Wearing fuschsia lipstick and a resplendent, Pucci-inspired cornflower-blue blouse, Jeffrey Marsh addresses the camera head-on: “Hey, kids!,” Marsh says chirpily. “It’s possible to be like me and to be happy.” Marsh, who is nonbinary, then proceeds to address the audience further: “It’s OK to like dresses, to like sparkly things. It’s OK to be a little different than what people want you to be, than what people expect you to be.”
That simple message of acceptance and self-inclusion went moderately viral, garnering more than 235,000 views and 12,000 comments.
At first, Marsh says, the reaction to the video was fairly tame, with parents stitching it with videos of their own gender nonconforming children watching on their laps. A few days after posting, however, it attracted an extreme onslaught of hate from those on the right accusing Marsh of being a sex-obsessed pedophile intent on grooming their children, despite few of Marsh’s videos using profanity and almost none referencing sex or sexuality.
“This mental disorder needs treatment, not encouragement. Under no circumstances should this freak show be allowed to influence and indoctrinate children,” one man wrote in the caption of his video. Another, with 75,000 views: “Why are you always trying to have access to kids? That’s a red flag for me, bro.” Yet another: “This is a grown man who is targeting children…it is no one’s place to talk about any topic pertaining to sexual identity, other than the parents. This man is quite literally a predator grooming children online, and it’s sick.” In yet another stitch, which garnered nearly 300,000 views before the account was removed earlier this week, a woman simply stares at the camera and loads her gun. “No mercy for child groomers and pedos,” the caption says.
“There were death threats through the wazoo,” says Marsh, a nonbinary activist, author and content creator with almost 600,000 followers. “People were talking about the Second Amendment, and how they were going to come find me, and so on.”
Marsh is used to receiving harassment and criticism for their mere existence on social media platforms. They started their career on the now-defunct platform Vine, building an extensive following on Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube before starting a TikTok account last year. It’s now their most popular platform. “The backbone of all of the videos I make are affirmations direct-to-camera, saying kind things,” they say, adding that their mission is “helping people hate themselves less.”
According to Marsh’s analytics, the majority of their audience is adult women (interestingly, they say, about a third of their followers are conservative or actively right-leaning). Most of their videos are aimed at parents of LGBTQ children, or adults recovering from some form of childhood trauma; only about six or seven of their videos are addressed directly to children who may be on TikTok with their parents. In doing so, they wanted to channel Mr. Rogers and Dolly Parton, two of their idols. “I never saw videos like that when I was a kid and I desperately would have wanted to see somebody tell me, ‘It’s OK, be yourself,’” they tell me of making videos aimed at children. “And to see someone that was like me who was an adult would have changed my life.”
The reaction to Marsh’s video is part and parcel with a larger trend on the right. For the past few months, cable news networks like Fox News and massively popular anti-LGBTQ hate accounts like Libs of TikTok, reportedly run by alleged Jan. 6 insurrection attendee Chaya Raichik, have been regularly peddling hateful, homophobic and transphobic narratives equating teaching children about LGBTQ identities with child sexual abuse, or grooming. (“Grooming” is a very specific term used in sexual abuse literature to refer to how predators normalize sexually inappropriate or intimate behaviors before preying on victims; it has absolutely nothing to do with LGBTQ identity issues.)
Such discourse has long percolated in niche far-right subcultures such as evangelical circles or QAnon conspiracy theorist spaces, within which LGBTQ people have long been accused of posing various dangers to children. Yet this narrative has gained purchase in the mainstream, largely thanks to right-wing influencers’ and politicians’ grandstanding over the Don’t Say Gay bill, which bans public schools from teaching children between kindergarten and third grade about LGBTQ issues. The Disney company’s withdrawal of its support of the bill following immense public pressure also prompted backlash from the right, with figures like Marjorie Taylor Greene accusing the company of “grooming” children and asserting that “Disney wants to completely take your children and they want to indoctrinate them into sexual, immoral filth.”
The panic over educators and activists teaching children about LGBTQ issues has had potentially violent consequences. School board members who have advocated for pro-LGBTQ teacher trainings across the country have received death threats, while an inaccurate report of a school district giving puberty blockers to children without their parents’ consent led to the superintendent of that district having their home address published on far-right forums online. Activists running an Appalachian summer sex ed program were also doxxed and threatened by far-right influencers who inaccurately reported they would be teaching young children to masturbate, prompting them to shut the program down. And outlets like Fox News have been all too happy to feed into this hysteria, running more than 50 stories about pedophilia and grooming within the past month alone, according to a report from Advance Democracy Inc.
Marsh says they did not make the video in response to Don’t Say Gay, nor do they reference Don’t Say Gay or any of the dozen states currently mulling similar legislation. “When I do the videos for kids, it’s important to me that kids are not dragged into the adult world,” they say. “If a parent wants to show that to their kid, I just want it to be a tool for the parent to say to the kid, ‘It’s OK to look like this. It’s okay to like whatever color you want.’ I don’t think kids should be in our drama, in the fights of adults.”
In part, Marsh blames TikTok and its algorithm, which prioritizes engagement over anything else, with boosting content from those who have explicitly threatened them: “what they ultimately would like is for people to stay on the platform. Stitching my video, commenting, being angry, keeps people around,” they say. They have not reported any of the videos to the platform: “It wouldn’t do any good,” they say, citing past experiences.
Rolling Stone reported four videos either directing hate speech toward Marsh or directly threatening Marsh to TikTok for violating community guidelines, all of which were taken down after we flagged them. In response to questions from Rolling Stone regarding hate directed at LGBTQ creators on TikTok, TikTok directed us to various LGBTQ-friendly initiatives and said, “TikTok is committed to supporting and uplifting LGBTQ+ voices, and we work to create an inclusive environment by removing anti-LGBTQ+ videos and accounts that attempt to spread hateful ideas on our platform.”
Mostly, however, Marsh blames outlets like Fox News, which they say has continuously pushed out hateful stories equating support of LGBTQ people’s rights with child abuse, in an effort to incite their audience’s most homophobic and transphobic impulses. Indeed, their videos have been on Fox News multiple times, and were most recently featured on Tucker Carlson’ show as part of a segment about the Libs of TikTok account.
“I almost used the term ‘grooming’ to refer to what Fox News does to people,” Marsh says. “Which is ironic. There are all of these machinations the far right goes through to prime people to be scared of people like me. And that video set that aflame, with me not being conscious of the idea that it would be remotely controversial.”
They admit to being concerned for their safety and that of other LGBTQ activists and content creators, who now are forced to contend with fending off allegations of child sexual abuse and predatory behavior in addition to the daily challenges of simply having to navigate the world being and looking different. Yet Marsh has maintained a somewhat sanguine attitude.
“I remember the first death threat I got on Vine, way back in 2013,” they say, detailing how explicit it was — the gun the assailant said they wanted to use, where the bullet would enter their body. “I remember that being a point I will absolutely never forget. If I’m trying to help people, even young people, do I want them to see me being treated that way?,” they say. “And I decided, maybe it’s a powerful metaphor if that happens on every video, and I show up the next day, and post again. Then I show up the next day and post again. And here we are years later still posting and hoping that metaphor is more powerful, than what would happen if I went away.”