This article is part of a series of articles covering produced in collaboration with the Arts & Culture MA concentration at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

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Tara Meagher, a 22-year-old film student, wanted a quarantine pet, but didn’t have room for a dog in her small Los Angeles apartment. So she settled for two tree frogs, Sativa and Indica, now the stars of her viral TikTok videos. “I always see them in weird positions in their tank, doing weird things,” Meagher said in an interview. “They make me laugh every day.” In August, she shared the humor with some seven million viewers, posing Sativa and Indica inside a Victorian dollhouse while playing Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5.”

Though endangered in real life, frogs might be the internet’s most invasive species. Memes from Kermit the frog sipping tea to the pixelated, unicycle-riding frog “Dat Boi” have proliferated on Reddit, Tumblr, and Twitter. Most infamously, the bright green cartoon Pepe the frog spread like a digital plague as a symbol of the far right. But in their most recent online habitat, TikTok, frogs have transcended Pepe’s toxic connotations, emerging with cheerful, queer associations instead. For these amphibians, identity is a slippery thing. Maybe that’s what makes them such enduring subjects in human culture, from ancient Egyptian fertility gods to latent fairytale princes. As symbols of transformation, frogs are never just one thing. On the internet, they’re not even just frogs.

Pepe, who is probably still the best-known internet frog specimen, underwent his own dramatic transformation around 2015. Illustrator Matt Furie originally introduced his bug-eyed, anthropomorphic frog in 2005 as the innocent protagonist of the stoner comic Boys Club. When fans first uploaded the image to online message boards in 2009, Furie didn’t object, and when Pepe became a hugely popular meme with his catchphrase “feels good, man,” he didn’t assert copyright. Then his frog grew warts.

Still from Feels Good Man produced by Ready Fictions and directed by Arthur Jones (image courtesy of Ready Fictions)

“When Pepe became toxic, it was a reaction to social media bringing the general public into the internet,” Arthur Jones, who directed the recent Pepe documentary Feels Good Man, said in an interview. As Pepe’s popularity crossed over from hardcore internet users to mainstream “normies” and even celebrities, his early fans cruelly asserted their dominance. They re-drew Pepe in Nazi uniform or bombing the Twin Towers, making him politically pestilential. “Pepe images became tools for trolling people on social media, where you could say something that was really offensive, really bigoted, really angry, really threatening — and then you could always step away and be like, ‘it’s this dumb silly cartoon frog, why are you so triggered by it,’” said Jones. In 2016 and 2017, hate-spewing Twitter users added frog emojis to their bios as a kind of code. The green frog became a swastika with plausible deniability.

The contrast between white nationalist frog Twitter and today’s #frogtiktok, then, is almost total. “The negative baggage surrounding Pepe just doesn’t exist on TikTok,” said Jones. Rather than a dark corner, #frogtiktok is one of Tiktok’s most lighthearted and affirming spaces. “There’s not just one TikTok – there are hundreds,” said Landon Etheridge, 21, whose slow-motion videos of frogs jumping through blades of grass have mesmerized almost a million viewers.  Many users divide the app between #straightitktok, its mainstream world of dance and lip-synching videos, and #alttiktok, its weirder in-crowd. “You have to be part of this woke community to find #frogtiktok,” Etheridge said. That community is sizable: More than 300 million people have watched videos with the #frogtiktok hashtag.

And that space is queer. In a video posted this summer, Thaddeus Shafer, an actor and comedian who often posts videos as “your nonbinary uncle,” explored the  intersection between #frogtiktok and #gaytiktok “We all start off here, at straight TikTok,” Shafer explains. “Eventually we find gay TikTok, which either puts us in gay boy TikTok, or lesbian TikTok.” That inevitably leads to #thirsttraptiktok, #cottagecoretiktok, #stonerwitchtiktok, and #gothtiktok — through a secret passageway to #nonbinarytiktok, and finally, says Shafer, through a portal to “the promised land, #frogtiktok.”

The overlap is obvious, but still mysterious, to many of its practitioners. “I don’t really know why there’s that association,” said @thefrogfather, a 20-year-old visual arts student. “It might just be because I’m also LGBT, so those are the people I interact with, that’s the content I see…. I draw queer viewers to me.”

“I didn’t [originally] know that frog TikTok had a gay lean, but I’m happy it does,” said Meagher, who calls herself a “lesbian frog dad” on TikTok and has posed Sativa and Indica with a pride flag behind them. “I think that, if I do have a platform that like 50,000 people think is funny enough that they want to see more of, I think it’s important for people to know that I’m gay. I want to be putting out stuff that also represents people, even if it is just in the stupid world of #frogtiktok.”

Frogs are amorphous by their very nature, and their meanings are necessarily hard to fix. They morph from tadpoles to tetrapods as if evolving before our eyes, then lead double lives on land and water, breathing through their lungs and their skin. That duality could speak to a common queer experience, the way LGBT people must often walk between worlds, while a frog’s arc of transformation could stand in for a “coming out” narrative of self-discovery and affirmation. But that same double-nature and queer unfixability that make frogs a legibly queer icon of TikTok also made frogs a useful symbol for the alt-right, who exploited its inherent capacity for double-meaning.

Since the Anti-Defamation League declared Pepe a hate symbol in 2016, Furie has fought to reclaim his character, launching a #savepepecampaign in an attempt to overwhelm negative memes with positive ones. It’s been a losing battle for years, but lately with some major victories. He hastarted fighting back in court: Last year, Furie settled a suit with far-right commentator Alex Jones to stop him from using Pepe on posters. This spring, Furie was encouraged to see protestors in Hong Kong use Pepe as a symbol of free speech, reappropriating him once more. The progressive world of #frogtiktok might offer another reason for hope. As Furie says in Feels Good, Man “The positive notion of Pepe is that he can change again.” Frogs always do.

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Caleb Pershan

Caleb Pershan is a journalist who is currently attending the Columbia Journalism School at Columbia University in New York City.