Silly school litter box rumors front a darker agenda

February 14, 2022 8:00 am

A young child wears cat ears while doing school work at home. (Photo by pixelfit/Getty Images)

A recent story out of small-town Iowa was getting lots of twitters and titters: The Carroll school superintendent sent out an email to parents to knock down a false rumor that there were litter boxes in school bathrooms to accommodate students who “identify” as cats.

Some people laughed at how absurd it is that school kids are supposedly going around claiming to be animals. Others were enjoying poking fun at the gullibility of those who were outraged in their misguided belief that children were using litter boxes instead of toilets in school.

Frankly, with all the unbelievably dopey Tik-Tok challenges out there, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that some kid, somewhere, has decided to try to emulate a cat to that extreme. If a bunch of teens are willing to eat poisonous laundry pods for a social media post, pooping in sand seems almost harmless by comparison. Disgusting, but not life-threatening.

And lots of people of all ages actually do engage in fantasy role-playing as entertainment. Some go to conventions dressed as their favorite superheroes. Some develop elaborate video-game personas. And others, who call themselves “furries,” create animal alter egos and interact with others who do the same.

But the narrative that schools would indulge students in this fashion has a much darker underbelly. I asked Keenan Crow of One Iowa, a LGBTQ advocacy group, if they think it’s a coincidence that a story like this would pop up at a time when public schools are under attack and conservative lawmakers are working to put restrictions on transgender and LGBTQ students.

Crow laughed.  “No. Not at all,” they said. “The real goal with comparing furries to trans people and bringing up stuff like this is, one, to make fun of furries and say, ‘Oh, aren’t they so silly. And oh, by the way, transgender identities are just as silly as this. And we should reject the request of a transgender student to use the restroom that matches their gender identity, in the same way that we should reject a student request to use a litter box.’’’

“Furries” don’t “identify” as cats or other animals, Crow said. “It’s more of a role-playing type thing that some people do to express themselves in a different way. They don’t literally think that they’re cats or dogs, or whatever, and they’re not asking schools to put litter boxes in, or any of this nonsense.”

A gender identity is something innate to a person; a “core component” of their being that can’t be changed, Crow said. It’s not make-believe or fantasy. “You know, this is being conflated specifically to invalidate trans identities which are real and which have been studied extensively,” they said.

This week, on the same day Iowa Capital Dispatch published the Carroll litter box story, lawmakers were debating bills to ban transgender girls’ participation on women’s sports teams and throw educators in jail for making “obscene” literature available to students. Many of the challenged books have LGBTQ themes.

The litter box rumors spread the notion that if schools will let transgender girls compete on sports teams and use the girls’ restroom, next they’ll be forced to accommodate every other so-called “identity,” even if it means pet bowls on the cafeteria floors and taking kids out for recess on leashes. I’ll have my tuna on rye, not mixed with kibble, thanks.

It’s like the “slippery-slope” arguments that we heard back when Iowa legalized same-sex marriage: If we allow this, next we’ll have to condone marriages involving pedophilia. Or incest. Or bestiality. Nearly 13 years after the 2009 Supreme Court marriage ruling, I have yet to see any weddings between a groom and a cockapoo.

The litter box canard also serves another political purpose: Trying to scare parents. Lawmakers are debating all kinds of extreme legislation, like Sen. Jake Chapman’s school “porn” bill that threatens teachers with prison. It probably won’t pass, but it serves a larger purpose of making Iowa parents distrust and fear public schools at a time when Gov. Kim Reynolds and some GOP lawmakers are trying again to funnel a significant share of education dollars to private and religious schools. Somehow, it always comes back to money.

But the cost of using transgender kids as pawns in the war against teachers’ unions is much higher. “These kids are already an astronomical risk for adverse mental health outcomes and suicidal ideation,” Crow said. “And what they need right now is acceptance and understanding, not further exclusion and alienation.”

Once you see through this political cat-and-mouse game, the litter box story just seems doggone sad.

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Kathie Obradovich
Kathie Obradovich

Editor Kathie Obradovich has been covering Iowa government and politics for more than 30 years, most recently as political columnist and opinion editor for the Des Moines Register. She previously covered the Iowa Statehouse for 10 years for newspapers in Davenport, Waterloo, Sioux City, Mason City and Muscatine.