AZ Republican Leader Exploits Furries To Disguise Anti-LGBT Policy, “Concentration Camp”

by Patch O'Furr

By Tempe O’Kun and Patch, with thanks to Tonya Song for interview questions.

Recently, AZ Rep. Kelly Townsend (a politician in the Arizona House of Representatives since 2013) stumbled into the furry fandom.  She’d been threatening to sue teachers who were organizing for resources to fix a crisis in schools with leaky roofs, 25-year-old textbooks, rats in classrooms, and no budget to afford toilet paper. It all started when she responded to criticism by Pepper Coyote, a furry who happens to be a teacher in Arizona.

Furries, as we are naturally inclined to do, welcomed the curiosity with the usual range of mostly-SFW responses. This sort of interaction happens with some regularity. Some innocent outsider happens upon the fandom, and we get to watch him or her discover the wacky world of talking animals. Sometimes they even become a loved fixture of the community like Boozy Badger.

Except that’s not what’s happening here.

Rep. Townsend is not some obscure figure or mere curiosity seeker. She’s the Republican Party whip in the Arizona House. In politics, a “whip” is the enforcer —a high-ranking official who ensures discipline. In the case of the AZ GOP, that means things like supporting Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a convicted felon whose crime was pardoned by Trump.  Arpaio ran what he called a “concentration camp” where he imprisoned immigrants.

Through a combination of looking the other way about rape, exposure to the brutal Arizona elements, and assault on human rights, Arpaio hoped to make life even worse for refugees than in the countries they were fleeing. Far beyond administering justice, he took pleasure in brutality and used it to boost his career. Virtually all of his prisoners were Latino or Native. This issue even directly affects some furries. Dogpatch Press hosted a guest article by Sisk, a fur imprisoned in Arizona (who is the focus of a support campaign to address injustice in her story.)

Arpaio’s “concentration camp” is just part of the GOP agenda in Arizona, which includes:

  • Harassment of US citizens with a “papers please” law.
  • Inhumane destruction of water caches meant to save the lives of refugees in the desert.
  • Cutting food and health programs for poor children, hitting minority and LGBT kids especially hard.

Then there’s constant assaults on rights of all LGBT citizens – an agenda personally enforced by Rep. Kelly Townsend.

The internet offers chances to connect with people we’d never get to meet in real life. It can be fun and exciting to talk to celebrities, creators, and even legislators. But it pays to be careful about who we lend the fandom’s public approval. The public image of the fandom can be fragile at the best of times. Why draw fursona art for radicalized conservatives who not only vote for racist and anti-LGBT laws, but are primary agenda-setters for other voters to make bigoted laws? That’s bad for the fandom. Here’s why.

Normalizing bigotry

Let’s look at how Rep. Townsend’s first contact with furries was instantly cashed in as a gimmick for attention to normalize her career to onlookers. She barely knew what a fursona was, or the conventions of using one (such as not taking original art that wasn’t made for her.) It was like a tourist visiting another country who’s rude to locals and doesn’t care. She milked the attention anyways when an artist donated her fan art.

Maybe this looks like harmless fun or innocent curiosity on the surface, but it’s way more than skin deep. There is no “keep politics out” when a career politician is using her official account as a soapbox about furries, and cultivating an appearance of tolerance that doesn’t match reality.

Furries play cartoon animals, but they’re people. The furry fandom isn’t just a place for fun detached from reality. It’s also a real place where LGBT people and other minorities feel safe. Safe, specifically, from people like Rep. Townsend.

By giving her the fandom’s public approval, you’re not being “politically tolerant.” You’re enabling bigots. You’re helping re-elect them. And you’re mortgaging the limited good PR of the furry fandom to do so, against the wishes of many who did the work to build a community in spite of bigotry they face in life.

The appearance of tolerance vs. a native perspective

Look closer at how she had zero prompting to tie furry fandom to Native American religion, but did so immediately. Nobody had been making a legit connection to Native American spirituality. This, again, is a calculated and cynical move to exploit goodwill.

Why do it? Simple. The AZ Republican Party has a long history of approving abuses against Native citizens. She wants to continue to belittle Natives by putting their traditions in the same box as kooky weekend fursuit romps.

For a better handle on this, let’s hear from Tonya Song, a Native American activist and LGBT furry who has earned respect for her informed perspective.

DogPatch Press:

Why would you say it’s a problem to conflate furry and “original North America” cultures, as Rep. Townsend puts it?

Tonya Song:

Indigenous cultural references are not an equivalent to a hobby subculture. Indigenous cultures arise from the environments of which they come from. It informs their ways of society, philosophies, beliefs, and from there derives things like lore, art, dance, and music. The same can not be said for the fandom. The furry fandom, while it carries an important place in many peoples’ lives, can not be compared to a multi-faceted, ages old continuous culture; especially not one from the lands in which a lot of these conventions take place.

DogPatch Press:

How should people like Rep. Townsend view conflating Native American traditions and furry fandom?

Tonya Song:

How can you compare a hobby subculture to something you literally have no understanding of outside the media stereotypes? Rep. Townsend was in the US Navy. So, to her, it should be viewed as similar to “stolen valor.”

[Editor’s note: Stolen valor is the practice (by militiamen and others) of wearing military medals they purchased instead of earned. It is widely considered disrespectful to military members, and a form of fraud crime.]

Our cultures are something not only that we learn from childhood, thus know at a very deep and personal level, but it’s also innate in us, it’s almost like passed down genetically, it’s that integral to who we are. It’s not something we discover over the internet and do only as a “pastime.” Indigenous people have such a different set of perspectives and values—that’s what makes translating our stances into modern western society terminology is so difficult. But in summary: fursuits aren’t derived from a culture that, through its beliefs brought it forward. Culture isn’t a hobby.

If you’re actually curious about early roots of fursuiting across various cultures, check out this recent video: Culturally F’d – Fursuiting: a History – Part 1: Masks.

Note that Culturally F’d takes care to explicitly not conflate Native American religious practices with supposed neon-furred hotel-room orgies. This isn’t just because it’s clumsy or inaccurate. It also feeds a negative agenda. Mocking non-white culture is the main avenue to justify mistreating minorities —as Rep. Townsend does regularly and officially, as the AZ GOP whip.

What can we learn here, going forward?

First off, how you act online matters in real life. It might not matter for you specifically, but it certainly matters to victims of policies that Rep. Townsend promoted —citizen and refugee alike. Don’t normalize bigots, especially bigots in office; it helps them cling to power.

Second, when someone mysteriously appears in the furry fandom and starts using it for radical anti-LGBT anti-minority purposes, get suspicious. Just like leaders of “alt-furry” entered the fandom with an agenda to use it to spread hate, so too can cynical and abusive Republican Party leaders.

It’s no accident that some of the remaining alt-furries immediately pounced on Rep. Townsend. They shared a lot of “policy” stances that concern compromising your rights as a human being. For her part, Rep. Townsend likely had no idea who alt-furries are, but certainly knows what the alt-right is, and how to spot those who openly identify with hate groups. White nationalists are a voter base her party has carefully cultivated.

Then she got in their game by retweeting one of them, echoing their talking points about “this fandom” as if she’d been here for more than a few days.

“Fun and interests, no politics”

What can we do when someone tries to exploit the fandom?

If you’re an artist, do a quick check on who commissions you. Don’t draw what you don’t agree with, even if they get mad and accuse you of being intolerant of their hate. (At least one savvy furry artist took the opportunity to hold her accountable for attacking teachers unions currently on strike.)

If you’re on social media, don’t spread posts that normalize anti-LGBT or racist people. Yes, it’s weird and wacky when some hardline conservative who looks like your mom finds the fandom. But sharing and liking those posts without calling out hypocrisy helps people like her get reelected. Normalizing people like her has deadly consequences for real, live people.

If you’re disgusted by Rep. Townsend and her bigoted party, register to vote, so you can vote against people like her, who’d smile and accept furry fan-art one day and strip away LGBT rights the next. And donate to her Democratic opponent. [The below tweet to him is a joke where he gracefully segued to sincere.]

No matter who you are, be more mindful. Furry is a place of imagination and freedom, but that doesn’t mean nobody will try to exploit us. Be smart, don’t let people get away with being horrible, and don’t let people disguise hatred as humor.  Don’t let people take advantage of the furry fandom any more than you’d loan your fursuit to a stranger to go wade through sewage.

You’re not required to play nice with people whose goal is to dehumanize and abuse you for political gain. This applies just as much to alt-righters in office, as out. Furry is way too important to all of us to let bullies subvert it to put a cutesy facade on their cruelty.

[Editor’s note: We here at DogPatch Press aren’t perfect. We felt the need to get involved in this issue, in part, because Patch personally responded to the situation by commenting on adult artwork other furries made to satirize Rep. Townsend. This was not a productive means of engaging, and he asked for the art to be withdrawn to encourage better communication.]