With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Dangerous as the Plague: The History of Moral Panics over Queer "Seduction"

ON MARCH 4, Christina Pushaw, Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s press secretary, tweeted that anyone opposed to the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill was “probably a groomer,” that is, facilitating the sexual abuse of children. At the signing ceremony later that month, DeSantis explicitly linked the bill to the LGBTQ community, insisting that it “prohibits classroom instruction about sexuality or things like ‘transgender.’”

The slur soon spread like wildfire across right-wing media and the internet: that same month, Fox News ghoul Laura Ingraham told viewers that schools had become “grooming centers for gender identity radicals.” Conservative Twitter accounts soon began responding to LGBTQ individuals with a derisive “OK Groomer”—a play on the leftist riposte “OK Boomer.” The insult is a hateful one, used to suggest that gay men, lesbians, and trans people are more likely—intrinsically predisposed, even—to abuse children. Moreover, it implies that LGBTQ identities are not, as is now commonly believed, an integral part of one’s personhood, but rather a perverse set of behaviors inculcated in children at a young age.

It doesn’t stop at language. This year has witnessed the most sustained assault on LGBTQ representation and rights since Obergefell v. Hodges granted marriage equality at the federal level in 2015. State legislators have filed over three hundred anti-LGBTQ laws this year, and over a dozen states are copying Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

Hate crimes against LGBTQ people have been rising rapidly since last year. The Republican Party’s virulent trans- and homophobic rhetoric was on full display at the confirmation hearings of Ketanji Brown Jackson, who was forced to repeatedly answer questions about child pornography in an attempt to link Democrats to pedophilia. At those same hearings, Republican senators suggested that Obergefell as well as Griswold v. Connecticut, the 1965 decision that found bans on contraception unconstitutional, had been wrongly decided. With the Supreme Court poised to strike down Roe v. Wade, it seems only a matter of time before its conservative supermajority revisits other precedents that enshrine LGBTQ rights.

For those of us who grew up in the gauzy days of “Love Wins,” recent months have been profoundly unsettling. For the first time in our lives, history seems to be running in reverse. Yet while this rhetoric may seem frighteningly new, it has a long, miserable history that stretches back to the nineteenth century and the very origins of LGBTQ rights.

Ever since Austro-Hungarian writer Karl-Maria Kertbeny coined the word homosexuality in 1868, debate has raged as to just what makes someone a homosexual, as well as the usefulness of subsuming a diverse group of behaviors under a single “scientific” category. While contemporary gay rights activism often relies on the idea that LGBTQ people are “born that way” and that our sexual and gender identities are thus an integral part of our personalities, for over a century, many thought that homosexuality and other forms of gender and sexual heterodoxy were the products of experiences in childhood and puberty. Emil Kraepelin, for instance, a prominent psychiatrist who held a chair at the University of Munich from 1903 until 1922, argued that homosexuality was not a congenital condition—it was “cultivated.”

This rhetoric remained prevalent through the first half of the twentieth century. In Germany, where the foremost sexologists practiced and where the world’s first gay rights movement flourished, many intellectuals and politicians advocated the notion that homosexuality was a social contagion. Such paranoias endured even in the libertine Weimar Republic. Traumatized by war and revolution, conservatives feared “a possible homosexual epidemic,” as historian Javier Samper-Vendrell writes in The Seduction of Youth: Print Culture and Homosexual Rights in the Weimar Republic. When the German parliament considered repealing a longstanding law that criminalized sexual acts between men, legislators proposed replacing it with a law that would continue to penalize the “seduction” of men younger than twenty-one. Even though it would have decriminalized adult homosexual acts, the ultimately unsuccessful measure reinforced the idea that homosexuality was a communicable condition from which young men needed to be protected.

Read entire article at The Baffler