How a myth about litter boxes in schools turned into a talking point for the GOP

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How a myth about litter boxes in schools turned into a talking point for the GOP, Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colorado, told a group of Republican women at a luncheon in Mesa County, Colorado, last week that teachers are putting litter boxes in schools for people who identify as cats.

It’s the kind of claim that would sound strange and confusing to someone who doesn’t know much about the culture wars over gender identity that have been raging in school districts across the country. But coming from high-profile GOP members, it would sound authoritative.

The week before, on September 29, Minnesota GOP gubernatorial candidate Scott Jensen asked during a campaign stop, “Why do we have litter boxes in some school districts so kids can pee in them because they identify as furry?”

And at a legislative hearing in Tennessee last month, two Republican state lawmakers talked about the “growing crisis” of public schools giving litter boxes to kids who say they are cats. They said that this is happening all over the state.

A review of public statements by NBC News shows that at least 20 conservative candidates and elected officials have said this year that K-12 schools are putting litter boxes on campus or making other changes to help students who say they are cats.

Every school district that those 20 politicians named said that these claims are not true, either to NBC News or in public. There is no proof that any school has given students litter boxes because they think they are cats.

But the claim is getting more and more attention from Republicans, conservative leaders, and political commentators. This week, on an episode of “The Joe Rogan Experience” podcast on Spotify, host Joe Rogan told former U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard that a litter box was put in a school where his friend’s wife worked for a girl who “identifies as an animal.” A video clip of the conversation quickly spread on social media. Rogan didn’t say what school it was, and his publicist didn’t answer a question about it.

There is a real group of people called “furries.” They are both kids and adults who play pretend as animals with human traits. But most of them still think of themselves as humans, even though they sometimes act like animals and roleplay for short periods of time, say furries and experts. One of them pointed out that there are no litter boxes at furry conventions. Three furries in school told NBC News that they have sometimes dressed up at school, usually just wearing a mask or gloves that look like paws. However, they had never heard of a furry asking for a litter box.

Even so, these kinds of rumors keep going around on social media, where they are passed on like a game of telephone, often with descriptions of what friends of friends say they saw. Even so, some politicians have picked up on these claims and used them to scare people by saying that this is what will happen if LGBTQ students are given more protection.

Joan Donovan, research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University and co-author of “Meme Wars: The Untold Story of the Online Battles Undermining Democracy in America,” said that the most shocking thing about this hoax is that it focuses on two key issues for conservatives: educational accommodations and gender nonconformity.

The spread of the “litter box” rumor shows how false rumors that start on social media can change the way people talk about politics. It also shows how quickly some parts of the truth can be twisted and mixed with completely false claims to make a story that goes viral and is spread by well-known politicians and commentators with large audiences.

When asked about the litter box rumors, Nadine Bridges, executive director of One Colorado, an LGBTQ rights group, said, “It’s only used to make false things more interesting and hurt our community, especially our transgender, nonbinary, and gender-expansive youth.” “Why would you go after our weakest members to make your point, especially since your point isn’t true?”

NBC News found one school district that let students use cat litter on campus, but it had nothing to do with helping kids who think they are animals.

In recent interviews, GOP gubernatorial candidate Heidi Ganahl insisted that students in Colorado were dressing up as cats and disrupting class and that the state’s schools were okay with it. She said that some kids would only bark and hiss when they wanted to talk. Her campaign wouldn’t answer questions about Ganahl’s claims, but in an interview with a local Fox affiliate, she said “there’s a lot of this going on” in Jefferson County.

Ganahl’s claims were denied by the Jefferson County school district, which said that its dress code does not allow costumes at school. Since 2017, the district, which includes Columbine High School, has put small amounts of cat litter in classrooms as part of “go buckets.” These buckets have emergency supplies in case students are locked in a classroom during a shooting. There is also candy for students with diabetes, a map of the school, flashlights, wet wipes, and first aid supplies in the buckets.

“Politicians just want to have something to talk about, so this has gotten out of hand,” said John McDonald, who used to be the director of campus safety at Jefferson County schools and is now a school security consultant.

The wave of false information shows that many conservatives are unhappy with how quickly ideas and politics about gender identity are changing.

Roberts, an associate professor at Renison University College in Canada, which is part of the University of Waterloo, said that most furries keep their human identities and don’t think of themselves as animals. Surveys and research done by Furscience before the book came out also show that the vast majority are LGBTQ and that up to a third are transgender.

Roberts said that in all the years she has been doing research, she has never heard of or seen a furry want a litter box. Roberts also said that most of the characters in furry stories are wild or mythical animals that would never use a litter box.

“Over the past 10 years, I’ve studied more than 40,000 furries from 70 countries,” she said. “At a furry convention, there is no such thing as a litter box.”

NBC News talked to three furries in school who posted about being a furry at school on TikTok. Because they were afraid of being stalked, NBC News agreed to keep their last names secret.

Olivia, who is 16 and from California, said she has been a part of the furry community for six years. “On a normal day, I don’t wear a tail, gloves, ears, or a fursuit head,” she said in an email. She said, “I don’t act like an animal or think I am one when I wear part of my fur suit to school.”

Dayna, who lives in Canada and is 15 years old, says she brings a mask and tail to school every day, but she only wears them during lunch and keeps them in her bag during class. “I like to bring them because it lets me show my creative side and gives me something to talk about with my friends. Because of it, I’ve made new friends at school,” Dayna wrote in an email.

Kymera, who lives in Colorado and is 14 years old, said that being a furry is “just a hobby,” like being a mascot.

Kymera said, “I’ve never heard a furry say that they want to use a litter box.” “These rumors make us more likely to get hurt or be picked on.”