Popular podcaster Joe Rogan, a self-described liberal who frequently criticizes left-wing social movements, has walked back a claim he made last month that one school offered a litter box as a bathroom for students who identify as “furries.”
Rogan had previously told former U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a former Democrat representing Hawaii, during an Oct. 11 episode of The Joe Rogan Experience that a friend’s wife works at a school that installed a litter box for a girl “who identifies as an animal.”
The claim echoes a popular right-wing trope that was trotted out this election cycle mocking the idea of how children discover their own identity. That trope is often used as an example of the alleged excesses of Western culture, and to promote opposition to the idea of transgender students using restrooms aligned with their gender identity.
Speaking during the Oct. 26 episode of his podcast, Rogan did not apologize for spreading the rumor, but acknowledged he fed into the story around litter boxes in school bathrooms, saying, “I should probably clarify that a bit.”
Rogan explained that he heard one mother wanted to put a litter box in a school. After looking into the matter, he conceded he didn’t think the school actually install any litter box.
“It doesn’t seem like there’s any proof,” he said.
An NBC News investigation published in October found at least 20 elected officials or candidates for office had platformed the litter box rumors.
Almost every school named in connection to litter boxes told NBC the rumors were untrue. The only exception was Jefferson County, the county home to Columbine High School, the site of one of the nation’s most infamous mass school shootings back in 1999. In that county, teachers were advised to keep small quantities of litter on hand as part of “go buckets” containing emergency supplies in case students are locked in a classroom for several hours or even days during a school shooting, The “go buckets” also contain candy for diabetic students, a map of the school’s interior, flashlights, wet wipes, and first aid kits.
While the Jefferson County policy is more demonstrative of the threat of, and slow response of law enforcement to, mass shootings at schools, rather than anything having to do with students’ identity or gender expression, it hasn’t stopped right-wing or anti-trans politicians from embellishing facts to serve a political agenda.
The rapidity with which the rumor of “litter boxes in classrooms” has spread online, and the breadth of its spread, also demonstrate the power of social media to shape political discourse — not to mention, the gullible nature of Americans who believe the memes, videos, or poorly sourced stories they read online.
Joan Donovan, the research director at Harvard Kennedy’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, told The Guardian that politicians often use the litter box story to signal their transphobia.
“What was once a transphobic joke about ‘What’s next, kids identifying as cats?’ became a soft target for hoaxers who knew audiences were already primed to believe outrageous things,” Donovan said.
Rogan, who is a skeptic of gender identity, has repeatedly platformed anti-LGBTQ — particularly anti-transgender — stories or tropes. He has misgendered collegiate athlete Lia Thomas and U.S. Assistant Secretary for Health Rachel Levine, vocally opposed the idea of transgender women participating in women’s sports, spoken in support of Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” education law and discussed whether trans people cause the collapse of civilization, according to the LGBTQ media advocacy group GLAAD.
Although Rogan retracted his argument about cat litter in schools, other prominent right-wing figures have spun similar stories to pander to conservative voters, especially this cycle. That group includes Colorado U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, who claimed, without evidence, that local schools in her district had obtained litter boxes for students identifying as cats. Boebert currently holds a narrow lead in her race for re-election against Democratic candidate Adam Frisch.
Other candidates repeating similar tropes include Colorado GOP gubernatorial nominee Heidi Ganahl, Minnesota GOP gubernatorial nominee Scott Jensen, Colorado Republican State House candidate Scott Bottoms, and Texas State House candidate Michelle Evans. Bottoms and Evans were re-elected last week, while Ganahl and Jensen lost their respective races for statewide office.
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