the culture wars

‘If I’m Going Down, I’m Going Down Swinging’

The righteous anger of Mallory McMorrow, the Democrats’ newest star.

Photo: Sylvia Jarrus
Photo: Sylvia Jarrus
Photo: Sylvia Jarrus

Mallory McMorrow was bathing her 1-year-old daughter, Noa, at home when she decided she had to make a public stand. Her Republican colleague in the Michigan state senate, Lana Theis, had sent out a fundraising email earlier that same day accusing McMorrow of being a “groomer” and a progressive social-media troll who sexualized children. “I had a little chair next to the tub where I could plunk my daughter down while I was filling it with water,” McMorrow remembers. “She was just looking up at me — laughing hysterically for no reason. So oblivious. And I was just crying.” McMorrow, 35, had written a few things down before the bath. The next day, on the floor of the senate, she said them aloud.

“I sat on it for a while — wondering, Why me?” she said in the speech. “And then I realized. Because I am the biggest threat to your hollow, hateful scheme. Because you can’t claim that you are targeting marginalized kids in the name of ‘parental rights’ if another parent is standing up to say no.” For nearly five minutes, McMorrow went on, highlighting her Catholic upbringing, volunteering at a soup kitchen with her mother, and her own motherhood. “I learned that service was far more important than performative nonsense like being seen in the same pew every Sunday or writing ‘Christian’ in your Twitter bio and using that as a shield to target and marginalize already marginalized people,” she said.

The speech went viral, and McMorrow has become something of a beacon for beleaguered liberals struggling with the right’s latest moral panic over equality for LGBTQ+ people — especially trans children. McMorrow’s speech is remarkable, because it cuts through an atmosphere of fear.

Following the lead of conservative activists, Republicans have accused liberals of “grooming” children through the teaching of sex education or books that reference LGBTQ+ themes. To deviate even slightly from white heterosexuality is to become a target. That dynamic isn’t new; the grievances of the right wing have remained static over time. Conservatives have falsely linked members of the LGBTQ+ community to pedophilia for as long as the community has been fighting for equal rights. McMorrow, however, is straight, white, and a mother — qualities that the right claims it exists to protect. By allying herself with LGBTQ+ people rather than with the conservative movement, she makes herself a traitor to attack and destroy. With her speech, however, she becomes more than a target; she is a fighter in her own right, pressing the offensive against an unsuspecting foe. “It just felt like I had to take my own identity back and claim it for a lot of other people like me and, hopefully, say that in person to her face,” she says.

Speaking to me from her office a week after the speech, McMorrow says she warned her staff to expect the worst. Her office, she points out, consists of “three full-time and two part-time people. We’re not a huge operation.” The blowback she feared never arrived. “I opened up my P.O. box yesterday, and it was stuffed to the gills, which I’ve never seen, with a lot of people just handwriting stories about their lives,” she tells me. “I got a letter from a constituent, a mom who says she has a trans son, about how supportive the school has been and her community has been and that it’s been devastating to think that is at risk.”

McMorrow and her daughter, Noa, walk up the stairs at her home in Royal Oak, Michigan on April 26. Photo: Sylvia Jarrus

By fighting back, McMorrow resisted easy caricature. Part of McMorrow’s identity is her religious upbringing as a Catholic. She says that her relationship to religion is “complicated” but “no less meaningful, and faith has really shaped who I am as a person.” She was active in the church as a child, though she recalls seeing a hypocritical side of it: In her speech, McMorrow said the family’s priest once fined her mother for taking McMorrow to volunteer at a soup kitchen outside their diocese. Her mother’s brand of religion showed a more open heart. “I vividly remember a man who worked at the grocery store in our neighborhood who was mentally disabled, and she invited him over all the time for barbecues and picnics,” she says.

McMorrow says it’s “sickening” to her, “as somebody who grew up Catholic, was very active in the church, went to Notre Dame, and looks at people like Father Hesburgh with such high regard for how you can use faith in community through works,” that “Christianity and faith have been weaponized to hurt people.” The Catholic Church, she has observed, has its own ugly history with grooming. Religion, she says, “can be such a source of hope and guidance, or it can be used in really dangerous ways to hurt people.”

Some Democrats worry that a direct response might antagonize the right and jeopardize its ability to hold onto office. Not so for McMorrow, who will face reelection in six months in what’s shaping up to be a tough year for Democrats across the country. “I figured if I’m going down, I’m going down swinging, because there are people who depend on us to fight for them,” she says. “And that’s where I’m at — at the end of the day.”

McMorrow wasn’t always so political. “I’m definitely one of those women who saw the fact that Donald Trump was elected president and was so disgusted by the fact that people could turn a blind eye to outright lies and fearmongering and hatred,” she says. “Part of the reason that I ran was there was a video that went viral of Royal Oak Middle School, which is my polling place, in 2016 — where, a few days later, there was a video of kids chanting ‘Build that wall’ at another student.” Though she had never protested before, she attended a Women’s March in Detroit, where she and multiple generations of women exchanged phone numbers and started figuring out, “How do we get involved in this space?” In McMorrow’s case, the answer was running for the state senate in 2018, when she flipped her suburban-Detroit district from red to blue.

After she won, McMorrow got an early taste of attacks to come. A publication for Notre Dame women covered her victory, and she recalls there being blowback because of her faith. “Oh, you know, ‘She’s pro-choice. You couldn’t find somebody who’s an actual Catholic?’” she remembers hearing. “There’s that flip side of it, but it’s no less of who I am. And I think that that’s important for those of us for whom that is a part of our story to reclaim that space, because I know that there are a lot of people like me.”

McMorrow shares her Irish Catholic upbringing with President Joe Biden, who called after her speech went viral — a call she initially missed. “I was putting my daughter to sleep,” she says, and, as a rule, she doesn’t bring her phone into her daughter’s room. After McMorrow finished reading her daughter a book, she came out to find a presidential voice-mail waiting for her. “So that will be a story that I certainly hold over my daughter’s head forever,” she says, laughing. When Biden called back the next day, he thanked her, she says. “He’s Irish Catholic. I’m raised Irish Catholic. And I think that that struck a chord with him. He just said, ‘You said what needed to be said. And you said it beautifully.’”

McMorrow opens letters in response to her speech last week. Photo: Sylvia Jarrus

For Democrats, McMorrow’s speech could be an instructive moment. In the past, the party’s answer to attacks from the right has commonly been, if not capitulation, a form of triangulation. McMorrow’s reply to Theis suggests another response is possible: The party can address its culture-war critics head-on. “I think we have to respond forcefully and fight back,” she says, pointing out that right-wing rhetoric pulls increasingly from conspiracy theories like QAnon. “These were fringe conspiracy theories that led a gunman in D.C. to barge into Comet Ping Pong and open fire — thinking that there were kids in a basement that didn’t even exist that were held there by pedophiles. It’s incredibly dangerous. It’s language that’s been pulled off of the darkest corners of the internet and into the mainstream. This is the official strategy of one of our two major political parties, and there haven’t been consequences.” What strikes McMorrow about Theis’s email, she says, is that “she felt like she could say whatever she wanted with no basis in reality and it didn’t matter.”

Hate and prejudice aren’t mere rhetorical flourishes. They have material consequences for the communities they marginalize. People of color and trans people, for example, are much more likely to live in poverty than their white or cisgender peers. “So I think my hope is to call a lie a lie and hate hate,” McMorrow says. “Because, at the end of the day, if, let’s say, legislation moves through Michigan that bans trans kids from playing on a sports team that matches their gender identity, it’s not going to help anybody bring their health-care costs down.” Democrats, she says, “can really quickly say, ‘This is hatred. It is not helping you, and we actually have some solutions.’”

If McMorrow’s experiences are any indication of how the broader GOP might react to such a strategy, her response is worth copying. Theis has not responded to her directly, McMorrow tells me. Instead, the Republican lawmaker released another fundraising email that accused McMorrow of lying, “saying the speech sounded really good, if any of it was true,” McMorrow says. Then there is the rest of Theis’s party. Michigan Republicans nominated a secretary of state candidate who once called Cardi B a “tool of Lucifer, because she peddles filth in the culture,” and another Republican running for state senate lamented on his radio show that families are no longer shown to be “a white mom, a white dad, and white kids.” In Florida, Republican lawmakers have helped Ron DeSantis pass the “Don’t Say Gay” law, which could force public-school teachers back into the closet. Texas Republicans have banned trans children from playing school sports while Governor Greg Abbott’s administration investigates the parents of trans children.

“It is just horrifying to me that this is where we are right now,” McMorrow says. “I don’t think one speech is going to change that. But this is the GOP strategy, and it’s doubling and tripling down. And it’s really scary to see it happen here in Michigan.” Asked about what’s next for her, she says she hopes to “rally an army of white suburban moms” to join people of color and LGBTQ+ people in the fight for equal rights. “I’ve been really encouraged by attending events in the community over the past week — where a bunch of moms have walked up to me and said, ‘I’ve been so tired after the past few years, but you lit a fire for me,’” she says. “Let’s go! Let’s start organizing! Let’s get out there and get engaged!”

McMorrow is particularly eager to flip the state senate, which has been controlled by the Republican Party since before she was born. “If we have an opportunity to actually do that, I want to help in any way I can. And I’d love to do that nationally, because I think the choice right now is no longer between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party in the traditional sense. Do you want your government to work or not? If I can be helpful in any way, that’s where I hope I go from here. Helping to elevate the voices of people who have been fighting this fight a lot longer than I have.”

Mallory McMorrow: ‘I’m Going Down Swinging’