How the litter-box-in-school hoax went viral in a Quebec town
It's a hoax to discredit trans youth, said LGBTQ+ advocate
Our students are not being led on leashes, our schools do not have litter boxes and spreading information to the contrary may land you in legal jeopardy, a Quebec school declared this week.
The Lac-Abitibi school service centre in Quebec's Abitibi-Témiscamingue region issued the statement to the public on Wednesday.
Angry and concerned parents had flooded the staff of Polyno High School in La Sarre, Que., with questions and complaints after rumours started to spread about students identifying — and dressing up — as cats.
The school decided to set the record straight when at least one student — who takes part in the furry community, a subculture of people interested in and sometimes dressing up as animals with human-like qualities — started getting bullied.
But this was not the first time a school has had to dispel a hoax about litter boxes for supposed cat-identifying students — in Quebec or even in Canada — a falsehood that advocates in the LGBTQ+ community believe is being perpetuated to marginalize trans youth.
The situation is "absurd," Isabelle Godbout, who heads the Lac-Abitibi school service centre, told Radio-Canada's Des matins en or Thursday morning.
"In the Abitibi, we've been hearing more and more about this rumour, that it's been happening in our schools … to that point where it became a very persistent urban legend," said Godbout.
The rumours made the rounds on a local radio station as part of a game of true or false.
How did the hoax spread?
Pinpointing an exact point of origin for the rumour may be hard, but Nicholas De Rosa, a journalist at Radio-Canada who covers disinformation on the program Décrypteurs, said it appears to have spread by "old-fashioned word of mouth" rather than social media.
But this is not the first time a radio station has played a hand in propagating this hoax. In Gatineau, De Rosa traced the same rumour circulating there about Gatineau high school students identifying as cats using litter boxes to a local private radio station in the Outaouais region.
The rumours in Abitibi began to circulate in April, after the Outaouais radio station broadcast its story, according to De Rosa.
In October 2022, school boards in both Renfrew and Durham, Ont., made public announcements to debunk similar litter box rumours.
Please find attached a joint statement from the RCCDSB & <a href="https://twitter.com/RCDSB?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@RCDSB</a> clarifying the misinformation circulating about litter boxes in our schools. <a href="https://t.co/K8IFiHwArD">pic.twitter.com/K8IFiHwArD</a>—@RCCDSB
That same month in Caledon, Ont., Paula Dametto-Giovannozzi, who echoed the litter box hoax, ran for trusteeship in Ontario school board elections and won.
But the first instance to gain attention in Canada may have taken place in October 2021, when after months of fielding calls, PEI's Public Schools Branch made their own announcement debunking the hoax.
South of the border, in the United States, the hoax has been echoed by Republican lawmakers. In October 2022, NBC reporter Tyler Kingkade told CBC's Day 6 that over 20 elected or official candidate lawmakers had alleged schools were providing litter boxes for students.
Weaponization of rumour
Beyond bullying, organizations who work with Quebec's LGBT+ community fear that there is a more dangerous motive behind the rumours.
Julie Fortier is the director of the Coalition d'aide à la diversité sexuelle. As part of her work, she travels from school to school in the Abitibi region, talking to kids about sexual and gender diversity.
Fortier has never seen a case of someone identifying as a cat, but she did hear the rumours about Polyno High School a few months ago.
"It's starting to get very concerning," she said.
Such rumours sow confusion, wrongly conflating gender identity with the identity of non-human species and causing an already marginalized population to further isolate themselves, said Fortier.
Mona Greenbaum, the executive director of the LGBT+ Family Coalition, said it's possible there may be some isolated cases of kids imitating cats in the way the rumours describe, but nothing that would amount to a real phenomenon.
She believes the hoax stems from an anti-trans movement in the United States that has made its way north.
"I'm pretty much convinced [the rumours] are created by adults, not by kids, and they're really created to discredit trans youth and to make the whole thing seem like this absolutely crazy idea," said Greenbaum.
"It's very similar to what we saw back in the day when we were fighting for marriage. So people were saying, 'Well, if we let two same gender men or two women marry, what's next? Are we gonna start marrying our horse and our dog and our pet cat?'"
The advocates for LGBTQ+ rights aren't letting up.
"This situation makes me think we have to continue our work to demystify sexual orientation and gender identity," said Fortier. "We see here that it still hasn't been understood."
with files from Radio-Canada's Nicholas De Rosa