Aurora was walking home past the K-Mart, listening to a podcast and minding her own business, when a stranger shoved her into the road and began to yell at her calling her a “groomer”.
There were two people, she says, one shorter and wearing a backpack, one taller and seemingly recording her with a smartphone, both hurling abuse and calling her a child predator as she crossed the street to get away.
“I’ve been transitioning for about eight or nine years now, and I have been assaulted and harassed by people on the street before. I have never been accused of sexually predatory behaviour,” says Aurora, a 34-year-old transgender woman studying to be a nurse in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She asked for her surname not to be used because she fears for her safety.
“That’s pretty devastating, because you worry when that’s happening that strangers are going to join in,” she says. “It feels like I am put into a position where I need to defend myself from allegations of such grossness, such evil behaviour, while also trying to defend a part of my identity that is innate and unchangeable.”
Aurora is one of three LGBT+ people who told The Independent that they had been harassed or attacked in public over the past two weeks by strangers who accused them, with no provocation or evidence, of “grooming” children or being a “groomer”.
Those same words have become all but inescapable in segments of the American right, as Fox News segments, Republican officials, and even members of Congress wield them indiscriminately against LBGT+ people and those who speak out in support of their rights.
Now there is evidence that these provocations are quickly inspiring physical harassment and violence as well as campaigns of death threats against teachers and school officials.
“I very much believe that’s what happened to me,” says Saoirse Gowan, 29, a trans woman in Maryland whose video of an unknown man cornering her on the Washington DC metro on 9 April and shouting accusations of paedophilia at her went viral earlier this week.
“[This was] someone who has had his mind poisoned by the media, by conspiracy theories, and by reactionary politicians who hate transgender people … I was like, ‘I know that this guy had just come off from some QAnon website or from Tucker Carlson, or from listening to [Florida governor] Ron DeSantis or [Texas Republicans] Ken Paxton or Greg Abbott talking about trans people, and decided that he’s going to go out and harass a ‘groomer’, as he would see it.”
Robbie Pierce, a gay father from Los Angeles, told The Independent that a stranger approached his adopted son on an Amtrak train on 12 April while he was going to the bathroom and told him that his parents had “stolen” him before screaming at Mr Pierce and his husband that they were “groomers”.
Experts fear worse may be ahead.
“This tactic is a way to intimidate LGBTQ people and stir up terrorism against them,” says Alejandra Carabello, an instructor at Harvard Law School’s Cyber Law Clinic and a former staff attorney at two LGBT+ legal defence organisations.
“One of the hallmarks of embarking on a path towards genocidal conduct is not just the dehumanisation of someone,” she tells The Independent. “It’s the absolute suppression of any empathy to them as a human being. And that’s where ‘groomer’ and these ‘grooming’ attacks come in.”
How ‘groomer’ exploded into the conservative mainstream
Gay and trans people have been smeared for decades as threats to children, sexual or otherwise. In the 1970s, singer Anita Bryant claimed gay people were “trying to recruit our children into homosexuality”, while in the 1980s the British government banned teachers from “promoting” gay relationships, claiming it was “cheating” children out of a “sound start in life”.
Yet in early 2022, accusations of “grooming” exploded into the US political mainstream once again.
Data collected by Ms Caraballo traces the revived weaponisation of the word from the message board 4chan – where trolls called on Twitter users to disrupt conversations among LGBT+ people with the phrase “OK groomer”, a play on the Generation Z meme “OK boomer” – to popular far-right personalities and media figures, while Republican elected officials and their staff characterised opposition to their “anti-grooming” agenda as “pro-paedophile”.
Though “grooming” usually refers to the process of emotionally manipulating a child in order to prime them for sexual or other abuse, these posts applied it to everyone from teachers who had told their pupils about gay marriage, to parents of trans children and conservative writers who disagreed with them.
Mentions of the grooming meme peaked on Twitter the day after the passage of what opponents have called Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which attempts to limit discussions of LGBT+ issues in state schools. Many posts targeted people who oppose that law and similar bills in other states, or attempts by GOP officials across the US to define transition healthcare for children as child abuse – as in Texas, where some child welfare workers have quit rather than investigate parents of trans children at the behest of governor Greg Abbott.
Following the Walt Disney Company’s public opposition to “Don’t Say Gay” bills, conservatives organised “anti-grooming” rallies and promoted accusations that the company is “pro-groomer”. By early March the attack had spread to well-known Republican pundits, officials, and politicians.
“When did our public schools, any schools, become what are essentially grooming centres for gender-identity radicals?” Fox News personality Laura Ingraham asked on her programme. “As a mom, I think it’s appalling, it’s frightening, it’s disgusting, it’s despicable.”
Christina Pushaw, press secretary to Flordia governor Ron DeSantis, whose administration ushered the “Don’t Say Gay” bill into law, said: “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.”
Another communications aide for the governor said that “either you support the sexualisation of children under 10 years old or you don’t”, while far-right Georgia congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene accused Democrats of “grooming and transitioning children” and slammed former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney as “pro-paedophile” in a dispute over US Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s record in child abuse cases.
In a thread that has since been deleted, conservative commentator Jesse Kelly said to “call them groomers and paedophiles if they oppose it. Put them on the defensive. Make them afraid.”
And Robert Foster, a former Mississippi state legislator and candidate for governor, said in a now-deleted tweet that people who “want to groom our school-aged children and pretend men are women” should be executed by firing squad.
Criticised by another state Republican, he added: “I said what I said … anyone trying to sexually groom children and/or advocating to put men pretending to be women in locker rooms and bathrooms with young women should receive the death penalty by firing squad.” The Independent has requested comment from Mr Foster.
The attack has echoes of the extremist QAnon movement and its predecessor, Pizzagate, whose followers believe that celebrities and senior Democrats are united in a fantastical conspiracy to abduct children. It also mirrors rhetoric that has taken root among extreme anti-trans activists in the UK.
On Ovarit, an invite-only Reddit clone devoted to “gender critical” discussion, posts tagged “Trans Groomers” stretch back at least a year. Father Ted creator Graham Linehan, a gender critical hardliner who was kicked off Twitter in 2020 for “hateful conduct”, described positive media depictions of trans life as “grooming” as early as December 2020, and has baselessly cast similar aspersions against individual trans people.
In a newsletter update on 8 April, he even pointed to many previous times he had tweeted “OK groomer” at people, saying: “Can I get a little bit of credit here? 2019, baby!” The Independent has requested comment from Mr Linehan.
‘I felt completely trapped’
Saoirse Gowan was listening to music on her headphones as she rode Washington DC’s Green Line at around 9.45pm on 9 April. At first she ignored the yelling she heard off to her side, thinking it might be someone having a mental health episode.
Then the unknown man positioned himself in her view and started filming her, talking in a way that suggested to Ms Gowan that he was live-streaming or recording for a distant audience, preaching to his followers. Bystanders did nothing, and the situation only stopped when a police officer boarded the train.
“I feel completely trapped, like this guy is going to block me from getting off the train and extracting myself from the situation,” Ms Gowan tells The Independent.
“He starts leaning extremely heavily on these ‘child groomer’ tropes that have been pushed extensively in conservative political campaigns and the right-wing media in the United States, and also to a large extent in parts of the United Kingdom…
“The word ‘groomer’ was being used throughout the 10 minutes of what was happening ... it’s a traumatic memory, but I can 100 per cent confirm that is what he was saying.”
Fearing for her safety, Ms Gowan, who grew up in Ireland and has lived in the US since 2018, began recording her own video, which shows the man accusing her of being a “sick f***” and a “pervert” and ranting about her “Chinese communist handlers”, mirroring a common trope in far-right communities of seeing the hand of the Chinese Communist Party behind US domestic politics.
The last part was not unusual to Ms Gowan, who gets such accusations frequently because she is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. Yet the man also claimed that “El Salvadorans done dealt with you”, possibly referring to the alleged kidnapping and murder of trans sex workers by government-aligned death squads during El Salvador’s civil war in the 1980s.
“You hear a lot of people be like, ‘well, if I ever met a paedophile, I’d f***ing rip his head off’, or stuff like that,” Ms Gowan says. “And when that language gets applied to people who haven’t done anything wrong, who are just trying to live their lives, who are just trying to be themselves, it creates a situation in which people not only have prejudices but are able to justify individual acts of violence and retaliation against transgender people in public.”
Others have described similar treatment. In Los Angeles, trans TV writer and comedian Grace Freud said on 14 April that she had been approached by “two old guys” who called her a “transgender paedophile” and claimed she should be in jail for walking close to a school.
Aurora also says one of her friends was attacked, possibly by the same people who shoved her. She says the two strangers called her friend a “groomer” while she was riding the train to work and then hit her twice in the face, knocking her down.
Aurora herself was deeply shaken, having suffered sexual abuse in her own childhood. She says the recent attack on her, which happened on 30 March around 4pm, felt different to the sexist public harassment and transphobic violence she has had in the past.
“People think I’m a monster – they think I’m Buffalo Bill – and all along I’ve been the victim. That’s uniquely horrifying,” she says. Afterwards she went to a Taco Bell and sat for a while, mind turning over what she could do to be seen as a good person by society.
Harasser targets gay couple’s young child
On 12 April, Robbie Pierce and his husband took their two young children on a long train ride up the California coast for a spring break trip.
Their six-year-old son was proud to have used the downstairs restroom near their seats by himself, twice, but he refused to go by himself a third time.
“He said he was afraid,” Mr Pierce tells The Independent.
As the Amtrak train pulled into Diridon Station in San Jose, while the family was playing and talking from their seats, a man approached the family and screamed at their son: “Remember what I told you. They stole you. They’re paedophiles. They hurt kids.”
“It took a minute for me to process what was even happening,” Mr Pierce says. “At first I couldn’t tell if he was just a loud, gruff person, so I was waiting to understand the words he was saying, and it increased in volume and anger and he was completely shouting. Both of my children started crying, and he just continued to shout. I just said, ‘Move away, go away from us, get away from my family.’’”
Mr Pierce says the man then shouted back: “That’s not a family. You’re groomers. You’re paedophiles.” He continued to scream: “They raped our people. They’re going to rape you. They stole you.”
There were no Amtrak employees in the car. Passengers looked on, apparently unwilling to get involved. Mr Pierce’s husband, Neal Broverman, stood between the man and Mr Pierce and the children so they could move to a different car.
Eventually, an Amtrak employee tried to get the man to sit in his seat. Roughly one hour after the man started screaming, police removed him from the train. It wasn’t until later that the couple’s son, who is Black, said that the man told him that his adopted parents “stole” him.
It was also not the first time the family endured anti-gay abuse or accusations that the couple “stole” their son, but it was the first time those attacks included the words “paedophile” and “groomer”.
Mr Pierce says their son asked, “What if this happens ever again in my life?”
“And I said, ‘Well, it probably will, little man, and we just have to get stronger, and we can’t just listen to the people who are afraid of our family,’” Mr Pierce says. “‘Our family is normal and happy and some people are not happy and they don’t know how to control our feelings, so they do mean things to other people, and that is not our fault.’”
Mr Pierce shared what happened on the train in a Twitter thread that has been shared thousands of times, closing with a request to help protect families like theirs, “outnumbered and tired”.
“What we need is people to stand up for us when we’re not there,” he tellsThe Independent. “We need people to never allow that kind of rhetoric to spread, and to always point out how absurd and harmful it is. … We just have to … expose it for how foul and toxic it is, and don’t let it spread. That’s what’s going to lead to tragedy, if that rhetoric is allowed to spread.”
Experts fear rhetoric is building towards violence
Users on far-right platforms like Gab and Patriot.win have posted threats against specific teachers, as well as Disney employees and elected officials, according to a report from public interest research group Advance Democracy Inc, which has tracked attempts to doxx school staff and the violent threats against them.
False allegations and threats directed at one Connecticut school prompted a police investigation. After a Fox News segment about a Vermont school district’s equity workshops channelled a wave of abuse, a school superintendent issued a statement to students and staff: “To our members of the LGBTQ+ community and to those pushing hard for equity and justice, please know that I stand with you and the District stands with you; we see you, we value you, and we love you.”
To Ms Caraballo, the “groomer” meme is a clear example of what some academics have termed “stochastic terrorism” – overheated rhetoric demonising a marginalised group that recklessly or deliberately makes terrorism against that group more probable.
“Rightly or wrongly, just as an observation, there’s probably no greater group that experiences more casual dehumanisation or casual calls for violence than paedophiles and child sexual abusers,” she tells The Independent.
“It’s fairly normalised in online discourse; if you go to any online article detailing a paedophile [being] caught, people will say ‘I would string this person up’. And so when you are able to take a group that is so politically and socially disfavoured, and you’re able to tie your political opponents or a marginalised group to them, that then opens the pathway to excusing and laying the foundation for violence against that group.”
That process, Ms Caraballo says, is exacerbated by extremist communities that normalise and reward their members for casual dehumanisation of political opponents. She sees signs of the same attitude in Ms Gowan’s harasser, saying: “He very much in his own mind thought he was in the right, and he may receive a welcome reception on whatever live streaming mechanism he was using.
“He may be part of a very hostile anti-LGBTQ crowd, and get affirmation for that kind of hostile behaviour, which is really anti-social in any other context ... but which is encouraged in these online communities,” she says.
Gabriel Rosenberg, a history professor at Duke University who studies “sex panics” in American politics, agrees.
“The root controversy in Florida is a dispute about what’s appropriate content in schools ... the claim of ‘groomer’ conflates those speech acts fundamentally with claims of actual sexual harm, and that conflation is intentional,” he says. “The claim is that the grooming is not just about speech acts, but a paedophilic desire that lingers or lurks behind the speech acts and is preparatory towards actual physical sexual harm.”
He adds: “So this is not just people being ‘uncivil’ to each other, using bad names and using slurs … It’s charging people with having the desire to sexually harm children – an act which, for the same people who are making the charge, is something that they would like to see met only with the most extreme forms of violence.”
He also argues the “groomer” meme is distinct from sex panics of the past because it is quickly being adopted against conservatives who step out of line, becoming a tool “to discipline and really punish” dissent among Republicans.
“[Mitt Romney] is the standard bearer of the Republican Party as recently as 2012,” he says. “It’s dangerous because it seems to posit that you can’t dissent from conservatism, and particularly a very reactionary, orthodox vision of conservatism, without being pro-paedophile yourself. That’s relatively new.”
Why ‘groomer’ may be here to stay
Not all Republicans are on board. Spencer Ritchie, a former executive director of the Mississippi GOP, accused Robert Foster of espousing fascist ideals with his “firing squad” tweet.
Speaking to The Independent, Mr Ritchie describes himself as a “committed Republican determined to returning the GOP to its nobler days”, who opposes state schools teaching children about sexuality.
“I think the use of the term ‘groomer’ as describing anything other than adults intentionally and immorally coercing children or youths into sexual behaviour represents a classic example of dishonest sophistry,” he says.
One veteran Republican strategist, who asked not to be identified due to ongoing client work, is also worried about the potential violence, and suspects that “groomer” attacks could damage the party in the long term as generational changes gradually make America more accepting of LGBT+ life.
But they also say the “groomer” meme appears to be working, and is likely to keep cropping up on the road to the 2022 midterm elections. They said that for parts of the GOP, “groomer” is a defensive tactic designed to deflect criticism of LGBT+ laws in Florida, Texas and elsewhere, putting opponents in the impossible position of trying to deny that they are paedophiles.
Indeed, the rhetorical onslaught has been accompanied by more than a dozen states introducing or enacting so-called “Don’t Say Gay” legislation in 2022 so far, filed in quick succession or mulled by Republican officials across the US with largely identical language.
Those bills are among roughly 75 measures to restrict or censor classroom speech, school curriculum and library materials, with broad or vague language that makes it unclear whether a student can even mention their LGBT+ family members, in some cases, according to legislative trackers from the American Civil Liberties Union and Freedom For All Americans.
The campaign is “trying to erase the entirety of the LGBTQ community from the curriculum, from history books, from basic identities from being expressed in the classroom,” according to Cathryn Oakley, state legislative director and senior counsel with the Human Rights Campaign.
“There is a sense that if LGBTQ youth don’t know the words for their identities … that will prevent them from becoming LGBTQ,” she said.
Fourteen states are also considering bills that criminalise trans medical treatments for minors, including puberty-blocking drugs and hormone replacement therapy. In many cases, they would require medics already administering these treatments to stop immediately, meaning trans minors would be forced to detransition or else leave the state.
What comes next?
President Joe Biden’s administration has urged congressional passage of the Equality Act, which would expand federal antidiscrimination protections to LGBT+ people in employment, housing, credit, jury service, and federally funded programmess, including healthcare and education. That bill is stalled in the US Senate.
The US Department of Justice also has issued a letter to all state attorneys general reminding them of federal constitutional and statutory provisions that protect transgender people from discrimination.
But congressional Democrats have faced growing criticism for failing to counter the latest surge in anti-LGBT+ abuse, with Democratic leadership avoiding giving “oxygen” to hateful rhetoric.
In the meantime, trans people are stuck trying to figure out how to keep themselves safe. Ms Gowan has said she wishes other people on the train had stepped up to her defence, and tells The Independent that progressive states have a “monumental responsibility” to help “trans refugees” flee GOP governments, find a new home, and access services there.
Though she gave information to the police, she did not want to press charges because the US prison system already houses many trans women who are kept in men’s blocks, and she did not want to help put her harasser in a place “where trans women could never get away from him”.
Aurora likewise does not trust the police, instead advocating for trans people to band together to support each other’s material needs, teach each other self-defence, and give each other rides, just as Black activists in Minneapolis have sought to build mutual aid networks to minimise dependence on the authorities.
“I want trans people in each neighbourhood to know each other and help each other recover after surgery,” she says. “This is what is needed for the trans community – us protecting us.”
Ms Caraballo, who is also trans, recently visited an LGBT+ shooting group in Boston and – for the first time in her life – began training herself how to use a gun.
“I have never been one who has advocated for use of firearms; I would characterise myself as a pacifist,” she says. On 8 April, though, a queer bar in Brooklyn, where she used to live, was set aflame while people were still inside in a suspected arson attack, adding to her feeling that further violence could be imminent.
“I had never even fired a gun until this past Saturday,” Ms Carabello says. “I know it’s not a decision everyone should make, but I feel for me and my own personal safety, learning more self-defence and potentially owning a firearm helps reassure me ... There’s a general feeling among LGBT people that we need to be able to defend ourselves.”
If you are based in the US and seek LGBT+ affirming mental health support, resources are available from Trans Lifeline (877-565-8860) and the LGBT Hotline (888-843-4564), as well as The Trevor Project (866-488-7386 or text START to 678-678).
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies