A New Yorker profile of right-wing provocateur Chris Rufo focused on the anti-CRT, anti-LGBTQ, anti-Disney activist while entirely excluding the voices of the many people affected by his dangerous propaganda campaigns. Rufo, who first came to prominence by popularizing critical race theory fearmongering, has more recently shifted his focus to attacking LGBTQ people and pro-LGBTQ content in schools, leading to widespread false accusations that LGBTQ people are “grooming” or sexualizing minors. Media outlets that give right-wing trolls like Rufo a platform to launder his hateful beliefs about trans people and drag queens into the mainstream are helping him achieve his policy goals while doing their own readers a disservice.
On June 28, The New Yorker’s Ben Wallace-Wells ran a lengthy profile featuring Rufo, describing him in somewhat sanitized language as a “documentary filmmaker” and a member “of the conservative education movement.” Rufo’s actual policy goal is clear: By raising partisan conflict around schools, he aims to end public education as we know it in favor of a system of school vouchers. Along the way, his impact on marginalized communities has been dramatic and negative. The piece says Rufo’s “pivot from issues of race to those of gender – which combine the rhetoric of parental control with an old-fashioned sex panic – seemed to offer immense political promise.”
Wallace-Wells calls Rufo is “the lead protagonist of last year’s furor over the teaching of ‘critical race theory’ in public schools,” setting him against teachers who have been instructed to remove photos of their same-sex spouses, banned from wearing clothing in rainbow colors, and forced to misgender their trans students.
The profile quotes Rufo along with Florida Rep. Anna Eskamani, Never Trump political strategist Sarah Longwell, Heritage Foundation President Kevin Roberts, Bully Pulpit International strategist Danny Franklin, and Democratic strategist David Shor. Not one of these people is openly queer or trans, though the piece gives significant space for opponents of transgender equality to make lurid accusations about what is happening with trans people without at any point clarifying that transitioning is not about sexuality at all. (Trans people change their gender from the one that they were assigned at birth, may change their sex through medical interventions, and can have any sexuality, just like non-trans people.)
While trans people are not given a voice in the story, Rufo is given plenty of opportunities to spread unvetted propaganda about the trans community, sharing at length a story that might seem worrying to the average reader:
Rufo recounted a story that he said he’d heard from a mother on the Upper East Side, who told him that her daughter was transitioning, with the help of an online community, and felt that this community “had essentially taken her away from me.” The mother, he said, told him that she knew half a dozen other Upper East Side parents with similar stories. “It’s not just that we’re going to teach your child that the country is evil,” he went on. “It’s really the fear—and I think the legitimate fear—that my child will essentially be recruited into a new identity.”
Wallace-Wells does not attempt to verify this story, and in fact he uses the next line to confirm that “people who identify as trans are growing in number and visibility” – a claim that could reasonably have been made about bisexuals in the 1990s, gay people in the 1970s, or even left-handed people in the 1950s.
This is not the first time that mainstream publications have fallen into this trap. In April, The New York Times published a profile – complete with professional photos – of Rufo titled “He Fuels the Right’s Cultural Fires (and Spreads Them to Florida).” The profile quoted Rufo saying that “it’s wrong, factually and morally, to accuse someone of being a groomer with no basis and evidence.”
Quotes like this might lead readers to conclude that Rufo is a responsible and unusually successfully activist, but on Twitter, where Rufo has a habit of telling his audience exactly how he plans to put his propaganda to work, he defended the grooming accusation as having “a range of definitions: one can be groomed into an ideology, groomed into a gender identity, or groomed for physical abuse.” (It’s worth noting that the available evidence going back decades states that you can’t actually change someone’s gender identity.) Indeed, Rufo has been one of the primary drivers of the campaign alleging that Disney “groomed” minors in response to opposition to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ “Don’t Say Gay” bill, an effort that drew hours of coverage on Fox News. And he’s still at it, tweeting allegedly “leaked video” claiming that an upcoming Disney show “promotes the transgender flag and the idea that men can have periods.” (It is just a fact that trans men can have periods.)
This is the heart of the danger of giving Chris Rufo the glossy magazine treatment. Rufo is a propagandist uninterested in facts. He recently suggested that drag queens should instead be called trans strippers because it has a “more lurid set of connotations and shifts the debate to sexualization.” “Let the left try to nitpick the phrase,” he said. Imagine, if you will, Jacob Wohl with elbow patches.
Rufo obviously considered the New Yorker piece a public relations coup, writing on his website, “If you can set aside the obligatory editorializing … there is some valuable insight into the political strategy that DeSantis has adopted.”
For Rufo, this is a political campaign. He lives comfortably near Seattle and flies down to Florida to liaise with the governor on the tarmac. For LGBTQ people, the climate that he’s helped create -- a climate of lost jobs, random assaults, Pride events disrupted by white supremacists, and growing attempts to use state power to limit rights – is not one that can be so easily escaped. To Wallace-Wells, Rufo might be a protagonist. To countless other Americans, he’s something else entirely.