“Furries” hit the campaign trail
Republican candidates in Colorado, Illinois, and Minnesota spread a bizarre lie to inflame parents’ passions
Earlier this year, we noticed a viral internet hoax was starting to bubble up to the surface in some right-wing online circles - mostly obscure pages and anti-mask Facebook groups. If you’re unfamiliar, here’s the TL;DR: there’s basically a not insignificant amount of people who believe that America’s public schools are so far gone that they are allowing children to “identify” as cats and dogs and use litter boxes instead of bathrooms. To be clear, there never has been any evidence of this happening anywhere.
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It became such a widespread phenomenon this spring that the New York Times published a column explaining the myth, and it now claims its own Wikipedia page. Google search interest for things like “school litter boxes” remains impossibly high:
Schools across the country have unfortunately had to field angry calls and emails from concerned parents, countless district administrators and principals have had to put out statements, and Republican legislators from Nebraska to Tennessee have repeated the hoax in both committee rooms and online.
Two weeks ago, Tennessee Democratic Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville) shared her reaction to one such committee hearing in the state legislature:
We called up Rep. Johnson for her take on why it seems Republicans want to believe this so badly: “It’s about trying to destroy public schools. It gives to their narrative that public schools are bad and that we need religious schools and charters. That’s exactly what it's about. They’re saying librarians are groomers… When they say kids identify as cats or dogs or snakes, they’re also trying to energize their base on the issue of transgender rights.”
Last week, the Litter Box Hoax seemingly went to the next level with Republican candidates for statewide offices repeating the lie on the stump. Dr. Scott Jensen, the Republican nominee for Governor of Minnesota, was filmed at a campaign event using the false story to his political advantage: “Why are we telling elementary kids that they get to choose their gender this week? Why do we have litter boxes in some of the school districts so kids can pee in them because they identify as a furry,” the candidate asked.
While Jensen caught some flack in the press for his comments, a Republican candidate running in Illinois’ 11th Congressional District, Catalina Lauf, came to his defense, saying that she too has heard of evidence of “furries” in schools.
Days later, the hoax again re-emerged in the talking points of Heidi Ganahl, the Republican candidate for Governor of Colorado. Ganahl not only has stated the Litter Box Hoax as fact, but has also claimed to be collecting evidence of school children who identify as animals:
“The thing that sticks with me is that there's just no cost anymore. There’s no cost for believing it. There’s no cost for spreading it. Regardless of it not being true.” Melissa Ryan, an expert on right-wing misinformation and the author of Ctrl Alt-Right Delete, told FWIW. “The MAGA base of voters just doesn't care if this stuff is true or not. It's just another part of the culture war.“
Ryan is right - we increasingly live in a post-truth society, and this Litter Box Hoax is one of the clearest examples of that. Even though it's obviously just a dumb internet thing, it highlights and feeds into several more mainstream Republican attacks that have proved potent in the past. First, as Rep. Johnson told us, it contributes to a general anti-public school sentiment that Republicans have sowed for years. Many conservatives would love nothing more than for parents to ask, “What the hell are the schools teaching our children!?” Second, it’s a convenient way to use transgender school kids as a political wedge, along the lines of “schools will just let our kids identify as anything they want to these days.”
In 2021, we saw how Republicans successfully took advantage of a “parents’ rights” movement to win back key statewide offices in what was thought to be solidly-blue Virginia. A lot of that political energy and outrage was related to Covid-era restrictions that are no longer in place, and a lot of it was related to another dumb internet thing - Critical Race Theory. What remains, however, is a whole lot of animosity, mistrust, and a large share of Americans who are willing to believe just about anything.