Books are displayed at the Banned Book Library at American Stage in St. Petersburg, Fla., Feb. 18, 2023. In Florida, some schools have covered or removed books under a new law that requires an evaluation of reading materials and for districts to publish a searchable list of books where individuals can then challenge specific titles. Credit: Jefferee Woo / AP

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Although today’s culture wars have much in common with past anti-gay movements, one new oddity involves cat-related tales told by rights opponents.

Two feline fables entail what’s going on in schools (and sometimes elsewhere). 

One is the false claim that schools — including ones in Maine — are putting litter boxes in bathrooms for students who dress up as and identify as animals. 

In July 2022, Ed Thelander, the Republican candidate for Maine’s 1st Congressional District, told a far-right radio show that he opposed schools “providing a litter box to a kid because he thinks he’s a cat.” Relatedly, Thelander also claimed Bath Iron Works fired an employee who “thought she was a cat” who was “squatting down in the corner.” Then “somebody walked by and meowed at her, because she meows all day long. She jumped up and leaped and she bit somebody.”

Thelander admitted in October he had no evidence for these cat tales (or for his contentions of voter fraud in Maine) and acknowledged it was a “mistake” for him to have promulgated them. 

Another false cat-related story involves the contention that the Windham school library has a book called “How to Have Sex With A Cat.” This claim was made by a man who addressed the school board and was publicized in a tweet by The Maine Wire, a publication of the Maine Policy Institute. But there’s no proof this book even exists. It’s not on Amazon and it doesn’t show up in a Google search. 

Why do people espouse these strange, false stories? 

Well, we’re living in a time when some want to remove certain books from school libraries. In RSU 14, the Windham-Raymond School District, there’s division among parents about whether to remove from a school library two particular books on sexual and gender identity. So perhaps, amidst this controversy, some people just got caught up in rumor mills. If so, this demonstrates the importance of taking time to confirm what’s being told.

Also certain ideas can arise from and be reinforced by particular social circles or media bubbles. 

Take the cat litter tales. According to a researcher quoted in July 2022 by Bangor Daily News reporter Lia Russell, this fable arose from niche media but then fed into larger outlets and movements. “‘Furry panic’ in schools originally started as an internet culture war in the 2010s on niche sites like 4chan, then began proliferating on mainstream social media after they were picked up by far-right social media figures with large followings,” Russell reported.

Moreover, both cat stories and, more broadly, today’s culture war messaging fit with a previous pattern from anti-rights movements — simultaneously saying they’re trying to protect children while slurring those seeking rights.

In reaction to a local Florida ordinance passed in 1977 banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, anti-rights organizer Anita Bryant asserted “homosexuals cannot reproduce, so they must recruit. And to freshen their ranks, they must recruit the youth of America.” During California’s failed 1978 campaign to ban gay teachers, the referendum’s chief sponsor said it was necessary because “homosexuals [were] influencing” students.

Today rights opponents claim books and discussions about sex and gender constitute “grooming,” a term about sexual abusers that actually means “manipulative behaviors that the abuser uses to gain access to a potential victim, coerce them to agree to the abuse, and reduce the risk of being caught.” 

This horrific rhetoric is part of a politics that involves invoking fear, hate and anger.

But there is a better way. As one Windham resident pointed out recently, “Libraries are full of books about all kinds of ideas and situations … We learn from these books. We are not afraid of these books.” Thus it seems quite possible that Mainers will not be driven by false tales but will rather be bound by reality, as they respect different parental values and embrace people’s freedom to read what they want and be who they are.

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Amy Fried, Opinion columnist

Amy Fried has written about the media and politics, women in politics, Maine and American political culture, and political activism, and works to create change through the Rising Tide Center. A political...