Last Monday, Nebraska Senator Bruce Bostelman stood on the legislative floor – just a few blocks away from the school I teach at – and voiced his concern about “furries” in schools. He described students who dress as dogs and cats, communicate with their teachers in barks and meows, and demand to use litter boxes instead of restrooms. After describing an instance in which a student reportedly defecated on the floor in retaliation for their lack of litter box accommodations, he earnestly asked, “How is that sanitary?”
In eight years as a teacher, I have not had any furries bark answers in class or abandon their toilet training. But I have taught a large and growing number of transgender students who consistently express that they do not have an adequate place to use the restroom at school. It is clear that they are the real target of Bostelman’s complaint. The same slippery slope fallacy that claimed gay marriage would lead to bestiality is on display here, equating trans kids to housepets and offering a version of reality in which schools retain custodial staff even while requiring them to scoop human feces out of a litter box.
While Bostelman may have publicly humiliated himself and the state of Nebraska, he is not the first to make headlines with this fake news about schools. In January, a Michigan superintendent publicly debunked false claims of students using litter boxes in his school district. In February, the same had to be done in Iowa. Next month, the same story will likely show up in another state. Almost certainly, the hoax will be fueled on social media by their own version of Protect Nebraska Children (PNC), a “grassroots” hate group that has been grown with national funding.
Whether Senator Bostelman is aware of these headlines or is a member of PNC is not clear, but his proximity to anti-LGBTQ activists is. One of Bostelman’s staffers is Edward Newland, husband of Marilyn Newland (formerly Synek), who is the communications director of the Nebraska Family Alliance (NFA), an extremist anti-LGBTQ hate group. The NFA’s political involvement is neither new nor specific to Bostelman. You may remember this hate group from their recent attempts to overturn the Fairness Ordinance, or from our interview with Eve Downing, the estranged trans daughter of NFA president, Jeff Downing. The Nebraska Family Alliance has a long history of protesting anything that resembles LGBTQ-acceptance in schools, while also working within local politics to generally make life harder for queer people, women, and domestic violence victims. Most recently, they have advocated against Nebraska’s proposed revisions to sex education curriculum, even though districts are not required to adopt these standards and parents still retain the right to opt their children out of health classes.
These groups are threats to the children in our community. And there are plenty more just like them. Save Nebraska Children is an Omaha-based group with similar aims. Their website is geared toward changing the Human Growth & Development courses in Omaha Public Schools to meet their “biblical values.” Another group, Nebraskans for Founders Values, lists “Parental Rights,” “Return God to our Public Schools,” and “Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity” as three of its seven top “issues.” Most of these organizations – and others – are listed as partners on the website of Nebraskans Against Government Overreach, a group that strives to both abolish government and control most people’s basic freedoms. Adults all over our state are organizing against kids.
So, tempting as it might be to laugh at Bostelman, there is too much at stake. Nebraska just lost Milo Winslow, a young trans activist, due to the growing hostility towards LGBTQ people here. I want my students to feel safe at school* and in the larger Lincoln community without having to fight for their basic human rights and dignity like Milo did. During Pride Club meetings, students discuss why schools should have single-person or gender-nonconforming restrooms to accommodate all sorts of people, including trans students. But mostly they talk and laugh with each other and are enthusiastically making decorations for Pride Prom. They are high schoolers – just kids. But the people who claim to protect children try to deny their existence and create legislation that blocks others from recognizing these kids and their human dignity. These groups have real influence over our politics, and are putting members into public office themselves.
Even when blatant anti-trans sentiments aren’t on display in the Capitol, it is clear that legislators do not care about protecting any kids in Nebraska. Just two days after Bostelman embarrassed himself, he and most of our other senators voted for LB 873, a bill which cut tax rates for only the state’s wealthiest. This bill had been voted down twice already, but “saving kids” was again used for harmful purposes: an amendment was added that would protect K-12 public schools from losing $200 million of their $548 million in tax credits by 2024. This forced senators to vote with LB 873 in order to keep schools open for another two years, but will ultimately cost Nebraska $900 million in tax revenue, with schools anticipated to take a big hit. The long-term impact on public schools does not matter in the legislature, which is especially evident in the increasing number of bills for vouchers or other school privatization efforts. Public schools deserve critique and need to do more for trans students, but – unlike private or charter schools – we have to serve all students. There is no picking, choosing, or lottery system to decide who attends a public school, while attempts to increase privatization are coming from those who would prefer to limit children’s ability to learn about LGBTQ identities, let alone claim one.
Senator Bostelman’s comment about “furries” as our biggest school issue – in a time of massive budget cuts and staffing shortages, student trauma, and the probable end of free school meals for all – was more than just insensitive. It was a glimpse at the larger problem of extremist hate groups influencing local government and presenting dangerous views as “centrist,” rather than as directly harming youth and, therefore, our collective future.
*Safety for anyone in school is relative to gun laws in the United States. The only documented use of a “litter box” in school that I could find was a district in Colorado, providing “go buckets” for students in the event of an active shooter or other lockdown situation. Senator Bostelman is endorsed by the NRA.