He’s at it again. The person who propped up the conservative white Christian nationalist crusade against critical race theory (CRT) is now rallying his base to oppose yet another fabricated foe: queer theory. But, of course, just like CRT is not being taught to kindergarteners, children are also not being taught queer theory.
That fact hasn’t stopped Christopher Rufo, the man who sparked the moral panic over CRT as a direct response to the racial justice reckoning inspired by the 1619 project’s accurate depictions of America’s racist history as well as the summer of 2020’s Black Lives Matter call to stop the racist killings of Black folks, like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, at the hands of the police. Rufo is a recent figure on the right-wing political stage, emerging as a commentator on Fox News shows like Tucker Carlson Tonight. As previously reported by The New Yorker, Rufo had a personal hand in drafting former President Trump’s executive order targeting contractors offering diversity training to federal employees, is relied upon by some Republican lawmakers, and now has a tip line in which people call attention to anti-racism programs.
His rhetoric and anti-fact-based campaigns are extremely dangerous. He is effectively deploying anti-Black—and now anti-LGBTQ—sentiment to achieve a longer-term and broader white Christian nationalist objective of purging critical thinking from schools. This has been a long-standing goal of the conservative movement: to develop a generation or more of adults who have not been trained to critically think about the world, their role in it, or what life can be like beyond trying to fit into the once-majority white cisheteronormative Christian mold. If they can stop our children from learning how to think, then they will be easier to manipulate with appeals based in falsehoods and bigotry such as those peddled by Rufo.
Teaching children how to think critically is paramount to ensuring that our future generations grow into informed and responsible participants in our democracy. And most children are already curious by nature. In her book Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom, Black feminist thinker bell hooks rightly declares, “Children are organically predisposed to be critical thinkers…. Sadly, children’s passion for thinking often ends when they encounter a world that seeks to educate them for conformity and obedience only. Most children are taught early on that thinking is dangerous.”
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Indoctrinating and training instead of teaching is the white Christian conservative MO.
Rufo’s professional ties with white Christian nationalist organizations goes back to his days at the Discovery Institute, where Rufo was the director of the Center on Wealth & Poverty. The Discovery Institute is a conservative think tank that views “religious, political and economic liberty” through a Christian lens and seeks to challenge “theories of biological origins.” He was also a visiting fellow for Domestic Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation, which describes CRT as a “philosophy that is infecting everything from politics and education to the workplace and the military.”
He currently serves as a senior fellow and contributing editor for the Manhattan Institute, a think tank concerned with so-called free-market ideals, and is a senior contributing editor of its public policy magazine, City Journal, which is the platform from which he regularly spouts falsehoods too numerous to count and too absurd to name here.
Recently, however, his focus has pivoted to more homophobic, transphobic, and sexist writings. In one article, he directly attacks queer theory by arguing the false claim that the “principles of queer theory have escaped from the college campus and made their way into a summer camp for children in rural Kentucky.” Not only is this claim not true, but it’s also intentionally misleading. Queer theory is a form of critical thinking that asks one to investigate the ways in which sexual orientation and gender identity have shown up historically and contemporarily in our daily lives, with a focus on sexualities beyond heterosexuality and genders beyond the binary of male or female. Just as prominent critical race theorists, such as Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw, are not taught in elementary schools, neither are foundational queer theorists, like Eve Sedgewick, Judith Butler, or Michael Warner.
He attempts to back up his claim that queer theory is being taught to children by attacking the organizers of a community-based, non-school-affiliated sexual education program that seeks to fill a gap in sex education in rural Appalachia through a workshop series encouraging people of all ages to openly discuss consent and sexual safety. Rufo claims that this program taught participants “lessons on ‘sex liberation,’ ‘gender exploration,’ ‘BDSM,’ ‘being a sex worker, ‘self-managed abortions,’ and ‘sexual activity while using licit and illicit drugs.’”
After Rufo’s posting, the teachers experienced so much harassment by Internet trolls that they had to go into hiding in safe houses.
In a different post on his social media page that has received over 13 thousand likes, he applauds the Wyoming State Senate for voting to terminate the University of Wyoming’s gender and women’s studies program.
Rufo also seeks to ensure that Disney continues to be a political battleground for the right. While Disney is an imperfect company that still has a lot of work to do when it comes to gender and sexuality, considering that it waited until the 11th hour to come out against Florida’s now-infamous “Don’t Say Gay” (or trans) bill, Rufo has targeted the company by leaking supposed segments from a virtual internal staff meeting on his Twitter page. In the segments Disney leadership is shown discussing their plans to stop promoting traditional gender roles at its theme parks and instead make its parks more gender-neutral by simply welcoming guests regardless of gender instead of distinguishing greetings between ladies and gentlemen.
This is a positive change, and exactly the step that Disney should be taking, but Rufo is promoting the hashtag #BoycottDisney to his followers and rallying his supporters to “[go] to war with Disney and the left-wing activists who are subverting parents and pushing gender ideology onto children.”
As much as we’d like to look away from these attacks, allowing them to go unchallenged sends the wrong message to LGBTQ youth. We must continue to elevate actual critical thinking about race, gender, and sexuality within our educational systems, and ultimately our culture writ large. There will always be Christopher Rufos in the world, but they will always be outnumbered by the majority of Americans who support and affirm LGBTQ people. We are in this fight together, and we must never relent until LGBTQ folks can live safely, with dignity and with pride.