Ethan Schmidt can’t figure out whether he hunts LGBT people or not.
Last month, Schmidt (or Schmidt-Crockett) began bragging that he was out to find, identify and “expose” people who are spreading “gay propaganda.” The 24-year-old creator of the “ANTIMASKERSCLUB” on social media has been especially active in Arizona, destroying Pride signage, stomping on clothing with positive LGBTQ messaging and targeting people in LGBTQ-friendly places of worship. He records all of it with his camera, hoping to generate anger and action among his small fanbase.
“Currently hunting LGBT pedophiles… going well. caught a few,” he wrote on April 8th, as a teaser to the full video released that evening.
Of course, the reality of that video is a bit different. There are no “pedophiles” in sight, just a series of perplexed, concerned and angered people reacting to a random young man telling them that expressions of queerness constitute “grooming.” Nonetheless, Schmidt portrays himself as a fearless warrior on the front lines, fighting back against “wokeness” by, apparently, bothering strangers.
Three days later, Schmidt tried to walk back his tough talk: “of course i don’t Hate and Hunt down gay people,” he said with a laughing emoji in a Telegram post.
But given the sheer amount of vitriolic hatred that’s being aimed at queer and trans people by the far-right in today’s zeitgeist, the underlying message remains obvious — and potent. “Pedophile” is the right’s new scarlet letter, and Schmidt is well aware of how powerful the word remains, especially in the angry minds of his 12,000 subscribers across Telegram and YouTube. He has now pledged to double down on his efforts: “The ANTIMASKERSCLUB declares total war on the satanic LGBT agenda this June!” he wrote on April 27th.
In a vacuum, Schmidt is a tiny personality fighting for approval in a vast sea of right-wing agitators, many of whom have realized that the American conservative movement can grow through a series of disinformation campaigns and willfully ignorant moral panics. But his rhetoric is also a worrying symptom of the growing number of people who label their opponents as “pedophiles” and then explicitly advocate for violence against them, using bizarre turns of logic and layers of misinformation in their mission to depict queer culture and sexual education as a threat to kids.
At various points in the past two years, Schmidt has reportedly dabbled in anti-Semitism, anti-Blackness and support of explicit white nationalists, all while racking up bans from social media platforms and crowdfunding platforms for a range of speech and activities, including allegedly assaulting people and trespassing in order to assert his anti-mask rights as well as getting banned from the Arizona Capitol earlier this year after reportedly harassing a Democrat with slurs and throwing Nazi salutes in its halls.
He’s called on his handful of supporters to pull similar stunts by confronting people themselves and recording the interactions, as he did at an LGBTQ-friendly church in Phoenix in early April.
Given the rollback of anti-mask mandates on the state and federal level, right-wing influencers are desperate to continue to ride the waves of social media engagement. And with the current panic around the “Don’t Say Gay” bill and the demonization of Disney, “groomer” discourse has become the cause celebre for anyone who wants to make a quick buck through fearmongering.
New figures like Schmidt, as well as larger influencers like Libs of TikTok, are in symbiotic relationships with conservative mass media outlets like Fox News, which has made “uncovering pedophilia” a prominent agenda item this spring. Even more concerning is the willingness of Republican candidates such as House Rep. Paul Gosar and Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, both of whom have leaned into common right-wing, anti-LGBTQ talking points, to meet with Schmidt and accept his support.
Schmidt continues to ask for donations via Cashapp while portraying himself as a warrior on the front lines. “Hunting” LGBTQ and queer people, while claiming he is not actually inciting any harm against his targets, is simply an evolution of the ANTIMASKERSCLUB. And it’s a tactic that’s gaining traction, whether it’s another conservative influencer “joking” on video that he’s going to “round up all the non-binaries” and throw them into his truck, or just the explosion of alt-right memes used to induce rage fantasies about murdering “pedophiles.”
The most problematic part may be the use of violent language to motivate and energize a far-right base that’s well-versed in alt-right vocabulary and eager to brigade anyone they deem a “groomer.” It recalls examples like the Proud Boys donning shirts that read “All of Our Enemies Are Pedophiles,” and how a series of hoaxes and misinformation led right-wing extremists to target trans activists in L.A., claiming they’re pedophiles. The escalation in the discourse has been exponential, carried by the power of memes and a virulent confidence that anyone who denies the existence of a “groomer” epidemic is, themselves, a sexual predator. I experienced it myself while reporting this story: My recent innocuous tweet about the link between “groomer” fears and the “Save the Children” QAnon conspiracy led to a wave of replies insinuating, among other things, that I should “face the wall and wait for the bang.”
The conservative glee over labeling people as “groomers” and openly wishing fatal violence on them feels like a precursor to the kind of oppression and bloodshed that LGBTQ people are seeing in Europe, including in Ukraine and Poland, both of which had “LGBT-free zones” patrolled by neo-Nazi and far-right enforcers. It’s no surprise that both of those nations have seen the influence of right-wing political movements that leverage anti-LGBT sentiment as a populist cause in a war against moral and cultural corrosion; the U.S., meanwhile, is seeing an unprecedented wave of bills that suppress rights and protections for LGBT people.
This is the context in which Schmidt and the far-right obsessed with “exposing” queerness as sexual deviancy are operating. It isn’t hard to imagine how these tidal waves of disinformation and loathing could inspire bloodshed from the next lone wolf. But none of that matters when hate is spread under a thin veneer of “irony,” all in the name of a culture war.