Image by Ivy Sanders Schneider

Distress Signals

Karim Kazemi

In early December, I bought a tray of origami paper and a bottle of hypoallergenic zinc shampoo for a teenage girl I do not know personally. I had found my way to her holiday wish list through Transanta, a mutual-support platform that connects anonymous gift givers with transgender youth across the U.S. and Canada. The letters that accompany the wish lists often detail struggles to pay rent, medical bills, and college tuition — those hallmark strains of deprivation handed down to queer kids whose access to family resources has been throttled or outright withdrawn. Some of the writers have been expelled from their homes. For others, home remains a zone of baroque psychological torment, and their letters read as distress signals smuggled out from behind enemy lines.

“My mom is a TERF,” began one such letter. “She literally hates transgender people.” The writer explained that her mother had attended an anti-“gender ideology” march, used slurs on Kiwi Farms (an online forum for targeting and harassing minorities), and refused to buy her daughter gifts for Christmas. “She actually runs her own ‘gender critical’ page on Facebook with hundreds of followers,” the letter went on. I took a minute to picture such a household: two women profoundly at odds with each other, calling for backup from opposite ends of the internet. I wondered what fate awaited Transanta posters’ care packages when they arrived. Would they be confiscated? Destroyed? I realized then that I had, without meaning to, skirted items that were overtly “girly” — a tray of makeup, a pair of cherry-shaped earrings — in assembling the package I had sent, in order to guard, probably, against the likelihood that the arrival of those items would only confirm the parents’ belief in a vast conspiracy to turn their child trans.

In high school, I wrote a far less dire missive to Giancarlo DiTrapano, the late founder of the independent publisher Tyrant Books, asking if he would mail me some of his books. He obliged in a major way, but when the package turned up, my parents intercepted it. Their justification for having opened it without my permission was that the box reeked of cigarette smoke, and so, they reported, did the ten or so volumes inside. Offended, or perhaps jealous, because with this generous gesture, some chain-smoking cosmopolitan had invaded their domain, my parents unleashed the accusation that the gift — like the candy a strange man dangles from his unmarked white van in a PSA — was the prelude to a grand plan to seduce me.

If this had all happened recently, they might have called it an attempt to “groom” me — that ugly, unhelpful term so instrumental to today’s self-proclaimed parental rights crusaders. The latest wave of this reactionary movement took shape soon after the onset of the pandemic, coalescing in opposition to public health measures such as vaccines and mask mandates. The school day, once a crucial reprieve from home life, was dragged digitally into bedrooms and living rooms, and many parents enjoyed an unprecedented, near total degree of surveillance and control over their children’s daily activities. Public school curricula, to these parents, could be individually managed like a Netflix subscription, or gutted and renovated like an old house.

As with many moral panics before it, this movement is sustained by the fantasy of the innocent child, who needs protecting from the big bad world. “Grooming” conjures fearful images of abuse and sex trafficking, which are mobilized to disarm an ever-expanding array of “threats”: drag queen story time, antiracist lesson plans, comprehensive sex education, gender-affirming health care for children. All these efforts seek to “protect” children not only by cutting them off from the world, but by diminishing what the world has to offer them.

Grassroots advocacy groups such as Moms for Liberty and Parents Defending Education have succeeded in steering education policy in several states, advocating for provisions that have removed titles containing non-heteronormative themes and depictions of sex from the shelves of school libraries; expanded parents’ ability to opt their children out of lessons they deem objectionable; restricted or outright prohibited topics related to gender identity and sexual orientation across all grade levels; compelled teachers and school administrators to tell parents if their children are transgender; and even prohibited that any child go by a name different than their legal one. One suburban mother’s unhinged contribution to the permanent record, delivered during the open comment section of a school board hearing in Plano, Texas, consisted of a dramatic reading of an excerpt of the 2017 National Book Award finalist What Girls Are Made Of so throaty and impassioned one imagines she believed the title would be marked for immediate incineration if only she could succeed in eliciting acute bodily arousal from the panel before her.

Her performance is no more absurd than the movement’s logic. The origins of homosexuality and gender variance have long been speciously attributed to a shifting, expanding array of failures to parent: an absent father; a mother who lays her attentions on too thick, or is entirely too inattentive and leaves her child vulnerable to lecherous adults, or to media artifacts that might give them the wrong idea. But even though Bob the Drag Queen can’t turn your kid gay, these parents are right about something: the information we receive, especially as young people, has profound effects on how we come to know and express ourselves. The closet is often imagined as a place where a young person hides the truth of who they are from the world. But often it is the world which is hidden from them. Parents seek to scramble transmissions of gender and sexual diversity, or to prohibit contact between queer adults and queer children. The poet and gender studies scholar Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, remembering the search for answers as to why her grade school French teacher had been fired after he was discovered cruising in the YMCA showers, wrote that “Nothing — no form of contact with people of any gender or sexuality — makes me feel so, simply, homosexual as the evocation of library afternoons of dead-ended searches, ‘wild’ guesses that, as I got more experienced, turned out to be almost always right.”

When I discovered where my parents had stashed the books — behind a curtain of pleated pants, hanging at the back of their closet — I returned to them again and again, crouching on the floor to read. I found no distorted (or distorting) depictions of sexuality, just a nurturing permissiveness, the sense that I was in the presence of words that tended to a part of me I hadn’t known about and that would have otherwise gone unheeded, withered, and died on the vine. These were stolen moments, and through them I experienced the very real feeling that there was somebody sweet, cool, and sort of powerful out there who was looking out for me, and that he might have cared if I had lived or died.

Karim Kazemi is a writer from Arvada, Colorado. He lives in Mexico.