“Furry” fears far from reality, so why do some Republicans fan them?

February 13, 2023 5:30 am

FRANKFORT — I researched “furry” so you wouldn’t have to.

I had been only peripherally aware of the hoax that schools are equipping restrooms with litter boxes to accommodate students who identify as animals.

Then the Kelly Craft-Max Wise campaign dumped an allusion to this tall tale onto the Kentucky Senate floor and into the governor’s race, and I thought I’d better pay attention. 

Best I can figure, Craft’s campaign divined that in a packed Republican primary the winner need not show an aptitude for governing, but merely fire up enough voters — and it won’t take that many — to finish first.

The absurd story — which, it turns out, other Republican politicians are spreading — serves Craft’s purposes by fanning fears that respecting people who have “nonconforming” gender identities is one step short of people insisting they’re not even people, while also dehumanizing students who are transgender or nonbinary.

Craft paints the Kentucky Department of Education as the agent of a “woke agenda” out to subvert parental authority. Her vow to dismantle the department echoes Republicans who want to privatize public education and have long demanded an end to the U.S. Department of Education.

A couple of days after Craft attacked the department, Wise addressed the Senate, accusing Kentucky Education Commissioner Jason E. Glass of wanting to fire teachers who refuse to refer to a student as a “furry,” an accusation that Glass labeled false, ridiculous and hurtful.

Perhaps stung by the backlash and thinking it would vindicate him, Wise tweeted out an article by a Louisville television station from August 2021 in which an anonymous grandmother says that students in Meade County were coming to school dressed as cats, making her grandchildren not want to go to school. The district’s superintendent confirmed that some students had shown up in cat costumes, which violated the dress code; the dress code won. Order prevailed.

Not a whisker of truth

So widespread is this feline-induced panic that news organizations have unleashed their fact checkers. NBC News reports that at least 20 GOP candidates and elected officials, including U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado and the Republican candidate for Minnesota governor, have claimed that K-12 schools are making accommodations for students who identify as cats.

No one anywhere has found a whisker of truth to these stories, which doesn’t stop them from getting millions of views on social media. 

After podcaster Joe Rogan claimed that a mother of a cat-identifying student had badgered school officials into putting a litter box in the girls restroom, Reuters reported finding no evidence to back that or any of the litter box claims. Reuters reported that school officials in Minnesota, Colorado and Tennessee had denied such reports and that “ the Associated Press, PolitiFact and USA Today have also debunked claims about litter boxes in schools.”

People like Joe Rogan spread sensational lies to make money. Why people are so willfully duped, I wish I understood.

That someone like Max Wise, previously regarded as serious and level headed, would reinforce such bigotry-inflaming nonsense is troubling.

Tough times for kids and teachers

These are serious times for young people and their schools. The pandemic did a number on a lot of kids. 

About 1 in 4 children and adolescents across 11 countries, including the U.S., experienced strong distress during the pandemic, reports the Journal of the American Medical Association. Depression and anxiety have been the most common consequences, but behavior and attention problems have also increased, especially in younger children, studies have found.

Educators scrambling to help students make up for learning lost during remote instruction don’t need the stress and distraction of being scapegoated by politicians. And neither do struggling kids.

In 2019, Wise, then chair of the Senate Education Committee, helped shepherd through the School Safety and Resiliency Act, which recognized “that all schools must provide a place for students to feel safe and supported to learn.” The act set a goal of providing a  guidance counselor for every 250 students, something the Republican legislature, which just cut the income tax for the second time in a year, has not come close to funding.

Wise must be privately cringing at Craft’s desire to dismantle the Department of Education, a wildly impractical idea because the legislature has assigned the department lots of duties, many of them critical to the operation of the efficient system of common schools mandated by Kentucky’s Constitution. For years, Wise was in a prime position to push to radically remake the department, but never saw the need until joining the Craft ticket.

To be fair, Wise’s Senate Bill 150, which he says would safeguard parents’ rights, is far from the cruelest anti-LGBTQ bill introduced this session. The kindest scenario may be that Wise’s bill is Republicans’ chosen vehicle for serving up red meat to the base.

Republicans must also be mindful of coming off as too mean. Their nominee will face a popular Democratic governor who’s known for his dorky-dad style and compassion.

I also should acknowledge that there is a subculture of mostly young people who like to play around in animal costumes (much like sports teams’ lovable mascots), just as there are subcultures that don military garb to reenact Civil War battles, enjoy competitions among fantasy sports teams and wear fezzes while driving tiny cars in circles.

We respect and even celebrate innocent fantasies and playacting among our fellow humans because diversity makes life richer.

Instead of seeing a threat, some people should try respecting, even celebrating, a fellow human who is saying “this is who I really am.”

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Jamie Lucke
Jamie Lucke

Jamie Lucke has more than 40 years of experience as a journalist. Her editorials for the Lexington Herald-Leader won Walker Stone, Sigma Delta Chi and Green Eyeshade awards. She is a graduate of the University of Kentucky.