On October 18 2022, Louisiana Rep. Mike Johnson (R) tweeted an announcement about a piece of proposed legislation with an attention-grabbing title — “The Stop the Sexualization of Children Act”:
Rep. Mike Johnson and the Missing Legislative Text
A spool emoji punctuated Johnson’s tweet, indicating it was the first of a thread of tweets. Notably, Johnson’s first tweet did not link to the proposed legislation, nor did any of the tweets that followed.
Johnson’s thread continued, with a series of screenshots of material with no direct source. Logos for organizations like the Human Rights Campaign, Planned Parenthood, and the National LGBTQ Task Force appeared in the images, but again, no direct links were provided by Johnson.
In his second tweet, Johnson falsely claimed:
The Democrat Party and their cultural allies are on a crusade to immerse young children in sexual imagery and radical gender ideology at school and in public.
Two of Johnson’s screenshots did show some source material, but only to highly partisan and low-quality sources, such as a Daily Wire item objecting to a “woke” Air Force event. Johnson cropped the source of an article screenshot out of a tweet referencing material published on “MustReadAlaska.com.”
Furthermore, Johnson claimed that federal funds were “recently” used to “fund an event” in Alaska, but a date of June 2021 was visible in the screenshot:
— Rep. Mike Johnson (@RepMikeJohnson) October 18, 2022
Sixth in the thread was a screenshot of what appeared to be legislation. For some reason, Johnson seemed to go out of his way not to showcase the “BREAKING” new legislation he referenced:
We need a straightforward and commonsense law:
No federal tax dollars should go to any federal programs, state or local government agencies, or private organizations, that intentionally expose children under 10 years of age to sexually explicit material. Period. pic.twitter.com/VC2M4lyqvn
— Rep. Mike Johnson (@RepMikeJohnson) October 18, 2022
The only visible text in the screenshot included a noteworthy “and for other purposes”:
To prohibit the use of Federal funds to develop, implement, facilitate, or fund any sexually oriented program, event, or literature for children under the age of 10, and for other purposes.
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,
SECTION 1. SHORT TITLE.
This Act may be cited as the “Stop the Sexualization of Children Act”.
In a massive red flag in the thread’s third tweet, Johnson tagged far right disinformation purveyor Christopher Rufo:
Just read this curriculum for Kindergartners in Portland, Oregon if you can stomach it. h/t @realchrisrufo
— Rep. Mike Johnson (@RepMikeJohnson) October 18, 2022
Who is Christopher Rufo, and What Does He Have to Do With the Legislation?
Johnson’s tweet appeared on October 18 2022.
Two days earlier, HBO aired the latest episode of John Oliver’s show, which concerned bills targeting LGBTQ youth. An October 17 2022 recap of the segment noted:
[Oliver] pointed to Christopher Rufo, one of the rightwing scholars who helped poison critical race theory from an academic concept to a winning culture war issue for Republicans, and has since shifted to targeting trans people and specifically how transgender people are discussed in schools. “Say what you want about Chris Rufo – like, for instance, that he’s a fear-mongering troll who looks like what would happen if someone made the recipe for Ryan Gosling but forgot to add the hotness – he’s very deliberate in how he tries to influence public opinion,” said Oliver.
Rufo has suggested branding the discussion of trans issues as “radical gender theory”, and tweeted that drag queens should be referred to as “trans strippers” because it’s more “lurid” and has a “sexual connotation” – part of the conservative strategy of linking transgender issues with sexual predation or social contagion.
Oliver pointed to a tweet by Rufo in June 2022, in which Rufo openly stated the following:
As of October 2022, Rufo had long been credited as the architect of controversy around (and attack on) “critical race theory.” An April 2021 profile of Rufo in the New Yorker explained how the abrupt introduction of remote work enabled Rufo to obtain anti-racism workplace training materials, massage their content and context, then use everything possible to seed conflict using established marketing techniques:
… some less obviously tectonic leaks have had a more direct political effect, as was the case in July, 2020, when an employee of the city of Seattle documented an anti-bias training session and sent the evidence to a journalist named Christopher F. Rufo, who read it and recognized a political opportunity … Marooned at home, civil servants recorded and photographed their own anti-racism training sessions and sent the evidence to Rufo. Reading through these documents, and others, Rufo noticed that they tended to cite a small set of popular anti-racism books, by authors such as Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo. Rufo read the footnotes in those books, and found that they pointed to academic scholarship from the nineteen-nineties, by a group of legal scholars who referred to their work as critical race theory, in particular Kimberlé Crenshaw and Derrick Bell.
Rufo leveraged that “political opportunity” during an appearance on Tucker Carlson’s show in order to fabricate a boogeyman in critical race theory (or CRT), a grad-school level academic lens that has nothing whatsoever to do with sexualization of children.
The day after Rufo’s segment aired, he was contacted by the Trump White House to assist in “drafting an executive order”:
… on September 2nd , [Rufo] appeared on “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” Rufo had prepared a three-minute monologue, to be uploaded to a teleprompter at a Seattle studio, and he had practiced carefully enough that when a teleprompter wasn’t available he still remembered what to say. On air, set against the deep-blue background of Fox News, he told Carlson, “It’s absolutely astonishing how critical race theory”—he said those three words slowly, for emphasis—“has pervaded every aspect of the federal government.” Carlson’s face retracted into a familiar pinched squint while Rufo recounted several of his articles. Then he said what he’d come to say: “Conservatives need to wake up. This is an existential threat to the United States. And the bureaucracy, even under Trump, is being weaponized against core American values. And I’d like to make it explicit: The President and the White House—it’s within their authority to immediately issue an executive order to abolish critical-race-theory training from the federal government. And I call on the President to immediately issue this executive order—to stamp out this destructive, divisive, pseudoscientific ideology.”
The next morning, Rufo was home with his wife and two sons when he got a phone call from a 202 area code. The man on the other end, Rufo recalled, said, “ ‘Chris, this is Mark Meadows, chief of staff, reaching out on behalf of the President. He saw your segment on ‘Tucker’ last night, and he’s instructed me to take action.” Soon after, Rufo flew to Washington, D.C., to assist in drafting an executive order, issued by the White House in late September , that limited how contractors providing federal diversity seminars could talk about race. “This entire movement came from nothing,” Rufo wrote to me recently, as the conservative campaign against critical race theory consumed Twitter each morning and Fox News each night. But the truth is more specific than that. Really, it came from him.
Rufo was consistently forthright about his intent to weaponize language, and did not appear to conceal his endeavors. In April 2022, the New York Times profiled Rufo, reporting that his focus had evolved into applying his CRT disinformation model to LGBTQ rights.
That reporting described a nearly identical chain of events, undisputed by Rufo. He obtained material from workplace trainings, appeared on Tucker Carlson, stripped everything of context, and shook it until legislation fell out (thanks in large part to an uncritical press corps with a seemingly bottomless appetite for right-wing propaganda):
Mr. Rufo is the conservative activist who probably more than any other person made critical race theory a rallying cry … he has emerged at the front of another explosive cultural clash, one that he sees as even more politically potent and that the left views as just as dangerous: the battle over L.G.B.T.Q. restrictions in schools.
Mr. Rufo has taken aim at opponents of a  Florida law that prohibits teachers in some grades from discussing L.G.B.T.Q. issues and that critics call “Don’t Say Gay.” He declared “moral war” against the statute’s most prominent adversary, the Walt Disney Company. And he has used the same playbook that proved effective in his crusade on racial issues: a leak of insider documents.
On “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” Mr. Rufo shared video [in March 2022] of an internal Disney meeting where a producer spoke of adding “queerness” to an animated series and mentioned, tongue in cheek, her “not-at-all-secret gay agenda.”
To conservatives, the video was proof that Disney was sexualizing children.
“We’ve caught them on tape and the evidence is damning,” Mr. Rufo declared. The story ricocheted through the conservative media ecosystem. Fox News alone ran dozens of segments critical of Disney.
And once again, Rufo openly stated that he viewed LGBTQ rights purely as a “reservoir of sentiment”:
Mr. Rufo is convinced that a fight over L.G.B.T.Q. curriculums — which he calls “gender ideology” — has even more potential to spur a political backlash than the debate over how race and American history are taught.
“The reservoir of sentiment on the sexuality issue is deeper and more explosive than the sentiment on the race issues,” he said in an interview.
The story reiterated Rufo’s anecdote about drafting an executive order, adding a detail about the long-running real-world effects of Rufo’s Tucker Carlson segments:
Framed in his home, Mr. Rufo has the pen that Mr. Trump used to sign the order [targeting “Critical Race Theory”], and a handwritten card from the White House: “Who says one person can’t make a difference?!”
“Drag queens in schools” invites a debate; “trans strippers in schools” anchors an unstoppable argument.
Let the Left try to nitpick the phrase: we can say that “trans” is a stand-in for “transvestite” and we can show videos that are undeniably strip shows.
“Trans strippers in schools” is a powerful frame to this debate and, if the Left chooses to engage in language games on that phrase, they will find themselves defending concepts and words that are deeply disturbing to most people. Let them get stuck in the linguistic mud.
The same editorial embedded a since-deleted tweet attributed to Yale professor Jason Stanley, author of the books How Propaganda Works and How Fascism Works. It read:
Rufo is also willing to cross moral lines that no US propagandist in recent times has been willing to cross, and this ruthlessness is also key to his particular genius.
Another series of tweets by Rufo from March 2021 substantiated Stanley’s assessment; the tweet with which Rufo agreed was from an account since suspended on Twitter:
I agree with [the deleted tweet’s author]. The activists are realizing that their ideas, once put into practice, are generating discontent. Their racial coalition is also breaking apart—Asian-Americans, in particular, are revolting against CRT, which punishes them more than any other group.
We have successfully frozen their brand—”critical race theory”—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category.
The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think “critical race theory.” We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.
The ‘Stop the Sexualization of Children Act’
Rep. Johnson tagged Rufo on Twitter, implicitly crediting Rufo’s efforts to turn the discourse “toxic” for his mysterious, unlinked “Stop the Sexualization of Children Act.”
A press release published on Johnson’s congressional website on October 18 2022, “House Republicans Introduce Legislation to Ensure Taxpayer Dollars Cannot Fund Sexually Explicit Material for Children,” managed to be as vague as the tweets, and began:
33 Republican Members of Congress led by House Republican Conference Vice Chairman Mike Johnson (LA-04) [on October 18 2022] introduced legislation to prohibit federal, state, local governments, and private organizations from using federal tax dollars to expose children under 10 to sexually explicit material.
“The Democrat Party and their cultural allies are on a misguided crusade to immerse young children in sexual imagery and radical gender ideology,” Johnson said. “This commonsense bill is straightforward. No federal tax dollars should go to any federal, state, or local government agencies, or private organizations that intentionally expose children under 10 years of age to sexually explicit material.”
Immediately thereafter, a series of bullet points formed the rest of the press release. It was light on details, but much like Johnson’s screenshot, it alluded to a broader reach than the bill’s title implied — defining “sexualization” in part as “any topic involving sexual orientation, gender identity, gender dysphoria, or related subjects,” and introducing ambiguity around to LGBTQ teachers or children with queer parents:
Background on the legislation:
- The Stop the Sexualization of Children Act of 2022 prohibits the use of federal funds to develop, implement, facilitate, or fund any sexually-oriented program, event, or literature for children under the age of 10. The bill prohibits federal funds from being used to host or promote events where adults dance salaciously or strip for children.
- “Sexually-oriented” is defined as any depiction, description, or simulation of sexual activity, any lewd or lascivious depiction or description of human genitals, or any topic involving sexual orientation, gender identity, gender dysphoria, or related subjects.
- Planned Parenthood, for example, is encouraging legislatures and school boards around the country to implement sexual education curricula that teaches radical gender theory to children under 10. Children should be learning about reading, writing, and mathematics, not radical gender theory.
- Federal grants from the Department of Health and Human Services were recently used [in June 2021] to fund an event in Alaska where a drag queen performed for children. The Department of Defense is funding drag shows for families on military bases and incorporating radical gender ideology into curricula at DOD schools. HHS and DOD funding should be used to keep our country healthy and safe, not to stage burlesque shows for children.
- The legislation allows parents to file a lawsuit against any public or private entity that uses federal dollars to expose their young children to sexually explicit materials or programs. Any organization that violates the law more than once in a five-year period, would lose access to federal funds for three years.
In the press release, “legislation” linked to a PDF copy of Johnson’s bill. Read with the context of the suggestion to label “drag queens” as “trans strippers,” the bill sponsored by Johnson appeared to be directly inspired by Rufo.
As indicated in the press release, a portion of the bill defined “sexually-oriented material” in an alarmingly broad fashion:
The term “sexually-oriented material” means any depiction, description, or simulation of sexual activity, any lewd or lascivious depiction or description of human genitals, or any topic involving gender identity, gender dysphoria, transgenderism, sexual orientation, or related subjects.
Johnson’s bill was relatively new on October 19 2022, but it was strikingly similar to Florida’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay” bill, including overbroad language, presumably deliberately. A March 2022 New York Times assessment of Florida’s legislation observed:
The impact is clear enough: Instruction on gender and sexuality would be constrained in all grades. But its language is vague and subject to interpretation.
The language highlights the youngest students, but the “age appropriate or developmentally appropriate” provision affects all ages. Those terms are highly subjective, and parents, school staff and students are likely to clash over the ambiguities.
The bill also prohibits both “instruction” and “classroom discussion” of gender identity and sexual orientation. That, too, is vague.
Classroom “instruction” could mean eliminating books with L.G.B.T.Q. characters or historical figures. But “classroom discussion” is broad. That could discourage a teacher from speaking about gay families with the whole class, even if some students have gay parents.
What does that vague wording mean, exactly? Since heterosexuality is a sexual orientation, does the new law mean a straight teacher can’t mention their spouse? Since discussing gender identity is banned, will students be prohibited from referring to anyone as ‘he’ or ‘she’? Will teachers have to drop gendered honorifics like Mr, Mrs or Miss?
No, of course not. The bill wasn’t designed to be applied with any sort of consistency. It was designed to do one thing and one thing only: terrorize LGBTQ+ people. Like Texas’s abortion bounty law, the don’t say gay bill gives parents the power to levy lawsuits against teachers or schools they believe contravene the deliberately broad law. The threat of being hit with a costly lawsuit means that it’s likely underfunded school districts will err on the side of caution and ask teachers to avoid saying or doing anything that could be possibly be construed as queer. Indeed, lawyers have already told teachers in Orange county public schools that they should be careful not to wear rainbows; avoid mentioning same-sex spouses or displaying any pictures of them; and ensure they remove safe-space stickers from their classroom doors.
In a high-profile October 18 2022 tweet, lawmaker Rep. Mike Johnson (R-Louisiana) credited right-wing disinformation purveyor propagandist Chris Rufo for a federal-level version of Florida’s controversial March 2022 “Parental Rights in Education” bill, colloquially known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Johnson followed Rufo’s advice to leverage the specter of “trans strippers in schools” as “a powerful frame to this debate,” leaving gay teachers and students “stuck in the linguistic mud.”
Johnson amplified and repeated an alarmist title — “The Stop the Sexualization of Children Act of 2022” — while obscuring important details of the proposed bill. Much like Florida’s March 2022 legislation, the October 2022 proposal leaned on vague laguage and threats of civil liability, which have already been used to chill free expression in Florida and elsewhere. Several pages into Johnson’s Rufo-inspired bill, its text outright stated that it defined “sexually-oriented material” in part as “any topic involving gender identity, gender dysphoria, transgenderism, sexual orientation, or related subjects.”