Lila Rose and the Right Resurrect Malicious Child Predator Myth Putting LGBTQ People in Even Greater Danger

Lila Rose at the 2021 Young Women's Leadership Summit hosted by Turning Point USA in Grapevine, Texas. Image: Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In January the far-right website Townhall began publishing a four-part series on a so-called “Suburban LGBTQ Pedophile Ring.” The series, written by Townhall fact-checker Mia Cathell, claims to reveal “disturbing new details” about adoptive parents William and Zachary Zulock. Cathell, whose “fact-checking” includes titles such as “Is Kwanzaa a Fake Holiday?” (her answer: yes), describes the Zulocks as an “affluent LGBTQ-activist couple” who are alleged to have committed a number of crimes connected to the sexual abuse of their adopted children.

Overnight, the tragic story of the Zulock children’s alleged abuse became proof to far-right activists that children aren’t safe with queer people. (This outrage is applied selectively, as other stories featuring cisgender, heterosexual predators creating and distributing child sexual abuse images—such as this past weekend’s mass arrests in Texas—are entirely ignored.) Aided by Cathell’s own framing of the Zulock story as a specifically “LGBTQ” pedophile ring, conservatives immediately resurrected the decades-old myth of queer people being child molesters. 

Shares of Cathell’s story on Twitter frequently include hateful commentary towards queer people such as “These freaks should never be allowed near children in the first place, much less able to adopt” as well asHomosexuality is EVIL and a SICKNESS” and “Gay men being super excited to adopt kids? Common sense they shouldn’t.” Calls for public executions and gifs of nooses can be found.

One of the most outspoken conservatives using the Zulock tragedy to link being queer with sexual abuse is forced birth advocate Lila Rose. As soon as Cathell began publishing her four-part series about the Zulocks, Rose started arguing that the adults’ sexual identities led to their crimes. “Sexual deviancy breeds sexual deviancy,” Rose tweeted on January 17 while sharing the story. She followed this up the next day with another tweet sharing the story that said, “Almost 100% of all sexual abusers are men. A child is most likely to be abused in a home with adult males not biologically related to them. Children do not belong in homes with sexual deviants.” 

Rose kept going the next day, January 19, as well, tweeting, “Destroying traditional marriage leads to pedophilia. Change my mind.” When she received widespread pushback for that tweet, she added a clarifying statement then doubled down: “Edit: Destroying traditional marriage can create the environment that makes child sexual abuse more rampant.”

At first glance, one might be tempted to see Rose’s concern for child protection as genuine. Rose became famous as a champion for human embryos and fetuses. For years she’s railed against reproductive rights as violations of children’s right to life. Ever since she was 9 years old, when she read a copy of Jack and Barbara Willke’s infamous Handbook on Abortion from her evangelical parents’ home library, she has felt a divine call to fight the perceived evils of reproductive rights—or what Rose calls (despite numerous pleas from the Jewish community not to) “this holocaust of unborn children.” 

The Willkes’ book, which promoted the false beliefs that rape rarely ends in pregnancy (later echoed by, among others, Missouri Republican Todd Akin) and that women often fabricate rape accusations, pioneered the use of graphic abortion imagery to fight the practice. That imagery, Rose says, is what most inspired her: 

“I was looking directly at the picture of a tiny child, maybe ten weeks old, with tiny arms and legs, who had been the victim of an abortion. Right then I knew it was ugly and wrong.”

Rose took her anti-abortion advocacy to a new level when she turned 15 years old in 2003. At 15, she founded her non-profit organization Live Action, which became officially incorporated in 2008. (Full disclosure: Rose initially founded Live Action with my sister; my sister was both president of Live Action’s Oregon chapter and co-starred with Rose in Live Action’s sting videos. I grew up with Rose and her siblings as our families were close.) Her big break, however, didn’t come until she was a 19-year-old history undergraduate at UCLA. 

It was while attending UCLA that Rose began filming undercover videos of Planned Parenthoods across the United States. Her first videos, produced in conjunction with right-wing provocateur and convicted criminal James O’Keefe, caught the attention of national media with their claims that Planned Parenthood violated mandatory reporting laws and covered up child sexual abuse. Since then, Rose and Live Action have filmed undercover videos that, they claim, prove Planned Parenthood is guilty of numerous evils, including—not coincidentally—grooming young children for sexual abuse and future abortions by teaching them comprehensive and scientifically accurate sex education

While the public relations fallout of these heavily edited videos and their unsubstantiated claims has prompted Planned Parenthood to retrain and even fire some employees, the organization maintains they promptly and properly reported the sting visits to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Rose’s advocacy against reproductive rights has taken her all the way to the White House. During the Trump administration, Rose was personally invited by the former president to speak at a 2019 White House summit on alleged online censorship of forced birth advocates, where she spoke about social media restrictions imposed on Live Action. With over 1 million Facebook followers and over 300 thousand Twitter followers, Rose’s influence continues to spread as she expands her platform to include book deals and a podcast. Apparently “censorship” now comes with perks.

While reproductive rights continue to be Rose’s focus today, with her sights set on a national abortion ban with no exceptions, she has, in the past, branched out to other right-wing causes. In 2012 she appeared in Birth Control: How Did We Get Here?, a film that argues birth control is sinful and should be recriminalized as well as valorizes Anthony Comstock, the man who inspired the 1873 Comstock Act in the United States. According to Steven K. Green, this federal law enabled Comstock “to seize objectionable material and prosecute people for transmitting ‘obscene’ items [like birth control] through the US mail.” The law was finally struck down as unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court in the 1965 decision Griswold v. Connecticut—though people like Rose would like to reverse this. As Green writes: 

Since the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the right to abortion guaranteed in Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood, red states have been rushing to criminalize most, if not all, access to abortion. At least 14 states have banned (or are in the process of banning) mifepristone, the abortion pill, and to prevent women from receiving it through the mail from blue states or internationally. (Many of these same states are seeking to prevent their residents from traveling to blue states to receive abortions or prescriptions.) 

Rose has, unsurprisingly, also targeted marriage equality. For several years now, she’s spoken disparagingly of same-sex couples who have children via surrogacy or adopt children. When Olympic diver Tom Daley and his US film-maker husband Dustin Lance Black became parents through surrogacy, Rose tweeted, “I grieve for this baby” because “a woman’s womb was rented by two men.” And when U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete and Chasten Buttigieg shared their newborns’ pictures, Rose tweeted at them, “Where are the mothers? My heart goes out to these infants.”

While Rose has employed the aforementioned hateful and bigoted language about same-sex couples, she hasn’t specifically linked them to child sexual abuse until recently, marking a disturbing shift into genocidal language. According to Harvard Political Review, genocidal language is language used to “convince a significant portion of their citizens that the eradication of an identity or ethnic group is justified.” And, as Annika Brockschmidt points out, the identity or group to eradicate is “anybody… whose existence endangers what they see as the God-given order of the world—like LGBTQ, and especially trans people.” During Nazi Germany, for example, it was common to link queer people to child sexual abuse to argue for their eradication. Adolf Hitler himself worried about how “a homosexual will generally seduce a whole host of boys, so that homosexuality really is as infectious and dangerous as the plague.”

We don’t have to go as far, or as far back, as Nazi Germany, however, as this was a rhetorical strategy also used by right-wing American Christians like Anita Bryant. Bryant, as Sophie Bjork-James pointed out here on RD, was notorious in the 1970s for “potray[ing] gays and lesbians as threats to children.” Her 1977 “Save The Children” campaign employed the mantra, “Homosexuals cannot reproduce, so they must recruit. And to freshen their ranks, they must recruit the youth of America.”

However, surveys and studies of those who actually abuse children demonstrate just how mistaken the link between queer people and sexual abuse is. Study after study has found that queer people do not, in fact, harm children at higher rates than other people. Instead, a very different picture emerges of the average abuser, who, it turns out, is a religious adult male in a heterosexual marriage; in fact, 80 percent to 96 percent identify as heterosexual. Those who sexually abuse children also speak about church as a preferred place to find victims. As one predator said, “Church people [are] easy to fool… They have a trust that comes from being Christians.”

Studies also show that queer people—rather than being sexual predatorsare more likely to be victims of sexual harassment and assault than other people. This includes queer children. Queer children experience sexual abuse at a rate of 3.8 times the rate of other children. When Lila Rose and others scapegoat queer people as sexual abusers, they are scapegoating the very victims most in need of support and understanding.

That scapegoating has real-life consequences. To understand these consequences better, I spoke to several survivors of child sexual abuse and asked them questions about the impact of Rose’s tweets. Jandy, a survivor who experienced sexual abuse throughout her childhood by several predators (all of whom identified as heterosexual Christians) and is now disabled from health conditions brought on by trauma, points out the very real danger posed by Rose’s falsehoods: “Lila’s words can cause confusion and fear mongering toward a group of people with no data to prove it.” 

While Jandy finds Rose’s stance on reproductive rights “powerful,” she vehemently disagrees with Rose on sexual abuse: “Most predators are straight, married men in the church.” Instead of addressing these very real threats to children, Jandy says, Rose’s words “vilify an entire people group, amongst whom are many survivors of child sexual abuse.”

One such queer survivor of child sexual abuse is Daxon Matovich, a college administrator and a bisexual trans man who was raised in a conservative Christian homeschooling family. Matovich told me he was “sexually abused by my married-never-divorced, conservative Christian, homeschooling, supposedly upstanding, cisgender, heterosexual father from ages 3-24.” 

Matovich takes Rose’s attacks on the queer community personally: “For Lila Rose to flip the script of my life the way she did is abhorrent to me,” he explains. “The queer community is where I have found safety and healing from my sexual traumas. Her conservative Christian world is where I was left without protection or mandatory reporters.”

Falsely linking queer people with sexual abuse impacts people other than survivors. It also impacts child protection professionals—people doing the hard work of educating those communities most at risk for child abuse, like schools and faith communities. David Pittman, a professional child abuse prevention educator who serves as the Director of Together We Heal and a Safeguarding Trainer for Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE), explains how Rose’s falsehoods complicate abuse prevention efforts: “It’s dangerous to all children because it reinforces a myth that lulls parents into thinking their kids are safe around heterosexual adults,” when in fact, “being from a ‘traditional’ nuclear family (male parent, female parent, and children) has nothing to do with preventing sexual abuse.”

On the contrary, the traditional nuclear family has been the site of the majority of child abuse—with parents as the primary perpetrators. Benjamin Marsh, Pastor of First Alliance Church Winston Salem and the Board Chair of the trauma-informed service provider Monarch NC, states, “Most abuse has occurred in the context of marriage and traditional childrearing. The urge to dominate and hurt—and the kind of twisted psychosexual fulfillment sought by pedophiles—is never fulfilled by marriage and is [in fact] often camouflaged by marriage.”

For someone like Matovich, who has personally lived these facts, Rose’s words are just another reminder that all the talk on the Christian Right about grooming and pedophilia is manipulative posturing rather than actual interest in child protection. “The church and homeschooling movement did nothing but aid my abuse by keeping me from mandatory reporters,” he argues, “giving my abuser a safe haven where he would never be questioned, and convincing me that if bad things happened to me it was God punishing me. Not one queer person in sight.”