In late 2021 and early 2022, a rumor spread far and wide that conflated distinct groups of people: furries (or the furry fandom) and the transgender/gender diverse community. As Snopes reported in January and April of 2022, the hoax alleged that schools were installing litter boxes to accommodate students who identified as cats.
The underlying assertion was a classic example of a slippery slope logical fallacy — that schools had gone so far in meeting the needs of transgender/gender diverse students that they were now enabling kids to claim they identified as cats or other animals. That's how furries got swept into the rumor. And it continued, as of this writing, to circulate.
During a January 2023 episode of the program "Real America" on far-right media outlet One America News Network (OAN), host Dan Ball said, "I just heard of a girl wanting to be a cat near my hometown in Ohio, and she's like suing her parents and the school so she can be a cat." (We were unable to independently verify the existence of that alleged lawsuit, much less any other in the U.S. supposedly involving a girl suing to be recognized in someway as a cat.)
Rumors that litter boxes were installed in schools for cat-identifying students affected a number of schools in different states, but the chain of events in each location was more or less the same. People would claim that they had heard secondhand information about the alleged litter boxes and get outraged, and then school officials, news outlets, and fact-checkers would step in and debunk the specific rumor. Despite those efforts, some would maintain their belief that litter boxes were being placed in schools. Rinse and repeat.
But there was never evidence that any U.S. school had actually installed litter boxes for students identifying as cats to use instead of toilets. Nonetheless, the claim was passed around, fueled and promoted by some Republican politicians in the lead-up to the 2022 midterm elections and hateful but influential social media accounts.
Unpacking the Rumor's Origins
Utah State University folklorist Lynne McNeill identified the litter box rumor as an urban legend, a narrative spread on the internet, or by word of mouth, that pops up year after year. People sharing the stories often aren't sources with firsthand knowledge of the alleged litter box, but, rather, they say they heard the rumor from a "friend of a friend" (or, in the words of the OAN host, "I just heard of a girl who...") without many details to trace the anecdotes' true origins.
Speaking to the Utah-based newspaper, The Herald Journal, McNeill said the rumor has roots in the early 2000s, where it was started to poke fun at furries, a fan group distinguished by members who use fictional animal characters as avatars.
Removed from its original context, the rumor resurfaced during 2022 midterm campaigns, at which time it was framed as a true story involving school-aged children. The rumor was tailored to scare and outrage parents during a campaign cycle in which parental rights and control over public education was seen as a key issue.
"The general population doesn't understand either group [furries and the transgender/gender-diverse population], so it's very easy to then do a simple-minded conflation," said Michael Bronski, professor of the practice in media and activism in studies of women, gender, and sexuality at Harvard University.
Blurring the lines between different groups of people is often a feature of conspiracy theories and scapegoat propaganda. For example, Bronski pointed to the conflation of bankers on Wall Street with members of the Jewish community, which is then used in false, anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish people controlling financial sectors.
In the case of the 2022 school litter box hoax, Bronski pointed out that people have been primed by centuries of myths about human overlap with other species (think mermaids or centaurs, for example). So it was easy to map gender identity and diversity, a new concept for many, onto such stories. If one doesn't have an understanding of these groups, it could be easy to draw a line between what some people view as violating gender norms and violating species norms, Bronski said.
What, or Who, Are Furries?
To get a better understanding of furries, we reached out to Sharon Roberts, an associate professor of social development studies at Renison University College at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. Roberts focuses her research on the furry community and is the co-founder of the International Anthropomorphic Research Project (Furscience.com).
An important thing to know about furries is that it's a fandom, a social fellowship — not a demographic group like members of the LGBTQ+ community. That is, furries are fantasy fans. The vast majority create fictional, anthropomorphic personas called "fursonas." Those characters are used as avatars for social purposes, often imbued with positive characteristics. Some engage in the furry equivalent of cosplaying, or costuming, at social gatherings and events like conventions.
But that doesn't mean members of the furry fandom literally believe they are non-human animals. Roberts said that's an important distinction — "most furries do not identify as animals — they identify with animals."
Like other fantasy fandoms, (think "Star Trek" or "Star Wars") there isn't much emphasis, if any, placed on when, where, and how characters use the restroom — no character uses the bathroom on the Death Star in "Star Wars," for example. And while litter boxes are most commonly used by domestic cats in real life, most furry avatars (i.e., the characters who humans are playing) are animals that wouldn't use that type of household item; they align more with foxes, wolves, big cats, and mythical creatures like dragons.
"Like cosplayers, role players, and fantasy sport fans presumably do, furries take time out from their fantasy activities to go the bathroom, like everyone else," Roberts said.
And like other groups of fans, participation in furry fandom is voluntary and subjective. As such, it spans the full breadth of humanity, encompassing a cross section of race, class, gender identity, and sexual orientation, and other demographics.
Here's how Furscience describes furries:
The term furry describes a diverse community of fans, artists, writers, gamers, and role players. Most furries create for themselves an anthropomorphized animal character (fursona) with whom they identify and can function as an avatar within the community. Some furries wear elaborate costumes (called fursuits) or paraphernalia such as animal ears or tails, or represent themselves as anthropomorphic animals in online communities such as Second Life.
Here is how Furscience breaks down the fandom's demographics:
More than 75% of furries are under the age of 25. Approximately 84% of furries identify as male, 13% female, and 2.5% are transgender. Furries are predominantly (83.2%) white. Approximately one-third identify as exclusively heterosexual; furries are about five times more likely to identify as exclusively homosexual than the general population. Nearly 60% of the furry fandom reports part-time or full-time enrollment in post-secondary education.
Some people misunderstand furry fandom, with mainstream culture often portraying it in sensationalist and fetishistic terms. For example, some people falsely believe that furries, as a group, are into bestiality.
Furscience describes the fandom as being a source of community and friendship, to the extent that furry fellowship has apparently prevented some young people from committing suicide. Roberts explained in her email:
Perhaps surprising to outsiders who may not understand the nuances of the community, the furry fandom can be a place where people of all genders and sexual orientations can be accepted by peers who celebrate their best, most authentic selves. Despite many members of the furry community occupying marginalized statuses—over-representation of LGBTQ+ and gender diverse folks, neurodiversity, and histories of bullying—furries have the same levels of relationship quality, self-esteem, happiness, and life satisfaction as non-furries. For many members of the furry fandom, the meaningful friendships, deep identity work done in developing a fursona, and involvement in a strong community allow for benefits that translate to furries' everyday lives. It is a shame that the furry community still endures public misperception because the truth of this remarkable and resilient community is far more interesting.
Misinformation about furries, and a skewed public perception of them as "sexual deviants," was mainstream before the litter box rumor took off, Roberts said. New research cited by Roberts, due for upcoming publication in the peer-reviewed scholarly journal Psychology of Popular Media, indicates that furries are misunderstood because they aren't the "prototypical" fan group, like fans of football, soccer, or other more mainstream pastimes.
"The research shows that the further away from the 'prototypical fan' a fan group is deemed, the more people will lean on 'unusual' explanations to understand the behavior, such as a mental illness or a fetish, which leads to prejudice," Roberts explained.
The Underpinnings of Today's 'Litter Box' Rumors
As we noted above, conflating furries and gender diverse/transgender people is a "slippery slope" logical fallacy. It's also a scare tactic that often targets parents, with a message that says, "if schools allow students to identify as transgender or gender diverse, they will soon also allow students to identify as animals."
Bronski said the school litter box narrative fits into the broader trend in recent years of misinformation playing on fears about children in peril.
"It's completely an attack on transgender people and their rights," Bronski said. "But, I think, you have to view it in the larger context of the attacks on drag shows, child-friendly drag shows or drag queen story hours. There's this notion of children being pushed to the forefront of all these issues, of children needing to be saved."
"Pedophile ring" conspiracy theories like Pizzagate and Qanon have been prominent propaganda — and fairly constant online fixtures — since the 2016 U.S. presidential election, with high-profile politicians using them to build public support. That continued with the 2022 midterms; some Republicans built campaigns, at least in part, on stories about queer people allegedly "grooming" or "recruiting" children with nefarious intent.
"One root [of the litter box rumor] is in the myth that LGBTQ people recruit children and corrupt them," Bronski said. "But it also seems to me that clearly the implication is that these kids aren't imagining themselves to be cats [on their own]; they're being trained or enabled by their teachers, or parents even, to take on this identity. So it seems to be an attack on 'woke' education. And probably an attack on gay people being parents."
The source of the hysteria over school litter boxes could also be interpreted from a theological perspective — namely, the hateful notion that LGBTQ+ people are evil, Bronski said.
"It is so completely idiotic to think [the rumor of cat-identifying students is] being discussed in the news, but, yet, it is, and people are claiming this is completely true," he said. "To me, it only makes sense that the visceral emotional core of this belief is that LGBTQ people are turning children, in some bizarre Greek-myth sort of way, into beings that are not human, or inhuman or unhuman. The literal fear here is children are being turned into the abject, which I would argue, in Christian theology means they can't be saved."