the fear of the queer child - the fear that exposing children to homosexuality and gender variance makes them more likely to develop homosexual desires, engage in homosexual acts, deviate from traditional gender norms, or identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. This fear is thousands of years old, but it has undergone a remarkable transformation in the last half-century, in response to the rise of the LGBT movement. For centuries, the fear had been articulated specifically in sexual terms, as a belief that children would be seduced into queerness by adults. Since the 1970s, it has been reformulated in the more palatable and plausible terms of indoctrination, role modeling, and public approval.
Since the earliest days of the LGBT movement, advocates have responded to this fear by insisting that it is empirically false - that sodomy laws have “nothing to do” with children, that marriage laws have “nothing to do” with schools, that children raised by lesbian and gay parents are “no different” than children raised by heterosexual parents - and above all, that children’s sexual orientation and gender identity are fixed early in life and cannot be learned or taught, chosen or changed. In recent years, this empirical strategy has begun to falter, as advocates run up against the inherent vagueness, incompleteness, and unpredictability of empirical data. To break through this strategic impasse, this article highlights a growing vanguard of scholars, lawyers, and judges who are developing a normative challenge to the fear of the queer child. It argues that the state has no legitimate interest in encouraging children to be straight or discouraging them from being queer, because it may not presume that queerness is immoral, harmful, or inferior - in children or in anyone else. The state must adopt a neutral stance toward children’s straightness or queerness, without attempting to promote one set of desires, behaviors, or identities over the other.Rosky argues that
This Article is about the fear of the queer child. This is not just the fear that exposing children to homosexuality will “turn” them homosexual, or “cause” them to “become” homosexual, whatever that means. It is that, but it is more than that - more capacious, more varied, more refined. It is the fear that exposing children to homosexuality and gender variance makes them more likely to develop homosexual desires, engage in homosexual behaviors, deviate from traditional gender norms, or identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. This is the fear of the queer child.
As David Halperin writes, “We can only defuse these fears if we are willing to analyze them, to understand them, to figure out where they come from.” Taking up Halperin’s call, this Article historicizes the fear of the queer child in the name of dispelling it. It shows that although this fear is thousands of years old, it has been wholly transformed in the last fifty years. For centuries, the fear had been articulated almost exclusive in terms of seduction - as a claim that children could be initiated into queerness by engaging in homosexual activity with adults. Evidence of this belief can be found in many times and places, but it became an especially prominent social, legal, and political justification for anti-LGBT policies in the modern era.
During the 1970s, opponents of LGBT rights reformulated the fear of the queer child in response to the rapid mobilization of the LGBT movement. Rather than falling back on the age-old fear that children could be seduced into queerness, opponents of LGBT rights introduced more palatable and plausible claims of indoctrination, role modeling, and public approval. The indoctrination fear is that LGBT people will actively recruit and proselytize children into queerness, in a deliberate attempt to augment the population of queers. The role modeling fear is that children will learn to imitate queerness by identifying with influential LGBT figures, such as parents and teachers. The public approval fear is that through the judicial and political recognition of LGBT rights, the state and society will send a message to children that queerness is “okay” - an “alternative lifestyle” that is morally and legally equivalent to straightness, a path that children should feel free to follow.
Since the earliest days of the LGBT movement, advocates have responded to these fears by insisting that they are empirically false - based upon myths, misunderstandings, perhaps even lies. They have claimed that sodomy laws have “nothing to do” with children, that marriage laws have “nothing to do with schools,” and that children raised by lesbian and gay parents are “no different” than others. Tying these claims together, they have argued that children’s sexual orientation and gender identity are fixed early in life and cannot be taught or learned, chosen or changed, or otherwise influenced by external factors.
The trouble with the LGBT movement’s empirical paradigm has long been apparent. It is defensive - worse still, it is apologetic. It attacks the empirical premise that queerness could be contained, but it fails to challenge the normative premise that queerness should be contained. If only for the purpose of argument, it entertains the troubling assumption that queerness is immoral, harmful, or inferior, and thus, that the state may legitimately discourage children from becoming queer.
To be sure, this paradigm’s vice is also a virtue: It permits both sides of the struggle over LGBT rights to save face. By focusing on the empirical questions of how children become queer, LGBT advocates have sought to bracket the normative question of whether children should become queer. They have calculated that they can win more social, legal, and political victories sooner by invoking the empirical data about on children’s sexual and gender development, without calling upon voters, judges, and politicians to place any normative value upon children’s queerness. This Article examines how the LGBT movement managed to arrive at this tactical impasse, and it offers an alternative paradigm for moving beyond it. If we do not learn the history of this fear, we may be imprisoned within it - condemned to repeat our empirical challenges to exhaustion, without confronting the fear’s normative premise that all things being equal, children are better off straight.
The Article has five parts. Part I provides a theoretical backdrop by defining how the Article deploys the terms “fear,” “queer” and “child.” Parts II and III provide a historiography of the fear. Part II explores the premodern origins and modern rise of the fear, while Part III examines the fear’s reconceptualization in the contemporary period. This historical narrative sets the stage for the Article’s normative challenge in two ways: First, it forges a link between the opposition’s claims of seduction, indoctrination, role modeling, and public approval, which might otherwise appear to be logically distinct from each other. By showing how the opposition’s kinder, gentler themes emerged from much older, harsher claims about the sexual transmission of queerness, this history discredits the former by historical association with the latter. Second, this narrative helps explain why the LGBT movement has struggled so mightily - and yet, so cautiously - to show that the fear of the queer child is empirically false.
Part IV indicates that the time may be ripe to consider new strategies, because the LGBT movement’s empirical challenges have begun to falter. While the fear of seduction has been largely marginalized and discredited, the fears of indoctrination, role modeling, and public approval are still commonplace, and seem less amenable to the LGBT movement’s empirical challenges. After decades of studies, debates over children’s sexual and gender development remain significantly unsettled, and they will not be definitely resolved in the foreseeable future. Rather than relying only on the claims that queerness cannot be influences by teachers, parents, or governmental policies, LGBT advocates should consider liberating themselves from the data by exploring a challenge to the fear’s normative premises.
Part V sketches a theoretical framework in which the normative challenge could be developed. It begins by acknowledging that even in the days of Anita Bryant, there were already activists and scholars who asked, “so what if children grow up to be queer?” Rather than claiming that children’s sexual and gender development cannot be influenced, they have insisted that the possibility of a child’s queerness is not morally or legally relevant. In the new millennium, this claim has been taken up by a handful of legal scholars, lawyers, and judges, reflecting a broader shift in cultural attitudes toward children’s queerness. Borrowing from a page from Lisa Duggan’s Queering the State, this Part theorizes these new claims under the banner of “No Promo Hetero.” It insists that the state must adopt a neutral position vis-à-vis children’s straightness and queerness, because it has no legitimate basis for presuming that children are better off straight.