LGBTQ kids assembled at Michigan Pride, June 15, 2019 | Susan J. Demas
After a rumor that students who “identify as cats” were using litter boxes was sparked at a Midland Public Schools school board meeting in December, LGBTQ+ advocates across the state are concerned about how this will affect transgender youth.
At a Dec. 20 meeting, Midland resident Lisa Kawiecki Hansen said she heard from students that the school provided litter boxes for students who role-play as “furries.” A “furry” is a person who dresses up in a costume resembling anthropomorphic animals.
Midland Public Schools Superintendent Michael Sharrow said that the claim is demonstrably false. But the rumor still made its way into the national spotlight and garnered the attention of right-wing activists and officials like Michigan GOP Co-Chair Meshawn Maddock, who posted a YouTube video Facebook last month with the comment: “Kids who identify as “furries” get a litter box in the school bathroom. Parent heroes will TAKE BACK our schools.”
Scott Ellis, executive director of Great Lakes Bay Pride, which services the Midland LGBTQ community, said the false claim is harmful.
“We’ve gotten to a place where in order to put down those who are either exploring their gender identity or identify maybe differently than their sex assigned at birth, we start equating these things — like in this particular case, ‘furries’ being a role-play versus somebody’s identity. Those are not the same thing,” said Ellis.
These false rumors are popping up at schools in other parts of the country, more recently at a school district in Iowa.
“The comments that have been made and are circulating, not only in Michigan public schools, but schools across the country, are disgusting,” said Erin Knott, executive director of Equality Michigan, an LGBTQ+ advocacy group. “They are delusional transphobic antics that are doing nothing more than firing up the religious right space and harming our LGBTQ+ kids.”
This is not the first time transgender youth have been targeted by right-wing groups.
In March 2021, State Sen. Lana Theis (R-Brighton) introduced legislation Senate Bill 218, that aims to mandate that high schools ban transgender boys from boys’ sports teams and transgender girls from girls’ teams. Similar bills have been introduced in more than 20 states. SB 218 was referred to the Education and Career Readiness Committee, which held a hearing last year, but hasn’t moved the bill .
Anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, and anti-transgender legislation in particular, isn’t new to Michigan. In 2016, former state Sen. Tom Casperson (R–Escanaba) introduced Senate Bill 993, which attempted to require transgender people to use the bathroom that corresponds with the sex listed on their birth certificate. That bill was referred to and languished in the Government Operations Committee, but has had lasting effects on the LGBTQ+ community in the state.
The far-right has had more successful attempts at implementing anti-transgender legislation across the country. Most recently, Republicans in Florida introduced legislation, referred to by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, that would ban public schools from “encouraging” classroom discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity. President Joe Biden condemned the bill, which has advanced through a Senate committee, earlier this month.
Ellis said the rumor started at Midland Public Schools is “clearly pointing to the restroom issue of access to restrooms based on gender identity.”
“It’s important for people of all ages to become more educated and get to know people in the community who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community, because this all can be so detrimental to kids. And we know that there are increased rates of self harm, depression and anxiety [among LGBTQ youth],” Ellis said.
The concern for LGBTQ advocates is that anti-transgender legislation and conspiracies, like the one in Midland, could have a dangerous and harmful impact on LGBTQ youth, Knott said.
“The fact of the matter is it’s nothing more than politics. It’s about firing up the religious rights,” Knott said. “It’s about mobilizing that voting base during an election year that’s going to be competitive. And it creates daily consequences for our most vulnerable community members — our LGBTQ+ youth. It’s just frankly, catastrophic.”
A 2021 study by the Trevor Project, the largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ+ young people, found that politics have severely impacted the mental health of LGBTQ youth last year and suicide rates are rising.
According to the study, 94% of respondents, ages 13 to 24, said recent politics negatively impacted their mental health and 42% of LGBTQ+ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth.
In 2021, the Trevor Project responded to over 6,200 crisis contacts in Michigan, which is estimated to be 11% less than the number of Michigan’s LGBTQ youth who the Trevor Project estimate seriously consider suicide each year.
“Imagine being a LGBTQ youth and you’re discovering your identity, you’re in a household or a community that’s not affirming and loving, and then you’re going to the one other safe space, which is your public school, and this harmful, delusional rhetoric is just meeting you each and every day. It’s just a recipe for disaster,” Knott said.
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