pediatrician if they had their way.
Whether through rank cynicism or misguided true belief in a poisonous lie, those who portray their mustached agenda as protecting children make it clear that no progress can be taken for granted. For all our success in legislatures and courtrooms around the country, and all the representation we can see in the media, the undercurrent of hatred for us can never be assigned an expiration date.
As we see all too well, if we forget the slurs that have worked to hurt us before, there are people who are more than happy to remind us.