Why Are Seemingly Functional Adults Falling for the ‘Furries’ Myth?

A Nebraska state senator, Bruce Bostelman, last month warned of an alarming new variety of deviance making its way into the state’s schools. “It’s something called furries,” he said. Schoolchildren, Bostelman claimed, were identifying as cats or dogs. “They meow and they bark.” And educators, indulging them, “are wanting to put litter boxes in the schools for the children to use,” said Bostelman.

Perhaps needless to say, none of this was true. Bostelman later apologized for spreading falsehoods, saying, “It was just something I felt that if this really was happening, we needed to address it and address it quickly.”

What interests me is why he thought this was really happening, and not just in decadent enclaves like New York City or San Francisco, but in his own Midwestern backyard.

Part of the answer is surely social media. As The Associated Press reported, the rumor, a mockery of transgender identification, has persisted in a Facebook group called Protect Nebraska Children. The same rumor has cropped up in Iowa, where a school superintendent had to send out a letter to students and parents debunking it; in Michigan, where a parent brought it up at a school board meeting; and in Wisconsin, where it was spread by a conservative radio host.

The deeper question is why apparently functional adults find these outré suburban legends plausible. My theory is this: The current freakout over sex and gender identity in schools is a generational conflict, one driven in large part by older adults’ fear and bafflement at the sexual mores of the young.

The “satanic panic” of the 1980s, a frenzy of accusations of ritual child abuse that resulted in the conviction of dozens of innocent people, was driven in part by deep anxiety over working women and day care. Four decades later, the country is once again in a moral panic about monstrous things being done to children, with teachers and entertainers accused of “grooming” them for abuse. And once again, it’s driven in large part by unease over rapidly changing gender roles and norms.

Arguing for Florida’s so-called Don’t Say Gay bill last month, a Republican state senator, Dennis Baxley, described speaking to his psychiatrist son about the number of school kids coming out as L.G.B.T.Q. “Am I crazy or what?” he said. “All the sudden we’re having all these issues come up about this topic of their sexuality and gender, and I said, ‘I don’t understand why that’s such a big wave right now.’”

Baxley concluded that experimentation was being encouraged by schools. “There’s something wrong with how we’re emphasizing this,” he said.

Baxley is correct that there’s been a great evolution in how students think about gender and sexuality. You can see it in video from the student walkout at Florida’s Pembroke Pines Charter High School protesting the Don’t Say Gay bill, in which ebullient teenagers wave rainbow flags and chant for gay rights. Such a scene would have been unimaginable when I was in school decades ago.

Many of the goofy, moshing Pembroke boys look, on the surface, a lot like the jocks I remember hurling anti-gay slurs. It’s obvious that more kids are going to come out in high schools where they’ll be accepted and celebrated than in those where they’ll be bullied and abused.

There is, of course, an even bigger generational shift with trans issues. Many middle-aged liberal parents I know have different ideas about gender than their more radical adolescent kids, and I assume the gulf must be even larger in many conservative families. Christopher Rufo, the right-wing activist leading a crusade against Disney for its opposition to the Don’t Say Gay bill, told me a friend of his sent his middle-school daughter to an all-girls choir camp over the summer, “and a third of the girls came back saying that they were nonbinary or queer or gender nonconforming.”

Faced with a gender landscape that they find unnerving or worse, conservatives are trying to use schools to turn the tide. The result has been an explosion of book-banning and educational gag orders, including proposals even more extreme than Florida’s. While that state’s Don’t Say Gay bill sharply limits what teachers can say about gender and sexual orientation, a proposal in Tennessee would ban public school classroom materials “that promote, normalize, support or address lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (L.G.B.T.) issues or lifestyles.”

Some of this stuff, no doubt, is purely cynical. The Trumpist website American Greatness recently celebrated the term “groomer” as a right-wing attempt to do “what the left always does: coin a novel political epithet.”

But the school culture wars are also driven by alarm and confusion. Last year, I wrote about a sexual assault in a Virginia high school bathroom that was attributed, falsely, to trans-friendly bathroom policies. The victim’s family was interviewed by the conservative website The Daily Wire, and the ending has stayed with me. The girl’s mother, fighting against progressive policies on trans kids in the name of her daughter, complained that the girl herself had grown increasingly progressive.

“Where does she get these ideas? From school, obviously,” the mother said. “It’s not from our home.”

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