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Notes on the 'Groomer' Panic and Transgender Issues

Copyright © 2024 by Ari Armstrong
April 15, 2022; ported here on June 5, 2024

Readers may have noticed that I've interspersed my "Roundups" for this site so far with commentary about transgender issues. Some of you may be wondering why I don't stick to less-controversial issues such as gun rights, drug policy, race in America, and abortion. Am I trying to get "cancelled" or something?

Previously I've written briefly about the "groomer" panic, Jonathan Rauch on transgenderism, the Florida "don't say gay" bill, Governor Spencer Cox's remarks on a transgender bill, and an alternate way to deal with athletic tiers.

I worry that various conservatives seem to be intentionally drumming up a moral panic about the alleged "grooming" of school children who are exposed to conversations and readings that (gasp!) discuss gay and transgender people. I do think that there are some legitimate concerns about some teachers promoting a specific ideological agenda concerning gender. Generally, though, discussions with children about the fact that gay and transgender people exist and deserve safety and respect are perfectly fine.

I have had many age-appropriate discussions with my six-year-old son about such matters. Such discussions with young children should not be, and need not be, sexually explicit. It is obvious even to young children that many adults are married (probably including their parents). It is no big stretch to explain that some men are married to men and some women are married to women. Nor is it too difficult to explain that some people born with boy parts feel like and want to live as women while some people born with girl parts feel like and want to live as men.

A lot of conservatives intentionally blur the line between age-appropriate discussions about gay and transgender people and abusive "grooming." Such tactics are very dangerous. They easily could get people killed. This is not hyperbole. Some activists are "doxxing school officials and calling for their execution," Vice reports. Recently on a train a man started screaming at a gay couple and their children, "Homosexuals are an abomination. They steal and rape kids." This is the sort of conspiratorial nonsense that led a man to fire off a rifle in a pizzeria.

I'm hoping that I can be part of a reasoned, compassionate discussion (among adults) about transgenderism and related issues. Below are my scattered notes.

The GayBCs

GeekDad says The GayBCs is a a "delightful picture book" to help teach "young kids" how to read. As you might imagine, not everyone agrees.

C. Bradley Thompson, whom I've met a number of times through Objectivist events (associated with Ayn Rand), worries about the book:

In Williamson County, Tennessee, one of the wealthiest and most Republican school districts in the Volunteer state, kindergarteners were given iPads loaded with the book, The GayBCs to help them learn how to read. These five-year-olds learned that B for Bi, C is for Coming Out, D is for Drag, I is for Intersex, N is for Nonbinary, T is for Trans, and so on. The recommended age range for readers of The GayBCs is 4 to 8. That this book is pure CGT [Critical Gender Theory] propaganda is obvious simply from the fact that the words used in the book are age inappropriate not simply because of the words' meaning but also because of their difficulty.

Thompson's source for the factual claims is an op-ed from the Epoch Times, a source about which some skepticism is warranted. (If you must find the article, it's titled, "Transgendered in Kindergarten? What's Really Behind the Insane New Sex Ed?") That article claims, "If you were a kindergartner in Williamson Country, Tennessee, and clicked on the book 'The GayBCs' on the iPad given by your school for you to take home over the weekend," you could read all about gay and transgender issues.

I figured I would just ask the school district in question what happened. A representative of the district pointed me to an April 12 article about this, which states:

Last week, after concerns were shared with district staff about a children's digital library app with more than 40,000 selections being used in WCS elementary grades, the district temporarily removed the app called Epic from teacher and student devices until further review. This review was based upon concerns related to the book titled, An ABC of Equality, and other books with similar topics. District staff examined how students access the content available through the app while at school and checked to ensure that WCS internet filters were appropriately screening content when accessed directly through the app.

The district has completed its review and found:

• There are no issues with internet filtering through the district's network.

• The district's subscription offers no mechanism for parents to choose specific books that their child can or cannot read at school, unlike our school libraries.

• Parents may ask that the entire app be removed from an individual student's dashboard on their Chromebook.

Beginning Thursday, April 14, by the end of the workday, Epic will be returned to the teacher and student dashboards. However, if a parent wants the Epic app removed from their child's dashboard, the parent may email the school principal, and Epic will be removed from their child's dashboard within 24 hours of the school being notified, Monday through Friday.

For the 2022-23 school year, parents can expect additional changes due to a new State law taking effect that may limit the district's future use of apps. The Age-Appropriate Materials Act of 2022, Public Chapter 744, requires that beginning next fall, each school shall maintain a current list on its website of the following materials: books, periodicals, newspapers, manuscripts, films, prints, documents, microfilm, discs, cassettes, videotapes, videogames, applications and subscription content in any form, in the school's library collection. Each of the more than 600 apps used in WCS will be reviewed to ensure the district can maintain current lists of the apps' contents as required by this new law.

The Tennessean has a bit more about this.

If parents are worried about a handful of books out of 40,000, parents could—radical concept, I know—monitor their young children's screen time and help them pick out books.

My take is that GayBCs is not a very good book but that it's also not going to somehow corrupt kids. Amazon shows the book to be for 4–8 year olds. Amazon reveals three pages of the book, so I'll restrict my remarks to those pages.

"A is for Ally. A friend who is there to stand up for you with strength, love, and care." Okay, that's fine! That's a reasonable discussion of the term.

"G is for Gay. It's a word that implies you're a girl who likes girls or a guy who likes guys." Uh, that's just idiotic. I'm a guy who "likes" lots of other guys but I'm not gay. Parents shouldn't give this book to kids just because it's incompetently written and kids can read any of thousands of better books.

"T is for Trans. It's a brave step to take to live as the gender you know is innate." This is not going to make any sense to young children without some explanation. Anyway, is gender innate? Is it completely innate? It seems like just yesterday that the radical stance was that gender is a social construct. I think the correct view is that gender is partly innate, partly a social construct, and partly a matter of choice. I'm sure the typical four- or five-year-old is ready for such heavy philosophic discussions. (Not.)

Maybe The ABC of Equality is better? No. Here is part of the text: "Belief is when you are confident something exists even if you can't see it. Lots of different beliefs fill the world, and no single belief is right for everyone." Uh, really? The beliefs that the sun is the center of the solar system, that Covid-19 is caused by a virus, that killing someone for no good reason is bad, that life on earth evolved over billions of years, that the U.S. president is Joe Biden are not "right for everyone?" I guess reading this book with your child might be a useful exercise if you discuss why parts of it are total bullshit.

One of the most interesting things about these mediocre books is that they probably will sell radically more copies because various conservatives make such a big deal about them. But these books do not pose a threat to my child or to any child.

What Does 'Grooming' Even Mean?

In part, the moral panic about "grooming" children depends on the vagueness of the term as used by various conservatives. Laura Jedeed has basically the right take on this:

In recent weeks, become popular among certain people on the right to accuse anyone who exposes children to obscene literature of "grooming." By obscene literature, they mean anything that acknowledges the existence of sex, gay relationships, or trans people.

Until this horrific trend took hold, the word "grooming" in the context of abuse meant cultivating a trusting, emotionally deep relationship with a child, then using that relationship to manipulate the child into sexual contact.

This is, fascinatingly, not the way the right is using the term. Instead, they believe these groomers work to normalize sexual behaviors and activities so that children are primed to fall victim to any adult who might take advantage of them.

Notably, though, that is not at all how Thompson uses the term. After reviewing some details about LGBTQ+ clubs for middle schoolers, Thompson writes:

This kind of sexualized brainwashing, recruitment, and grooming is happening all over the United States. It seems patently clear now that America's Education Establishment is using its teachers and teaching materials to encourage—nay, prepare—children to be sexually polymorphous.

So . . . "grooming" is just encouraging kids to come out as gay or transgender or the like? I propose that any term that encompasses both raping children and encouraging children to join an LGBTQ club is . . . let's just say less than helpful.

Incidentally, Abigail Shrier, in an article cited by Thompson, talks about teachers "recruiting" students into the LGBTQ lifestyle but nowhere refers to "grooming."

Gender Identity: Biology or Choice?

As mentioned, The GayBCs insists that "gender . . . is innate." Just as sexual orientation is innate . . . right? Not so fast, at least if we add the qualifier "completely." Bryan Caplan points out:

While almost all [twin and adoption] studies find that genetics matters, virtually none asserts that the heritability of sexual orientation is even close to 100%. Ergo, homosexuality must, to some extent, be "acquired." While that hardly implies that any specific mechanism—such "recruitment" or "media depictions"—works, the idea that homosexuality can be spread is the unheralded scientific consensus.

Caplan further thinks that "the evidence in favor of acquired homosexuality has become overwhelming" due to survey results showing that lots more Gen Zers are bisexual, gay or lesbian, or transgender relative to older people.

Isn't that just due to the greater social acceptability of being LGBTQ? Maybe the surveys show only increased willingness to admit to being LGBTQ. But then, asks Caplan, "Why would older LGBTs stay in the closet as the stigma plummets?"

Caplan is especially impressed with the 15% of Gen Zers who say they're bisexual. Caplan suggests that a lot of "bisexuals" "live a nearly-straight lifestyle" but want to "live in communion with LGBT friends."

Caplan emphasizes that changing cultural norms cause more people to self-identify as LGBTQ. Fine. What I want to emphasize is that the underlying human nature is not changing; what is changing is how it manifests given cultural developments. Regarding older people, I think the basic explanation is that people tend to habituate a lifestyle. To further explore these issues, I move into a new section . . .

Stotts on Sexual Identity

Psychotherapist Jason Stotts argues in Eros & Ethics, in his chapter on "Sexual Identity," that it's a big mistake to see the categories of heterosexual, bisexual, and homosexual as "mutually exclusive and totally exhaustive categories." (See also my podcast episode with Stotts.)

Stotts argues that "sexual orientation is a disposition" affected by biology (including "sex hormone timing"), culture, personal moral views, and "our unique histories and our responses to them." Sexual orientation also is mediated by personal choice, Stotts argues.

Stotts's views imply that there are no clear lines dividing heterosexuality, bisexuality, and homosexuality. Plenty of heterosexual people sometimes feel some sexual attraction to people of the same sex. Stotts discusses the "Triaxial Scale," which "tracks a person's sexual attraction and sexual desire to each sex [male, intersex, female] on a 0–6 scale." The intersex group includes people "whose bodies have biological features of both sexes, whether they were born this way, developed these characteristics at puberty, or arrived at them through surgery."

What I think is happening in the survey results that Caplan cites, then, is that younger people are more willing to redraw the lines and to pursue more-diverse sexual relationships. An older "heterosexual" person and a younger "bisexual" person might feel equal levels of attraction to people of the same sex, only the younger person is more likely to identify as bisexual and to pursue sexual relationships with people of the same gender. I'm not contradicting Caplan's point here; I'm trying to enrich the explanation and emphasize the continuity of underlying human nature.

Ayn Rand and Gender

Part of the subtext of the above discussion is that two people strongly influenced by the ideas of Ayn Rand, Thompson and Stotts, have reached quite different conclusions about matters of gender. (Stotts's first chapter is largely a recapitulation of Rand's moral theory. I'm not an Objectivist, although I align closely with Objectivits on many philosophic and policy matters.)

For a long time, much of the Objectivist movement (the movement inspired by Rand's philosophic ideas), led by Rand herself, was hostile to (or at least unsupportive of) homosexuality. But now Objectivists tend to be quite accepting of homosexuality. Although Chris Matthew Sciabarra remains persona non grata among many Objectivists, the ideas in his work, Ayn Rand, Homosexuality, and Human Liberation, are pretty widely accepted by Objectivists.

I think a similar trend is underway with respect to transgenderism. Some older, more conservative Objectivists tend to be against it or at least highly suspicious of it; younger Objectivists tend to think it's fine, which is the correct stance.

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