GUEST WORDS - As the GOP pushes—and passes—broad laws to prohibit books, discussions or mental health services on issues of gender identity or sexual orientation, under the absurd guise of preventing sexual abuse, the Washington Post is laying out a welcome mat for the party's anti-LGBTQ+ agenda.
Under the headline, "Teachers Who Mention Sexuality Are 'Grooming' Kids, Conservatives Say," Washington Post writers Hannah Natanson and Moriah Balingit (4/5/22) spent the first 12 paragraphs of their article describing and quoting the right-wing claims that teachers talking about gender identity or sexual orientation—and those who support them—"want children primed for sexual abuse."
These malicious accusations, part of a spreading movement led by Florida's "Don't Say Gay" law, have not a shred of truth to them. But they will certainly stifle free speech in classrooms and further endanger LGBTQ+ students, at a time when many are struggling even more than usual because of the pandemic.
It barely matters that the Post brought in some "experts" later to offer the "other side"—that actually talking about these things in fact helps curtail sexual abuse (which in schools primarily happens at the hands of heterosexual male teachers, noted all the way down in the 37th paragraph of the Post article) and bullying against LGBTQ+ kids. In giving the GOP the headline and the (extraordinarily lengthy) lead, Natanson and Balingit gave a bigoted and dangerous campaign the right to frame the story as a debate with two somehow comparable sides.
In this way it's quite similar, in fact, to a piece Natanson penned last year (7/24/21) about "a war over critical race theory" in Traverse City, Michigan. There, a mock slave auction on Snapchat, along with posts like "all Blacks should die," served in Natanson's view to show how a town grappling with an undeniable incident of racism can serve as fertile ground for the ongoing national war over whether racism is embedded in American society.
As I noted at the time (FAIR.org, 8/2/21), admitting that the incident was racist but not that racism is undeniably embedded in society is precisely aligned with the right's framing of the situation, letting them set the narrative. Natanson "balanced" views of BIPOC students experiencing racism (and white students speaking in support of an equity resolution) with white adults insisting, against all evidence, that the town "was never racist." It's just "two ways of viewing the world," she shrugged.
Last week's "grooming" piece was perhaps even worse, in that not only did they both-sides the issue—which is egregious enough—Natanson and Balingit gave a much bigger spotlight to the bigoted and dangerous "side." They quoted ten sources defending the "Don't Say Gay" laws or attacking their opponents, front-loading most of them, and only six opposed—half of whom appeared after the 33rd paragraph, for those who've stuck around long enough to hear them. (One academic was also quoted, offering no direct debunking but arguing, among other things, that the right's strategy is "effective" and "clever.")
Of those most directly impacted by the bills, no LGBTQ+ students and only one openly LGBTQ+ educator were quoted.
In framing the piece, Natanson and Balingit wrote that the argument over "grooming" "draws on previous tactics adopted by the right to oppose the erosion of traditional gender roles at moments of societal transition, experts say." As media critic Dan Froomkin (Press Watch, 4/6/22) pointed out, "opposing the erosion of traditional gender roles" is quite a euphemism for the right's past homophobic and misogynistic campaigns against basic rights for women and lesbians and gays.
It was in Florida, as some rare voices in the media (e.g., Tampa Bay Times, 3/17/22) noted in their "Don't Say Gay" coverage, that Anita Bryant's infamous "Save Our Children" campaign was born, a vicious fight led by the religious right against early anti-discrimination laws to protect the rights of lesbians and gays. Rallying behind the claim that such laws would pave the way for gay teachers to "recruit" their young charges, the right stoked a moral panic to roll back these nascent rights.
Today, again, as groups long discriminated against and marginalized are fighting back against the "traditional" gender and racial hierarchies that render them less free than others, the right is pulling out its old moral panic playbook. It's urgent that the Post stop foregrounding and normalizing the specious right-wing claims behind attacks on LGBTQ+ kids and their teachers—like the parallel attacks on Black kids and their teachers as part of the "anti-CRT" campaign—and start highlighting the incredible harms these attacks cause to democracy, education and already-marginalized youth.
Please ask the Washington Post to foreground the viewpoints and interests of LGBTQ+ students rather than those of bigots in their coverage of the gender and sexual politics in schools.
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(Julie Hollar is FAIR’s senior analyst and managing editor. Julie has a Ph.D. in Political Science from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. This story was first published in CommonDreams.org)