The United States of America is in the grips of a new “Lavender Scare.” All over the country, conservative organizations are pushing to ban books depicting LGBTQ+ relationships from public schools, describing them as containing “explicit sexual content.” Family friendly shows, featuring performers dressed as characters of the opposite sex are falsely claimed to be “sexualizing children.”
In our own little corner of the country, right wing activists have opened a front in their war on LGBTQ+ people. In one noteworthy attack, a conservative group has pushed to ban over 80 books in the Hermon School District and institute a rating system to restrict access to books. In another instance, DSA members noted a demonstrator displaying a large sign reading “Groom Dogs, Not Kids” below images of drag queens and other queer imagery in Portland’s Congress Square Park. Most chillingly, two school board members in the Oxford Hills area, one of whom is a trans woman, were recalled in an effort backed by the far-right Maine First Project after attempting to institute a trans affirming policy on gender identity in the district. As the far right’s campaign against queer people escalates across the country, we can be sure that these attacks here in Maine are not isolated incidents either.
Contrary to what many pundits and media personalities may claim, the “Groomer Panic” is not an innocent misunderstanding, nor is it born out of concern for the safety of children. It is a tactic for gaining and enforcing political power taken straight out of the playbook of 20th century European fascists, specifically, the oppression of the LGBTQ+ movement in Nazi Germany.
There is a long and storied history of moral panics just like this one either being manufactured or captured and recuperated by the ruling class to protect or enlarge their power. The current “Groomer Panic,” is no different. Right wing media outlets all over the nation are telling Americans to fear their LGBTQ+ neighbors as a danger to the nation’s children. The term “groomer” is a direct allusion to the tactics of sexual predators, who attempt to enable their abuse by first winning the trust of their underaged victims. By equating the mere act of being queer in public to an attempt at sexual assault, they have convinced a significant portion of the American population that the LGBTQ+ community is an imminent physical danger to the most vulnerable, which must be met with extreme measures. This is not the first time this formula has been weaponized against a minority, nor the first time that this minority has been the LGBTQ+ community.
In 1871, the German Empire adopted the Prussian Penal Code of 1871, which made homosexuality and other “unnatural sexual acts” illegal under Paragraph 175. Within decades, Germany saw the formation of the first homosexual rights movement in modern history, with the founding of the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, the World League for Sexual Reform, and Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sexology). This institute conducted research, as well as provided reproductive and trans affirming healthcare. Although both the laws and the movement survived into the Weimar Republic, the Republic enforced Paragraph 175 inconsistently, and the homosexual rights movement grew significantly throughout Germany.
The Nazi party sought to construct a single, monolithic masculine ideal that would promote the German people’s “racial hygiene.” German racial fitness was under threat, they believed, from socialists, homosexuals, and Jews. All of these groups were seen as insidious forces that would destroy German civilization if left unchecked. Homosexual men especially were seen as predators who endangered the fitness of young soldiers.
In the years leading up to 1933, Nazi tabloids like Der Stürmer spread stories stoking fears of Jewish pedophiles, perpetrators of sex crimes, and bizarre ritual murders. These stories bear an eerie resemblance to those later circulating in the United States, like “Satanic Ritual Abuse,” “Pizzagate,” and “Qanon.” The themes of most of these articles was anti-semitic, but after the Reichstag fire and Nazi takeover in 1933, the Nazi party quickly moved to undermine and persecute the homosexual rights movement. Paragraph 175 was enforced more aggressively than ever before. That year saw both the round-up of male sex-workers and a violent attack on Hirschfeld’s Institut für Sexualwissenschaft after which its books and papers were burned publicly.
Pro-homosexual elements were removed from the Nazi party in 1934. This purge included the assassination of Ernst Rӧhm, an openly homosexual member of the Nazi party and leader among the SA stormtroopers. His death and the purge of the SA was described by Joseph Goebbels as “purging degenerate elements.” This year saw an even more significant surge in anti-homosexual persecution. Nazi leaders promoted the idea that homosexuality was a contagious disease and a threat to “racial hygiene.” The SS Magazine, Das Schwarze Korps, declared homosexuals to be “enemies of the state.” Revisions to Paragraph 175 in 1935 targeted “severe lewdness.” Everything from sexual history revealed under intense interrogation, effeminate behavior, and flirtatious glances became grounds for criminal prosecution. Punishment included everything from jail-time, conversion therapy, time in concentration camps, and even execution.
The parallels to the current groomer panic are striking. Of particular note is the fact that Nazis distinguished between those who they believed had come to homosexuality and could be cured, and those who were congenitally homosexual. The latter of these were labeled Jugendverführer or Jugendverderber, and seen as the primary vectors of the “disease.” These terms, meaning “seducers,” and “corruptors of youth,” respectively, bear a striking similarity to the meaning and implication of the term “groomer.” Just as the Nazis attacked Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, institutions that conduct research and provide trans-affirming healthcare are being targeted through both attempts to ban the services they provide and through violent means, with the most prominent example being the bomb threats made against the gender clinic at Boston Children’s Hospital. Likewise, there are attempts all across the nation to ban books and media that normalize non-heterosexual romantic relationships and transgender identities. According to PEN America, there has been a surge in such book bans across the country, targeting more than 1,600 individual titles, all under the pretext that such providers are “grooming children,” or “seducing the youth.”
While the United States does not presently have an archaic Prussian Penal Code, many lawmakers are attempting to criminalize living as a transgender person. As of this article’s writing, the Senate of West Virginia is considering SB 262. A bill which, if enacted, would ban “any transvestite and/or transgender exposure, performances or display to any minor” within 2,500 feet of public schools. The language is so broad that it might effectively criminalize the mere existence of transgender individuals in public spaces surrounding schools. Trans parents would be committing a crime simply by dropping their kids off at school
The most significant parallel between the repression of Germany’s homosexual rights movement and the current “Groomer Panic,” is who benefits from sowing the seeds of discord: the ruling class. Moral panic has a long history of being used to foment public opposition to movements for liberation. The “Red Scares” were used by wealthy capitalists and entrenched political interests to undermine political opposition to capitalism and the labor movement. Former members of the Nixon administration openly admitted that the moral panic around street drugs such as crack-cocaine was a deliberate attempt to disrupt minority and activist communities. The 1980s “Satanic Panic,” was actively pushed by leaders of America’s religious right, a movement that had its origin in reactionary opposition to the civil and women’s rights movements of the 1960s. They used the myth of “Satanic Ritual Abuse,” to sell themselves as the leaders needed to protect America’s youth, enlarging their hold on American politics in the process.
In all of these cases, the purpose the moral panic served was to divide the poor, the workers, and the marginalized against one another. By keeping the downtrodden at each other’s throats, those in power are able to preserve and enlarge their power. They accomplish this either by transforming reactionary anger into public support for their political goals, or by redirecting the justified anger of the lower classes at one another so that they are unable to unite against their oppressors. Those who already have wealth and power benefit by sacrificing those that are already suffering and deprived of their fair share.
The lingering question is, what is to be done? It cannot be stressed enough how urgent this issue is becoming, as the talking heads and politicians who are attempting to sacrifice our LGBTQ+ friends, family, and neighbors for their own ascendance are well funded, organized, and rapidly working to seize the levers of power. It’s a no-brainer that we should vote against any and all political candidates allied to this movement and that we should oppose any legislation or referenda they endorse. But, voting alone is not enough.
Many of the activities of this movement are indirect but potentially deadly. The media figures promoting the “Groomer Panic” employ stochastic terrorism among their tactics. By frightening people into believing there is an imminent threat that some brave soul must stand up against, they encourage lone actors to engage in violent acts of terror against the community. The Boston Children’s Hospital bomb scare was one example, but deadlier attacks like the mass shooting at Club Q in November 2022 and the murder of Brianna Ghey in February 2023 have peppered the headlines over the course of this panic.
They have money, they have institutions, they have political power, and they have violence. What we have is people. When we show up to counter-protest, we can bring numbers that dwarf theirs. Often, the anti-trans protestors have such inferior numbers that they either fail to show or are scared back into hiding by masses of LGBTQ+ folks and their allies who have come out to protect their communities In short, the best thing we can do to help the LGBTQ+ community is to continue to organize, continue to engage in activism, continue to show unity and solidarity with their cause, and continue to show up. Their oppressors need the masses to be divided against themselves in order to remain in power. By standing together, we become something that they cannot abuse.