Members Only | April 7, 2022 | Reading Time: 5 minutes

While Republicans in Florida debate ‘Don’t Say Gay,’ Republicans in Tennessee are close to legalizing child marriage

Some are already skirting Tennessee's current marriage law.

US Rep. John Rose met his wife when he was 44. She was 19.
US Rep. John Rose met his wife when he was 44. She was 19.

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According to the GOP, discussion of gender or sexuality is bad for children. Unless it’s your parents’ (heterosexual) marriage. Or a love story in a cartoon. Or dressing up as a bride for Halloween. Or playing with dolls and treating them like your babies. I could have sworn everyone thought it was cute when I had “boyfriends” in kindergarten. 

Oh! 

Of course. 

Republicans only think it’s bad for children to know about gender or sexuality if we’re talking about gay or trans people. Hell, if we’re talking about straight cisgender people, not only do Republicans think it’s fine to talk with children about acceptable sexuality but they actually think it’s fine to engage in sex with children, as long as you’re married. 


Republicans claim Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill protects children against “groomers,” but it will likely make them easier targets for them.


While Republicans are supporting the “Don’t Say Gay Bill” in Florida and asserting it’s actually an “anti-grooming” bill (it’s no such thing), Republicans in Tennessee are trying to eliminate all age requirements for marriage, which would effectively legalize sexual abuse.

Republicans are claiming the “Parental Rights in Education Bill” (dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by critics) is an “anti-grooming” bill. 

Which pretty much makes no sense. 

The law bans any discussion of LGBTQ topics until third grade and requires discussions after third grade to be “age appropriate.” 

The bill allows parents to sue if they don’t like what their child is learning. It requires schools to inform parents if their child seeks mental health services. (This outs students who don’t want their parents to know they’re questioning their gender identity or sexuality). 

While the bill quite literally doesn’t allow teachers to say “gay” or “trans” or “lesbian” or “queer” in the classroom, it does not protect children from grooming. If anything, denying kids information about sex and gender can make them more vulnerable to abusers.


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“Grooming” in relation to sexual abuse usually refers to an adult psychologically manipulating a child or teenager so they become more vulnerable to the abuser. It’s hard to see how the “Don’t Say Gay Bill” has anything to do with grooming unless you think all teachers are sexual abusers and that acknowledging the existence of gay people somehow makes a child more likely to engage in sex.

That ghoul Rod Dreher claimed recently that the word “grooming” is being used here to mean “an adult who wants to separate children from a normative sexual and gender identity, to inspire confusion in them, and to turn them against their parents and all the normative traditions and institutions in society. It may not specifically be to groom them for sexual activity, but it is certainly to groom them to take on a sexual/gender identity at odds with the norm.”

But in another article the American Conservative pundit called Democrats the “party of child mutilators and kidnappers” so it’s pretty clear conservatives are trying to smear Democrats as pedophiles and not drawing the fine line about grooming meaning something else. 

This comes soon after conservatives on the Senate Judiciary committee tried to smear Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as sympathetic to sexual abusers and easy on people who possess child porn. 

While the focus on grooming might be new, conservatives have been using QAnon about pedophilia to smear Democrats for a while. The myth that gay people are more likely to molest children goes back to the 1970s though there’s absolutely no evidence to back it up.

While accusing Democrats of grooming, Republicans in Tennessee are trying to pass an alternative common-law marriage that can only happen between one man and one woman. 

Apparently conservative Christians there object so strenuously to gay marriage they refuse to get marriaged under laws gay people use. 


US Rep John Rose of Tennessee married his wife when she was 21. 

He was 46.

But!

They met when she was 19. 

He was 44. 

T e c h n i c a l l y legal, but c’mon.


It gets worse. The bill doesn’t include an age requirement. That would allow marriage for minors without parental consent. Since common-law marriages don’t require a ceremony or a marriage certificate, it’s unclear how much agency a minor would have in entering such a marriage. In other words, it’s not clear if or whether a minor has consented to marriage. Without an age requirement, such laws effectively legalize the worst forms of child abuse, as a legal marriage after the fact typically makes statutory rape laws moot. 

Tennessee’s current marriage laws require a person to be 18 (17 with parental permission.) Parties also can’t be over four years apart in age. 

If this new law passes as is, people (most likely older men) could marry — at least in theory – 12-year-olds without parental consent. 

At least these too-young-to marry children won’t be getting mental health care without their parents knowing – or learning about gay people in school in “an age inappropriate way,” whatever that means. 

Some people – some Republicans – are already skirting current law. Imagine what others will do if and when the new bill becomes law. 

US Rep John Rose of Tennessee married his wife when she was 21. 

He was 46.

But!

They met when she was 19. 

He was 44. 

T e c h n i c a l l y legal, but c’mon.

Who knows how young Congressman Rose’s young wife might have been had the new Tennessee marriage law been in place at the time? 


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Meanwhile, US Rep. Matt Gaetz is being investigated for paying a 17-year-old for sex (when he was in his 30s). That could constitute sex trafficking if she traveled across state lines. Republican Roy Moore pursued four girls under the age of 18 when he was in his 30s.

Some form of child marriage is currently legal in 44 states. Only Delaware, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island require both parties to be 18 to enter into a marriage without any exceptions (also all six states have Democratic governors). 

Most states require people to be 18 to get married with a few exceptions of 19 or 21. However, many states allow 16 year olds to get married if they have parental consent or judicial approval. 

Some states have no minimum age requirement as long as there is parental consent or judicial approval. Maryland and North Carolina lower the age with judicial approval if the minor is pregnant. 

In those states an abuser could purposely get a 15 year old pregnant in order to marry them and have a valid defense against statutory rape. 

In any case, we have statutory rape laws for a reason. Marrying the person you’re abusing (which only gives the abuser more control) should not legally help perpetrators escape prosecution. 

Child sexual abuse and statutory rape are real issues that need addressing. Denying children and teenagers information about sex and gender will only make them more vulnerable to abusers. 

The more information children have, the more they understand the difference between appropriate interaction with adults and crossing the line. Far from fighting the grooming of children, the “Don’t Say Gay” bill will likely make it easier for abusers to groom children. 


Mia Brett, PhD, is the Editorial Board's legal historian. She lives with her gorgeous dog, Tchotchke. You can find her @queenmab87.

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