In Watertown, South Dakota, on the 25th of April, a German teacher at Watertown High School, Calvin Hillesland, handed letters to four trans and nonbinary students. The letters, shared widely on social media by at least two sources, begin as follows:
“I am hoping that by now you know me well enough from class to be able to trust me. I respect you. I support you. I want what’s best for you.
If there were a rattlesnake under a pile of leaves on the path in front of you, I’m hoping you could easily imagine that I would run out ahead of you to warn you. If your home were on fire, I’m hoping you could believe that I would try to help you get out.”
As this point, the letter takes a turn.
“That’s sort of what’s happening now. When you asked me to call your friends by masculine names and I started trying to do that, I was wrong. It was a lie.
I didn’t warn you about the rattlesnake. I didn’t try to rescue you from your burning home.
I hope you’ll forgive me — and I want to “turn things around” now. And like I said — I’m hoping you’ll trust me.
I realize that what you feel is saying something totally different. But feelings are like a mirage. You don’t dare trust in them to guide you. They’re not an accurate reflection of reality.
So what is the reality? What is the truth? How can you know the truth for certain?
Well, biologically, every cell in your body is (female symbol) — female — feminine. That’s the bilogical (sp.) truth. The same is true for your friends. And it’s the truth that I want to encourage you to pursue. That’s what a good teacher does, right?”
The letter closed by promising a DVD that “will explain everything more clearly than I can — the spiritual as well as the scientific facts” as well as a piece of candy, as “a symbol of the sweetness that I hope and pray you’ll discover.” A piece of chocolate was included with each, though the promised DVD was not.
Hillesland has been teaching in the Watertown School District for more than a couple decades, and was intending to retire at the end of this school year. He hasn’t been back to the school since word of the letters got out and parents complained, though a statement from the school district was inconclusive in regards to Hillesland’s tenure. It is also unclear if anyone else, such as the school principal was in any way aware of the letters before Hillesland handed them out.
All of this is happening amid a multi-state push against transgender people, predominately focused on transgender youth. Thirty-two states have proposed scores of bills against transgender people this year.
Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill has become law, prohibiting discussions of gay and trans identities in school thanks to deceptively broad wording.
In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott has weaponized the Lone Star state’s Department of Family and Protective Services against trans youth, likening trans care to child abuse.
Oklahoma has passed a trans sports ban, and it is gearing up to follow both Florida and Texas’ lead in passing bills even more restrictive .
Alabama, too, has made it a felony — punishable by up to 10 years in prison — to provide necessary care for transgender youth, leading the United States Department of Justice to file a complaint against SB 184.
And, oddly, when people speak out against these bills, one term has come up time and again: those who support LGBTQ+ and, in particular, transgender people have been called “groomers.”
It’s an interesting choice of term, hearkening back to decades-old claims that gays have to recruit children, popularized by Anita Bryant and California State Sen. John Briggs during the push for Proposition 6 in 1978. It is notable, perhaps, that Proposition 6 was seeking to remove gay and lesbian teachers — as well as their supporters — from being able to teach in the state’s public schools. It followed similar bills in Arkansas and Oklahoma.
Grooming, in this context, typically refers to seducing or luring a child into a sexually abuse situation. Here, it would seem that those using it to attack opponents of these anti LGBTQ+ and trans bills want to keep the sinister aspect of the term, while expanding the meaning to include those that might influence someone to become LGBTQ+.
When I was a child, I was warned to avoid groomers, who might stop me alongside the road with promises to share a cute puppy with me or ask for my help as some sort of clever ruse. Or, perhaps, they would offer me a candy as a way to gain my trust, such as a chocolate.
Perhaps even the same way Calvin Hillesland, the German teacher at Watertown High School, chose to write a letter hoping that his students would know they could trust him, and offering them a piece of chocolate to help them “discover” their “sweetness.”
It feels to me that we’re looking for the groomers in the wrong places. Such influencing is not what LGBTQ+ advocates are involved in, and, frankly, no one can be be “groomed” into being trans, nonbinary, gay, lesbian, or bisexual.
LGBTQ+ people simply exist, and one can help them have successful, happy lives — or choose to be like Mr. Hillesland.