A litter box hoax has been circulating in countries where trans rights are under discussion.

It is a dangerous lie.

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When I grew up in Ireland in the 1980s, it would take months for a movie to go from general release in America into my local cinema. Nowadays, everything is everywhere all at once. Apparently, anti-trans propaganda is following the 1980s protocol.

You might have heard a story. It’s always the same. It comes from someone you trust. This person insists that it was told to him by someone close to the source. A child in a local school is identifying as a cat. This child has furthermore demanded a litter tray be provided by the school to accommodate their new identity.

It may seem like this is a harmless, fun anecdote that adds some local color to your morning news trawl. However, it is a dangerous lie. Right-wing anti-trans politicians use these lies to galvanize public opinion against trans kids.

If you can’t spot the pipeline from litter box stories to damaging policies targeting trans people, you are in the right place.

Where did this stupid story come from?

The source of this myth may be an op-ed published in the Christian Post in 2016. The title of that piece is “Should We Provide Litter Boxes for People Who Identify as Cats?” Refreshingly,  there is no suggestion in the piece that it has ever happened. The writer is also kind enough to unambiguously link his hypothetical scenario to an attack on “transgender rights.”

There was a dramatic uptick in these stories in 2022, possibly related to the mid-term elections in November of that year.

In January 2022, a school in Michigan issued a statement on Facebook about the “false message” and “wild accusations”.

The comments underneath that post demonstrate a very common reaction to the debunking of these stories. One Facebook user said that while that story had been proved false, “it wouldn’t be surprising if it did happen”. For some, it seems, the rumors do so much damage that a full retraction does nothing to repair it. Maybe that’s the point.

The only case of any school anywhere using cat litter boxes involves rather grim preparations in case of school shootings in a Colorado school.

In March 2022, Republican Nebraska state senator Bruce Bostelman apologized for spreading the rumor. At least one newspaper was good enough to explain how this rumor is linked to “laws to ban transgender students from using bathrooms.”

In August 2022, Boston Children’s Hospital received “a large volume” of threats which appeared to be a “very coordinated campaign.” The hospital “does not perform genital surgeries as part of gender-affirming care on patients under the age of 18.”

The litter box hoax 2022 American tour continues

In September 2022, Republican lawmakers in Tennessee claimed there was a “crisis” of cat students across the state. There was not one single case.

On October 3, 2022, CNN debunked the “bizarre hoax claim”, this time promulgated by Scott Jensen, a Republican candidate in Minnesota.

On October 12, 2022, the rumour got a bump from Joe Rogan. “My friend, his wife is a schoolteacher and she works at a school,” he said, citing his source. It’s always someone you know. He later very begrudgingly retracted the claim.

There were soon similar claims in Iowa, Colorado, Ohio, Illinois and even Prince Edward Island in Canada.

In late October, John Oliver demonstrated how trans people are targeted at every level of society by violence and intimidation. Part of his show discussed the “humiliating nonsense” spread about trans people, “perhaps the stupidest of which” is the litter box rumor.

In November, a school in New Hampshire had to deal with the “disruptive and demeaning hoax”. Again, it was emphasized that these stories are maliciously “used to ostracize LGBTQ students”.

So far, the only case of any school anywhere using cat litter boxes involves rather grim preparations in case of school shootings in a Colorado school.

We have this in Ireland too.

Bang on schedule, in January 2023, a school in Cork reported “a string of completely false claims” about a student identifying as a cat. The school was good enough to explain that these stories were invented “for the purpose of fearmongering over gender non-conformity.”  

Just last month, similar rumors were spread about Thornhill College in Derry in Northern Ireland. The school described the rumors as an elaborate hoax.

Why would people believe this gibberish?

It’s a mix of yellow-press sensationalism and our old friend, confirmation bias. Every single official who made this claim in public was right-wing. Right-wing politicians in the Republican party are currently engaged in a “coordinated national campaign against trans rights”. The ultimate expression of this campaign is hundreds of anti-trans laws in almost every state.

If you already suspect that young people choosing their identity is inappropriate, this story will appeal to you. It may also appeal if you already believe that trans people should not be accommodated in the education system. If you have anti-trans feelings but have an atavistic understanding that this puts you on the wrong side of history, you can gloat along with a story that hits all your prejudices without mentioning trans people at all.

What can I do?

If we have been fooled by these stories, we shouldn’t feel too bad. They are specifically designed to take advantage of our weak human brains. The good news is we can be better. When we hear a story that seems fantastical, we can wait for confirmation from any reputable news sources. My aunt who knows someone who heard the story is not a reputable news source. If a story seems to fit dramatically into our opinion on a very tense cultural issue, we can be suspicious. We all love the dopamine hit we get from Being Right but we don’t have to let it control us.

And we don’t have to allow right-wing lawmakers to manipulate us so easily into causing lasting damage to vulnerable people.

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Barry Purcell lives in Ireland and writes about religion, philosophy, psychology, politics and language for a variety of paper and online publications. He has been involved in campaigns to counteract the...