What’s on the minds of heartland voters in the year 2022? Well, if you were to survey some school officials, radio hosts, and even politicians across the U.S., you might find quite a few flapping their hands about a new alleged threat to schoolchildren: litter boxes and animal sounds.
An incomplete survey of examples:
• In January, a Michigan public school district had to issue a denial to a parent’s claim that it was providing litter boxes in unisex bathrooms to children who “identified” as animals, after a Michigan Republican Party co-chair amplified the rumor. The same falsehood also circulated in an Iowa district, and a congressional candidate in Texas tweeted that school cafeteria tables were being “lowered” to accommodate students identifying as furries.
• In March, a seventh grader was suspended from a different Michigan school district for allegedly “barking” at a classmate, and the superintendent specified that there was “a group of children who identify as furry kids.” Around that time, a Wisconsin radio show host said a local school district was implementing “protocols” for students in animal costumes. Education administrators firmly denied it, but a school board candidate in the state nevertheless invoked the specter of schools befouled by “bodily excretion nonsense that would cause your jaw to drop.”
• Also in March, a recording of a Republican Nebraska state senator decrying school administrators “wanting to put litter boxes” in the bathrooms for kids who “dress up as animals” went viral, and the lawmaker had to apologize after his claim was debunked.
• In April, a Tennessee county school director had to tell parents that his area does not “have litter boxes placed in our restrooms” and he had not received any “request to do so.”
• And just within the past couple weeks, the infamous Libs of TikTok account posted a photo claiming that second graders in the Austin Independent School District were being assigned worksheets teaching them about furries. (The district said the worksheets were fake and not affiliated with its schools.)
But the panic is probably best expressed in an op-ed last month by a former staffer in the Reagan and Bush administrations, who wrote that “the left” was not just content to turn “boys into girls, girls into boys, some with hormone therapy.” It was now also “pushing the concept—with bizarre sexual overtones—of a ‘furry,’ a child identifying as an animal.”
Ah yes. The age-old slippery slope of progressivism … acting like an animal?
Outrage and fearmongering over furries is not new, but the recent hysteria is very connected with our current moment—reignited, perhaps, by the current vogue for lamenting “woke” school curriculum, and giving parents greater control over their kids’ education.
A bit of background is necessary here: Furries are not people who think they are animals. They are broadly recognized as people with varying degrees of aesthetic interest in anthropomorphic animals or characters. Sometimes they draw original artworks of popular cartoon animals like Bugs Bunny and Star Fox. Sometimes they dress up in full costumes (known as “fursuits”), designed to look like anthropomorphic characters they’ve imagined. And there are furry conventions where such enthusiasts gather in various cities to meet other members of the community whom they’ve only met online, buy art works, and fundraise for charities, among other activities.
Kameron Dunn, a furries expert and researcher who’s previously written about these subcultures for Slate, explained that there’s a common misconception “that furries pretend to be animals” because of sick sexual fetishes. But that in reality, furrydom is about imagination and community, not transformation: “It’s through this aesthetic interest that they’re able to endeavor on role-play, and join nerdy communities to express that creativity,” he said.
The current misrepresentation of furries—that they simply want to be animals and are sexual deviants—dates back decades. Both Dunn and Joe Strike, another furry historian and community member, recalled an infamous 2003 episode of CSI that, in the words of another furry documentarian, “portrayed the community as a community of sexual deviants who like to have sex in fur costumes,” despite the fact that such fetishists “probably represent about 2 percent of the fandom.”
Strike also pointed to a 2001 Vanity Fair report on a furry convention that served as the basis for many public commentators’ impressions of furries as people with animal kinks, even as furries themselves claimed that piece “painted the community in a completely false light,” per BuzzFeed News. In 2002, a short MTV documentary aired that made furries seem like people merely interested in ribald group sex, and users on the influential Something Awful forums piggybacked off such perceptions to smear furries as pedophiles and zoophiles. (That a significant number of furries identify as LGBTQ likely added to the misrepresentation, with homophobia coloring the portrayal of this subculture in the media.)
Still, Dunn told me he’d never seen furry “accusations being levied at children” before now. Nor had he seen anti-furry outrage to the degree “to where it seems to be overtaking school districts and a lot of political discourse.” After all, you can also find newly stoked disputes about furries and schools in the U.K., Canada, and Australia.
It’s scary because, as Ryan Broderick pointed out in his newsletter Garbage Day—which this week focused on the panic over furries—even stories debunking the rumors helped spread them. It is convenient fearmongering that coincides easily both with the hysteria over race-conscious curricula and the rise in state laws targeting LGBTQ students, especially transgender children. In February, the Daily Beast reported that some Pennsylvania-based school board attendees who supported book bans on certain subjects also taunted other parents about their children being furries.
But just like with book bans, furry fearmongering is translating into state law: The Cedar Rapids Gazette reported this week that the Iowa Senate has passed new laws enshrining further parental control over students’ education, in part spurred by February’s litter-box rumors.
Joe Strike doesn’t see this timing as a coincidence: “They’re trying to tie it together into this anti-trans thing and anti-gay thing. It’s all this old shit I thought we were past that’s coming back, and it looks furries might get dragged along with it.”
Kameron Dunn agrees. “Notice the language that some of these politicians use,” he told me. “You get warped phrases like ‘self-identifies as a cat.’ You have rumors about kids thinking they’re a certain animal that they are not. That is how people interpret what furry fandom is—a bunch of people who think they are animals and living this delusional thing—because that is also how a lot of them see queer people.”
And what about the litter boxes? Even that goes way back, per furry news website Dogpatch Press: There were jokes made on ’90s internet forums about furries bringing boxes to conventions, as well as 2000s-eras urban legends about baseball teams sharing hotels with furry conventiongoers who were ostensibly making animals noises and leaving used litter boxes everywhere. The meme has continued through the present day on—where else?—TikTok. “The artist Dorian Electra, at every concert venue they go to, they put litter boxes in the bathroom. It’s a TikTok meme,” Dunn said. “That’s why it’s being levied at children, because of that generation gap where old people don’t know what their kid is looking at on the phone. Then they hear these rumors about furries and see their kids watching these videos.”
Old lies and false impressions die hard, and other forms of discrimination tend to reemerge in moments when LGBTQ people are targeted by lawmakers and media personalities. Conservative fearmongering about students seems particularly unlikely to abate for a while. Strike said the key to withstanding it is to find solidarity in one’s community: “Stay tight to other furs and to friends that are good friends or sympathetic, and just remind yourself that you’re supported. You’re not isolated. You’re not the only one.”