Right-wing 'groomer' attacks target suicide prevention service for LGBTQ youth

Conservatives pushing anti-LGBTQ “grooming” attacks have turned their attention to the Trevor Project, a nonprofit that provides counseling for teens.

In late April, conservatives began to circulate a cartoon from the Trevor Project, the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention program for LGBTQ youth, according to its website. The cartoon explains that those who want to chat with a counselor can do so with the ability to quickly exit and erase browser history. The feature is meant to help those with anti-LGBTQ parents. Similar protections are provided by domestic abuse services.

But a number of conservatives — many of whom hyped concerns about the teaching of race in school — have recently recirculated it as proof that the nonprofit is engaging in grooming. One of the leading critics has been author and commentator James Lindsay, who published a book criticizing critical race theory (the study of racism in U.S. systems and policies) last year before pivoting to a series of YouTube videos about “groomer schools.”

A crisis service coordinator looks at a computer monitor with volunteers at the Trevor Project Call Center in West Hollywood, California on January 17, 2017.(Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images)
A crisis service coordinator at the Trevor Project call center in West Hollywood, Calif., in 2017. (Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images)

“Grooming” is a relatively new term used to describe tactics that have long been used by sexual abusers, mostly against young children but also vulnerable adults, to gain access to potential victims, coerce them into abuse and then avoid getting caught.

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, “Sexual assault is in no way related to the sexual orientation of the perpetrator or the survivor, and a person’s sexual orientation cannot be caused by sexual abuse or assault.”

Yet the term has recently emerged as a popular buzzword on the political right, where it’s been wrongly conflated with discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Only a matter of time until solid evidence of serious wrongdoing emerges regarding the Trevor Project. They don't mobilize to protect anything unless there's something really bad going on there that they don't want anyone to find out. Mark my words,” wrote Lindsay on Twitter, later adding, “Groomer Project posing as suicide prevention.”

The Trevor Project website.
The Trevor Project website.

In a now deleted tweet, the Libs of TikTok account — which has more than 1 million followers — called the Trevor Project a “grooming organization.” The account, run by an attendee of the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection, has been criticized for attempting to get queer teachers removed from their jobs.

“Why is the @TrevorProject encouraging children to keep secrets from their parents?” wrote the account Moms 4 Liberty, a right-wing organization that’s part of the effort to censor books by minority and LGBTQ authors in public schools and libraries.

Lindsay also shared a February story from the conservative Post Millennial website titled “Mother of 'trans' child poses as teen to find out how Trevor Project grooms kids into transitioning,” writing, “The Trevor Project is a Groomer Project. It needs to be shut down.”

The article aimed to attack the organization for not providing more information about how to de-transition but contains numerous examples of a counselor repeatedly asking the parent, who is pretending to be a 15-year-old, about whether she has self-harmed or attempted suicide.

“The Trevor Project exists to end the public health crisis of suicide among LGBTQ young people — a mission that transcends political lines and cultural divides,” a spokesperson for the organization said in a statement to Yahoo News. “We estimate that more than 1.8 million LGBTQ youth seriously consider suicide each year in the U.S., and our counselors hear from youth every day who feel like they have nowhere to turn.”

The spokesperson added, “The resurgence of anti-LGBTQ attacks that seek to smear adults, including parents, teachers, counselors and doctors, who affirm and support LGBTQ youth, is especially dangerous, as it diverts attention away from the very real, life-threatening issues of child abuse and sexual assault.”

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), “The LGBTQI population is at a higher risk than the heterosexual, cisgender population for suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts.” A 2017 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that high school students who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual are more than four times as likely than their heterosexual peers to have attempted suicide.

Transgender teens are at even greater risk. According to a 2020 survey published by the Journal of Adolescent Health, “Transgender and nonbinary youth were at increased risk of experiencing depressed mood, seriously considering suicide, and attempting suicide compared with cisgender lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, and questioning youth.”

Trevor Project volunteers march in New York City's Pride parade.
Trevor Project volunteers in New York City's Pride parade. (Sasha Vorlicky/The Trevor Project)

New data released by the Trevor Project on Wednesday shows that suicidal thoughts among LGBTQ youth have been on the rise in the past three years. The organization’s 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, which surveyed nearly 34,000 LGBTQ youths ages 13 to 24 across the country, found that 45% of respondents had seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year — up from 42% in 2021 and 40% in 2020.

Suicidal thoughts were even more prevalent among transgender and nonbinary youth, with 53% reporting that they had seriously considered suicide in the past year.

Marlene Matarese, a clinical associate professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Social Work, said that in addition to suicidality, LGBTQ youth also have disproportionately higher rates of behavioral health issues including depression, anxiety and substance use.

“This is not because they are innately predispositioned to experience these outcomes but because they experience minority stress daily,” said Matarese, who is the principal investigator at the National Center of Excellence for LGBTQ+ Behavioral Health Equity, which is funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

She told Yahoo News that one example of the types of stressors encountered by LGBTQ youth “is hearing from elected officials that people who support and protect LGBTQ+ youth are grooming them.”

“Imagine the messaging that this sends young people about their identity,” Matarese said. “Hearing constant comments like this in the media and from friends and family members leads to silence, shame, isolation and fear, which in turn leads to increased rates of behavioral health challenges.”

Hannah Wesolowski, NAMI’s chief advocacy officer, told Yahoo News that organizations like the Trevor Project provide much-needed support to LGBTQ youth, whose increased rates of mental health conditions and suicidality are tied to the discrimination, harassment and rejection they often face, not just from their peers but also from their families.

“There are too many people right now who are telling these kids ‘there’s something wrong with you,'” said Wesolowski. “They need to hear that there isn’t anything wrong with them. And they need to have support and hear the message that they’re loved, they’re accepted, they’re respected, and that they’re not alone.”

The report released by the Trevor Project on Wednesday found that LGBTQ youth who felt a high degree of support from their families reported attempting suicide at less than half the rate of those who said they felt low or moderate support. LGBTQ youth who live in communities that are accepting of LGBTQ people also reported attempting suicide at significantly lower rates than those who do not, according to the findings.

The term “groomer” began to spread on the right in March in relation to Florida’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay” law, a vaguely worded statute — which prohibits teachers from discussing sexual orientation and gender identity with children in kindergarten through third grade — that critics say targets LGBTQ teachers.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signs the Parental Rights in Education bill at Classical Preparatory School in Spring Hill in March.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signs the Parental Rights in Education bill at Classical Preparatory School in Spring Hill, Fla., in March. (Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times/TNS via ZUMA Press Wire)

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’s press secretary, Christina Pushaw, said that anyone who opposed the bill was “probably a groomer." Days later, “grooming” began being used in graphics on Fox News, and it spread quickly from there. Lindsay has tweeted the term “ok groomer” more than 100 times since October, including in a response to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s husband, Chasten, reacting to the news of the Supreme Court's potential overturning of Roe v. Wade.

In addition to Lindsay and Moms 4 Liberty, activist Chris Rufo has pivoted some of his focus from raising concerns about critical race theory to begin targeting LGBTQ teachers. Rufo has said the efforts are part of a larger initiative to dismantle public education as a whole by discrediting it as an institution.

Transgender youth have specifically become targets of Republicans, with a number of states pushing legislation that would charge parents who allow their children to seek gender-affirming care with a felony. At least three Republican candidates have fundraised on transphobia and grooming in recent weeks, with the viral response from one Michigan Democrat who was targeted receiving more than 14 million views on Twitter.

As Yahoo News reported last week, child sexual abuse experts similarly argue that the recent “groomer” discourse is not only inaccurate, but it also undermines legitimate efforts to prevent abuse.

“Anytime that [grooming] is confused with other behaviors that are not sexual grooming, I think, endangers people who are being sexually groomed from understanding that that’s what’s happening to them, [and] it confuses adults who could prevent the abuse from happening,” said Elizabeth Jeglic, a psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York who researches issues related to sexual grooming, sexual abuse and sexual violence prevention. “If people get confused about what it is, that then can increase the likelihood that people can get away with perpetrating abuse against minors.”