Billboards and 'hate mail' with anti-LGBTQ+ messages target Texas candidates
Accusations of “grooming” — or falsely equating LGBTQ+ people with sexual abusers — are cropping up in this election cycle and across the national political landscape.
Warning: This story describes anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and ideas that some readers may find offensive.
Earlier this fall, a billboard stood tall above the highway right outside downtown Fort Worth.
Alongside a photo of Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic candidate for governor, the billboard said: “STOP GROOMING OUR CHILDREN. VOTE NO TO BETO!”
The word “grooming” is used to describe the manipulation process a sexual abuser uses to coerce young victims. More recently, some conservatives have equated LGBTQ+ people, as well as conversations about gender and sexuality, with grooming. Those false narratives have permeated Texas elections and the political process nationwide.
The grooming accusations are a new way of packaging an old tale, said Johnathan Gooch, the communications director for the statewide LGBTQ+ advocacy group Equality Texas: that LGBTQ+ people are sexual predators.
“It was popular in the ’90s when people were trying to prevent lesbian and gay couples from adopting children,” Gooch said. “And here we are, 30 years later."
The anti-O'Rourke billboard in Fort Worth was put up by Defend Texas Liberty PAC, a far-right political fund led by former state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford. Defend Texas Liberty PAC didn’t respond to a request for comment. On Stickland’s official Facebook page, he called the grooming billboard “one of my favorites.”
In a written statement to KERA, O’Rourke’s campaign promised that as governor, he'd support trans kids and pass a comprehensive nondiscrimination law for LGBTQ+ Texans.
“Texas is big enough for all of us — no matter who we are or who we love," the statement said.
LGBTQ+ rights have made strides in recent years, and the false grooming narrative feels like a way to push back against that, said Gooch.
"Recently, there's been sort of a type of backlash, where people have taken some really extreme ideas,” Gooch said. “And some of the ideas that started in conspiracy spaces have really become mainstream now."
Fearmongering against LGBTQ+ people statewide
Voters in El Paso also recently received transphobic mailers in Spanish, paid for by the America First Legal Foundation. That organization is led by Stephen Miller, an advisor to former president Donald Trump.
The mailers accused President Joe Biden and Democrats of “indoctrinating” kids and described gender affirming care as dangerous medical experimentation.
Experts with organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association agree that gender affirming care is safe and necessary to the well-being of trans kids who seek it.
"What we are seeing in our country is an attack on truth, and we are seeing a deep radicalization of American citizens," said U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso.
'It's like the nuclear bomb of disinformation'
Unlike putting up a billboard or sending out mailers, posting online is free.
That makes the internet a dangerous place for anti-LGBTQ+ messages to spread, said Imran Ahmed, the CEO of the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate.
“It's like the nuclear bomb of disinformation rather than the conventional arms race, because you can produce unlimited amounts of hatred from virtually nothing," Ahmed said.
The Center worked with the Human Rights Campaign to produce a report tracking posts that participated in the false grooming narrative on Twitter. The Center’s researchers found that the volume of tweets per day using “groomer” or “pedophile” in relation to LGBTQ+ people spiked by 406% in the month following the passage of a Florida law that limits discussion of gender and sexuality in schools.
Critics called the measure the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, while a staffer for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis called it the “Anti-Grooming Bill.”
The report also found that among the most-viewed “grooming” tweets, a handful of recognizable names were most responsible for driving the grooming narrative, including Congressional Republicans like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado.
“What we find is that although a small number of highly motivated bad actors produce the bulk of the content, it's the millions, the hundreds of millions of people that see the content as a result of social media platforms amplifying it, broadcasting it to their enormous audiences, that the problem starts,” Ahmed said.
The report also found that tech companies either failed to act against or profited from the “grooming” narrative, even though that narrative violated the companies’ own stated policies. Meta, the company that owns Facebook and Instagram, made money off ads promoting the “grooming” narrative, the report states.
The real-world harm of disinformation
Disinformation, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is “false information deliberately and often covertly spread (as by the planting of rumors) in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth.”
The Center for Countering Digital Hate’s report on the grooming narrative tells social media companies to crack down on hate on their platforms. The federal government should also hold those companies accountable, said Ahmed.
"U.S. social media platforms are protected under the law from any liability. They're not subject to the same negligence law that a deli would be, or any other business. And so it's time for change,” Ahmed said.
The law that shields social media companies from being held accountable for what people post is now due to go before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Individuals can also take themselves out of the misinformation equation.
Cesar Z. Ruiz works with the civil rights organization LatinoJustice in the area of voting rights and redistricting. Social media platforms are slow to take down disinformation, especially in Spanish, but people can stop the spread on their own profiles, he recently told Texas Standard.
“Being thorough, trying to verify information before you spread that information, is another key role. And be reporting it to community-based organizations and allowing us to track it and use resources that we have to spread the right information,” Ruiz said.
The grooming narrative continues to surface outside of elections. The Arlington library board met in early October to discuss the appropriateness of Pride month displays in the children’s section, and one community member accused LGBTQ people in support of inclusivity in libraries of “grooming” kids.
Johnathan Gooch with Equality Texas calls the narrative painful, especially considering how much work his organization and others do to support and affirm young people.
“Educating young people about LGBTQ issues is just about making the next generation's lives a little easier. They deserve what we didn't have," he said.
Got a tip? Email Miranda Suarez at email@example.com. You can follow Miranda on Twitter @MirandaRSuarez.
KERA News is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, consider making a tax-deductible gift today. Thank you.