At a luncheon for Republican women in Mesa County, Colorado, last week, Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., warned that educators “are putting litter boxes in schools for people who identify as cats.”
To a person not steeped in the culture war battles over gender identity that have engulfed school districts nationwide, it’s the kind of claim that would sound bizarre and confusing — and, from high-profile GOP members, authoritative.
The week before, on Sept. 29, Minnesota GOP gubernatorial nominee Scott Jensen asked during a campaign stop, “Why do we have litter boxes in some of the school districts so kids can pee in them, because they identify as a furry?”
And during a legislative hearing last month in Tennessee, two Republican state lawmakers discussed the “growing crisis” of public schools providing litter boxes for children who identify as cats, and claimed it’s happening across the state.
At least 20 conservative candidates and elected officials have claimed this year that K-12 schools are placing litter boxes on campus or making other accommodations for students who identify as cats, according to an NBC News review of public statements.
Every school district that has been named by those 20 politicians said either to NBC News or in public statements that these claims are untrue. There is no evidence that any school has deployed litter boxes for students to use because they identify as cats.
But the claim has taken on a life of its own among a growing number of Republicans, conservative influencers and political commentators. In an episode of Spotify’s “The Joe Rogan Experience” podcast this week, host Joe Rogan told former U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard that a litter box was installed in a school that his friend’s wife worked at for a girl who “identifies as an animal.” A clip of the discussion quickly began to circulate on social media. Rogan did not name the school, and his publicist did not respond to a request for comment.
There is a real subculture of people known as furries, a community of children and adults who roleplay as anthropomorphized animal characters. But the vast majority of them still identify as humans, while sometimes adopting an animal-like persona and engaging in short-term roleplay, according to furries and experts, one of whom noted that there are no litter boxes at furry conventions. Three school-age furries told NBC News they have at times dressed up at school, typically wearing just part of their full costume such as a mask or gloves that look like paws, but they’d never heard of any furry ever asking for a litter box.
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That has not stopped such rumors from circulating on social media, where they have been repeated like a game of telephone, often with descriptions of friends of friends who supposedly saw such things firsthand. And it has not stopped some politicians from picking up these claims and using them to alarm people by saying that this is where protections for LGBTQ students will lead.
“What’s most provocative about this hoax is how it turns on two key wedge issues for conservatives: educational accommodations and gender nonconformity,” said 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 Upending Democracy in America.”
The rise of the litter box rumor shows the power of false claims that start on social media to shape political discourse. And it demonstrates how quickly some elements of truth can be twisted and mashed up with fully debunked assertions to create a viral narrative amplified by prominent politicians, as well as commentators with large audiences.
“It’s only used to kind of sensationalize untruth, and to harm our community, in particular our transgender, nonbinary and gender-expansive youth,” said Nadine Bridges, executive director of One Colorado, an LGBTQ rights organization, when asked about the litter box rumors. “Why would you attack our most vulnerable to get your point across, especially since the point is baseless?”
NBC News found one example of a school district keeping cat litter on campuses for students to use — but it had nothing to do with accommodating children who identify as animals.
In Colorado, GOP gubernatorial nominee Heidi Ganahl insisted in several recent interviews that students were dressing and identifying as cats, disrupting class, and the state’s schools were tolerating it. Some children, she alleged, would only communicate in barks and hisses. Her campaign declined to answer questions about Ganahl’s claims, but in one interview with a local Fox affiliate, she suggested “there’s a lot of this going on” in Jefferson County.
The Jefferson County school district disputed Ganahl’s claims and said its dress code prohibits costumes at school. The district — where Columbine High School is located — has been stocking classrooms with small amounts of cat litter since 2017, but as part of “go buckets” that contain emergency supplies in case students are locked in a classroom during a shooting. The buckets also contain candy for diabetic students, a map of the school, flashlights, wet wipes and first aid items.
“This thing has gotten out of control with politicians just wanting to have a talking point,” said John McDonald, former director of campus safety at Jefferson County schools, who’s now a school security consultant.
The wave of misinformation reflects discontent among many conservatives around how the concepts and politics of gender identity are rapidly shifting.
As the number of people identifying as trans and nonbinary has increased in recent years, particularly among young people, so has the amount of anti-LGBTQ legislation from conservative politicians. The spread of rumors about litter boxes has grown alongside other extreme and baseless rhetoric accusing LGBTQ people and educators of “grooming” children through lessons and policies on gender and sexuality.
Some politicians issued warnings about children acting as cats during debates regarding school policies related to transgender and nonbinary youth.
Tim Kraayenbrink, a Republican Iowa state senator, said at a forum in May that local schools had been required to put cat litter boxes in the bathroom for furries to use, as he discussed schools that allow transgender students to use the restroom that aligns with their gender identity. He later told a local newspaper he didn’t verify the claim was true, and he did not respond to a request for comment from NBC News.
Last month, Brendan Shea, a Republican and member of the Ohio State Board of Education, introduced a resolution to oppose civil rights protections for LGBTQ students. As he argued for the resolution in a public meeting, Shea said, “We’ve literally got kids who think they’re cats and dogs using litter boxes in classrooms.” Shea did not respond to requests for comment.
The rumor of litter boxes in schools appears to have begun among parents on social media, and one of the first schools to confront the falsehood was in Canada last fall.
In an Oct. 19, 2021, Facebook post, the Public Schools Branch of Prince Edward Island said that for several months it had “fielded calls, been sent emails and been pointed to numerous social media posts that make broad sweeping assertions regarding students who identify as cats. Many of these assertions claim that schools have or are in the process of having litter boxes placed in schools.”
“This claim as well as many others are simply false and are causing unnecessary stress to students and staff,” Norbert Carpenter, the director of schools, said in the post.
Within a few months, similar rumors began to spread in the U.S., where they quickly became culture war fodder.
In December 2021, conservative activist Lisa Hansen claimed at a school board meeting in Midland, Michigan, that an unnamed school in the district had placed “a litter box for the kids that identify as cats” in a unisex bathroom as “part of the agenda that’s being pushed.” Hansen, who later started a local chapter of Moms for Liberty, a conservative activist group, did not respond to requests for comment.
On Jan. 20, Meshawn Maddock, the co-chair of the Michigan Republican Party, advanced the rumor, posting on Facebook that “Kids who identify as ‘furries’ get a litter box in the school bathroom,” with a link to a parent activist group. The next day, the popular conservative Twitter account Libs of TikTok tweeted the video of Hansen at the school board meeting. The post quickly went viral, racking up nearly 860,000 video views on Twitter.
As the video circulated, the Midland superintendent issued a statement to clarify Hansen’s claim was false. Libs of TikTok noted as much in a subsequent tweet, but questioned why no one said so at the school board meeting, where some people applauded after Hansen spoke. Maddock did not respond to requests for comment.
In April, three Republican lawmakers in Minnesota took turns during floor debate discussing rumors they’d heard about children identifying as cats at school, cutting holes in uniforms for tails and possibly using litter boxes. That same month, school board candidates in Arkansas and Tennessee made similar remarks, and Jennifer Benson, a school board member in Fargo, North Dakota, told a local news outlet children were wearing leashes to school and using litter boxes.
Catalina Lauf, a Republican congressional nominee in Illinois, tweeted this month that schoolchildren were using litter boxes in her state.
“Many parents and teachers have confided in me privately about the madness that’s happening pertaining to this trend,” Lauf told NBC News in an email. She declined to connect NBC News with any parents or teachers she’s spoken with.
When asked by NBC News for evidence to support her assertion, Lauf referred to an anonymous far-right blog that claimed a student was permitted to wear a furry suit to school in Hinsdale, Illinois. The school district called that blog’s story “completely inaccurate” and not something it would permit.
Beyond Republican politicians and officials, plenty of social media users have latched onto the rumor, most notably on Facebook and TikTok.
On Facebook, public posts show variations of the claim popping up throughout the country every day, citing unnamed grandchildren or neighbors, from Florida to California. Some say litter boxes are located in “transgender bathrooms” in schools. One post calling for school districts to take action has been shared more than 31,000 times.
Meanwhile on TikTok, one video claiming “kids are now requesting litter boxes at school” collected 3 million views on the platform. A reaction from another user calling for schools to stop admitting furries to schools brought in over 1 million views.
Furries are part of an established subculture that has existed for decades. The fandom is centered around an interest in anthropomorphism, or human characteristics given to animals, according to Sharon Roberts, co-founder of a furry research group called Furscience.
Roberts, an associate professor at Renison University College, affiliated with the University of Waterloo in Canada, said that nearly all furries maintain distinct human personas and do not identify as animals. Surveys and pre-publication research from Furscience also indicate that the vast majority are LGBTQ — and as many as a third are transgender.
Roberts said that in her research career, she’s never heard of or seen an instance of a furry wanting a litter box. Roberts also noted that the vast majority of furries’ characters are wild or mythical animals, who wouldn’t use a litter box in the first place.
“I’ve studied more than 40,000 furries from 70 different countries over a decade,” she said. “There’s no such thing as a litter box at a furry convention.”
NBC News spoke to three school-age furries who have posted on TikTok about the experience of being a furry at school. NBC News agreed to keep their last names private due to their fear of harassment.
Olivia, 16, from California, said she’s been part of the furry community for six years. “I don’t go out wearing tail, gloves, ears, or fursuit heads on any normal day,” she said in an email. She said when she has worn part of her fur suit to school, “I don’t act like an animal, or think that I am one.”
Dayna, 15, who lives in Canada, said she brings a mask and tail to school every day but only wears them during lunch and keeps them in her bag during class. “I like bringing them because it’s a way to show my creative outlet and something to talk to my friends about. I’ve actually made new friends at school because of it,” Dayna said in an email.
Kymera, 14, of Colorado, said being a furry is “just a hobby,” akin to being a mascot.
“I have never once heard a furry say they want to use a litter box,” Kymera said. “These rumors put us at risk of being hurt or bullied.”
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com