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Gymnast abused by team doctor comes out swinging at rightwing claims of LGBTQ “grooming”

A child on the floor, crying
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Former gymnast Grace French was groomed and molested by former USA Gymnastics national team doctor Larry Nassar, and now she’s speaking out against activists who are calling pretty much any interaction between LGBTQ people and children “grooming.”

“We need to know what it actually means so we can keep kids safe,” French, 26, told Today.

Related: Child who talks about her moms sets off alarm in new ad opposing Florida bill

“Grooming” is a set of manipulative behaviors sexual predators use to gain access to potential victims, coerce them to agree to the abuse, and reduce the risk of getting caught, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). The process usually involves training the victims to keep secrets from adults they trust and desensitizing them to sexual discussions and touching.

But to listen to rightwingers lately, children are being groomed to be LGBTQ all the time.

Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) accused Tyra Banks of grooming children because she produced a documentary about teen drag queens. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R) press secretary accused anyone who opposes the Don’t Say Gay bill of being a groomer or supporting grooming.

Chaya Raichik of the anti-LGBTQ account “Libs of TikTok” regularly accuses LGBTQ teachers of “grooming” even though she has no evidence of sexual abuse occurring. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) said it was grooming for a science camp to have non-binary counselors, and conservatives even called the anti-suicide organization The Trevor Project “a grooming organization.”

“We need to be able to identify, exactly and accurately, the stages and signs of grooming,” French said. “It’s so incredibly important to use this term correctly, because if we don’t understand it — and we have these assumptions about what it can or can’t be — then it’s harder and harder for grooming to be identified and perpetrators are going to be able to get more access to children and to victims,” she explained.

French said that Nassar started grooming her when she was just 11-years-old and she went to see him for a wrist injury.

“He was very good at continuing to talk as he was abusing me, and continuing to talk to my mom,” she said. “He gained the trust of not only the child, but the parents as well and in order be able to continue to have access.”

She said that he was subtle at first – putting his arm around her when she was in the exam room, giving her a hug – before he started escalating.

“It’s something he would continue to do for years, so I would be desensitized to that type of touch,” she said.

Psychologist Dr. Jessica January Behr said that one of the early stages of grooming is “to build trust with their victim.”

“They’ll share and keep secrets, and provide a space that feels safe and controlled and that perhaps the child isn’t getting in other areas of their lives,” she said. “They’ll begin with light, seemingly appropriate touch, then push it further and further.”

She said that actual groomers will also observe possible victims to find vulnerabilities, show pornography to the victim, and attempt to make their boundary pushing seem natural.

If none of this sounds like letting parents letting their teens wear whatever clothes they want or a teacher having a picture with his husband on his desk, that’s probably because conservatives have simply appropriated the term “grooming” because they know it gets negative reactions from people and started repeating it without knowing what it means.

And French said that that’s “frustrating.”

“I find it really frustrating, and my heart goes out to the people in the LGBTQ+ community because it insinuates that being gay or being a part of that community is abuse, which it is not,” she continued. “And to me it’s so backwards, because the abuse I experienced will cause me trauma for the rest of my life. And the abuse of not being able to come forward or identify or be educated about sexuality causes trauma.”

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