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Dangerous as the Plague

The long history of panic 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.

The rhetoric that the Nazis used to denounce gay men in the 1930s and 1940s mirrors that coming from the right in the United States today.

When the National Socialists seized power in 1933, this rhetoric reached new extremes. The fascist party had long campaigned against what it perceived as the sexual decadence of the Weimar era. Nazi propaganda denounced homosexuality as a symptom of democratic decay and a threat to the long-term racial and biological health of the nation—despite the fact that Nazism was itself a deeply homosocial movement. While women were relegated to the roles of wife and mother, men were to be the heroic leaders of the nation, bound together in brotherly camaraderie. With enticing pictures of muscular workers and soldiers, the party’s propaganda oozed homoeroticism. Some same-sex oriented men, such as chief of the Nazi Storm Troopers Ernst Röhm, were attracted to the party for this very reason, hoping it might let them relive the homoerotic fellowship of the Great War.

At the same time, the homosocial nature of the Nazi movement is precisely what made its leaders afraid of homosexuality. One government policy pinpointed homosexuality’s “epidemic effect,” noting that “one individual seduces ten or more youths or infects an entire group,” imperiling the whole apparatus of the Nazi state and the reproductive potential of the next generation. Adolf Hitler himself worried that “a homosexual will generally seduce a whole host of boys, so that homosexuality really is as infectious and dangerous as the plague,” echoing the language that he used to attack Jews. Because Nazi leaders believed homosexuality was intentionally spread by malicious gay men, and because their movement was held together by male camaraderie, it was necessary to do everything possible to root out homosexuality in order to prevent its spread within the party and its paramilitaries.

Policy soon followed rhetoric. In 1934, Hitler had his good friend Röhm murdered as part of a purge of party leadership that came to be known as the Night of Long Knives. Although internal party politics had set off the coup, Hitler used Röhm’s homosexuality as an ex post facto justification for the assassinations. A year later, the Nazi government rolled out new laws that, among other things, criminalized the “seduction” of men younger than twenty-one (as the Weimar-era parliament had tried and failed to do), punishing offenders with long terms of hard labor. By the end of the Nazi period, the laws sent some fifty thousand men to prison. And although female homosexuality was not explicitly criminalized, women accused of seducing younger women could face harassment and even imprisonment.

In 1937, Heinrich Himmler, leader of the paramilitary SS and one of the chief architects of the Holocaust, delivered an unhinged speech to his deputies. Nostalgic for a bygone era when their forebears had disposed of homosexuals by drowning them in bogs, Himmler insisted that from then on, all gay men in the SS would be sent “to a concentration camp,” where “they will be shot.” And in 1941, Hitler decreed the death penalty for gay members of the police and of the SS, though the measure carved out an exception for youthful victims of “seduction.” In the end, between five and fifteen thousand gay men were sent to concentration camps, where around sixty percent of them perished.

Of course, these ideas did not die with Hitler. The two German states that rose from the ashes of World War II continued to criminalize the “seduction” of young men until the end of the 1960s. Propaganda, legal commentary, and sexology in East and West Germany alike continued to espouse the belief that rapacious homosexuals were recruiting from the ranks of Germany’s youth. Different from You and Me, a 1957 film directed by Veit Harlan, who was also responsible for the rabidly antisemitic Jud Süß during the Nazi era, revolved around a teenager lured into a homosexual lifestyle by a gay antiques dealer. That same year, the West German Constitutional Court, ruling on the constitutionality of the laws that criminalized male homosexuality, heard from expert testimony that “every person is homosexualizable.”

In the United States, too, fears of queer seduction proliferated, especially in the wake of gay liberation efforts of the early 1970s. In response to the successful passage of nondiscrimination ordinances in cities across the country, revanchist Christian fundamentalists fought back against what they perceived as the social and moral corruption of gay rights. In 1977, Anita Bryant, the singer and citrus spokeswoman, launched the campaign “Save Our Children”—so named because queer people were purportedly corrupting students and turning them into homosexuals—to repeal Miami-Dade’s nondiscrimination measure. She could have been quoting Hitler when she told a church congregation that “homosexuals cannot reproduce, so they must recruit. And to freshen their ranks, they must recruit the youth of America.” The following year, Republican California state senator John Briggs attempted to ban lesbians and gay men from working in public schools.

The onset of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s reoriented the politics of gay liberation. The disease infused the queer movement with a new urgency. It also garnered greater public sympathy for LGBTQ people, what Australian activist and scholar Dennis Altman called “legitimation through disaster.” A new focus on marriage equality in the 1990s further shifted the terms of debate. In those decades, the mainstream LGBTQ movement also did everything it could to distance itself from pro-pedophilic organizations like the North American Man-Boy Love Association. When I was growing up in the early aughts, I remember hearing far more about the unnaturalness of gay marriage (and how it would inevitably lead to people marrying their pets) than I did about grooming or seduction.

Still, fears of queer seduction festered. In 2020, Alex Morse, the mayor of Holyoke, Massachusetts, was accused of inappropriate sexual relationships with male students at the nearby University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Although Morse had broken no laws, violated no university policies, and was the subject of no complaints from any of his partners, the media latched onto the accusations with disturbing zeal. Only when it became apparent that they were the result of a political smear campaign was Morse vindicated. 

Across different states with different constellations of power and different political priorities, then, the accusation of seduction has remained a reliable mainstay of animosity directed toward gay men, lesbians, and trans people. Even as queerness has become ever more visible and even as ever larger majorities support civil rights for LGBTQ people, the fear that we are lurking in the shadows, waiting to lead the nation’s youth “astray” has never quite gone away.

The rhetoric that the Nazis used to denounce gay men in the 1930s and 1940s mirrors that coming from the right in the United States today. The words have changed: where the Nazis spoke of seduction, Republicans talk of grooming. But both interpret homosexuality and other forms of queerness as a social contagion. And the history of this animus suggests we must take Republicans’ rhetoric seriously. Theirs is the language of persecution. Make no mistake: the legislators passing laws to ban LGBTQ speech in the classroom and gender-affirming care will not hesitate to criminalize homosexuality or gender nonconformity.

The endurance of these tropes also highlights the limits of the professionalized LGBTQ political movement in this country.

There is not enough space here to enumerate all of the similarities and differences between National Socialism and today’s right, but the place of Christianity in each movement is instructive. The churches were always on tenuous terms at best with Hitler’s state. Many Nazi leaders were openly hostile to Christianity and to the “traditional” family. Homosexuality posed a threat to Nazism not in moral terms, but rather in social and political terms, threatening to undermine its homosocial order. In stark contrast, the American right today remains in thrall to white Christian nationalism, which openly seeks to impose its own version of morality on the nation. The threat queerness poses to this version of patriarchal Christianity, coupled with broader anxieties about loss of social status, is what appears to motivate the new right’s transphobia and homophobia.

The endurance of these tropes also highlights the limits of the professionalized LGBTQ political movement in this country, which has prioritized visibility and assimilation—eschewing more revolutionary strategies that would encompass the needs of the most marginalized. Groups like the Human Rights Campaign have been successful up to a point, but their strategies were always predicated on the notion that if queer people were visible and showed that they weren’t actually that different, prejudice would seep away. Because its aim was assimilation, this tactic fundamentally upheld the division between normal and abnormal on which animus rests. Instead of contesting that very division, it sought to put certain queer people on the “right” side of it. In this way, it also misunderstood hatred as a product of ignorance rather than a political strategy or an expression of sublimated anxieties.

Now animus against queer people—especially trans people—is back with a vengeance. From the conspiracy-addled world of QAnon, in which a shadowy cabal of pedophiles, juiced on the blood of children, runs the world, to the mendacity of trans-exclusionary radical feminists (or TERFs), a growing segment of the population seems willing to entertain the notion that lesbians, gay men, and trans people are “recruiting” children. The bestseller Irreversible Damage, published in 2020 and reaching audiences well beyond the fringe right, insisted that girls were being seduced by a “transgender craze” that it termed a “contagion.” Just before Pride month, U.S. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has embraced the rhetoric of “grooming,” predicted that in “four or five generations, no one will be straight anymore.”

The project of the right today is not precisely that of the Nazis a century ago. But both movements held in common a desperate desire to control bodies: to define who can have what kind of sex with whom. This is why the fate of abortion rights is so inextricably intertwined with gay rights, why attacks on trans people are attacks on us all, and why laws against miscegenation and laws against sodomy have so often fit hand-in-glove. There is nothing that has scarred social conservatives in this country more than the autonomy of the body that oppressed groups have won in the last seventy years. Recent weeks have shown that they—like the German fascists who railed against the decadence of the Weimar Republic—will stop at nothing to roll it back.