Anti-Drag Laws, Part Two

Hi friends,

I’m back with another post about the historical context of recent anti-drag and anti-trans laws. This time, I’m talking about the historical roots of “groomer” claims and a group of people who are likely to be among the first impacted by the new wave of anti-drag and anti-trans legislation: queer and trans families.

The history of the “groomer” slur

The “groomer” rhetoric that conservatives are using to argue for laws restricting drag is a continuation of one of the oldest and most insidious forms of queer/trans antagonism: the association of queer and trans identity with pedophilia.

The idea that queer and trans people harm children has long been wielded against LGBTQ communities with devastating results. During the 1950s, local “sex crime panics” lead to the incarceration of large numbers of gay men based on the claim that they were dangerous to children. Queer and trans schoolteachers whose sexuality came to light during the 1950s through the 1970s were regularly fired (for trans teachers, that has continued). At the same time, anti-LGBTQ campaigner Anita Bryant called her efforts to repeal ant-discrimination laws the “Save Our Children Campaign.” Many other conservative activists have followed her example, stoking fears of queer and trans people “recruiting” children to justify political attacks on LGBTQ communities.

While most people are all too familiar with this anti-queer and trans conservative rhetoric, its specific impacts on queer and trans families are less acknowledged. Queer and trans people have long cared for children as parents, but the United States government has been overwhelmingly hostile toward these families until very recently. In fact, queer and trans parents and their children have suffered profoundly because of what historian Daniel Rivers calls “the longstanding assumption in American society that parenting and same-sex orientation are, or should be, mutually exclusive.”

The Longstanding Oppression of Queer and Trans Families

Since World War II, white, middle-class two-parent heterosexual households and single-family homes have been idealized and supported by government policies. In contrast, in the 1950s, queer parents often led “double lives,” carefully hiding their sexuality in order to avoid having their children taken away from them.

In 1970s and 1980s, judges deciding on child custody cases routinely ruled that queer relationships were incompatible with parenting, arguing that heterosexual households were “in the best interest of the child.” As a result, throughout these decades queer and trans parents were routinely removed from their children’s lives. Usually, family courts granted custody to a remarried heterosexual spouse whose household presented a vision of family that the court was prepared to recognize, and American culture affirmed.

It was only in the 1980s and 1990s that queer and trans people began to gain ground in their efforts to gain legal and cultural recognition for their families. In these decades, large numbers of queer people began to have children after coming out for the first time. Years of first underground and then small-scale organizing culminated in public parent groups who began to agitate for their rights as queer families. The AIDS crisis fueled the urgency of these parent’s activism, allowing them to build connections between queer family issues and marriage equality, which the hospitalization and death of so many people made a growing community priority. This confluence finally put queer families (but not trans parents, really, who were still poorly understood within the LGBTQ community) at the heart of the LGBTQ movement.

Next time: Right-wing Backlash – and Queer and Trans Families Respond

Outraged by the increasingly visibility of queer and trans parents, in the 1990s conservative activists began to direct their rhetoric and political maneuverings against these families using much the same strategies that they are using today. Right-wing activists began campaigning on the local and state levels to overturn civil rights gains and to enshrine into law anti-queer and trans oppression. In my next column, I’ll write more about those campaigns, how queer and trans families organized against them, and what we can learn from them in this moment.

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