When Caitlyn Jenner took to television in April to announce she was transgender, messages of support poured in from across the country. She was featured on the cover of Vanity Fair and received an ESPY award for courage.
But even as Jenner starred in a reality TV docu-series about her transition, a deeper question remained.
If Jenner weren’t already a rich celebrity, would she have received the same support? How would other, less famous transgender Americans be treated?
On Monday morning, a small town in Missouri provided an answer.
For two hours, approximately 150 students stood in front of Hillsboro High School to protest a transgender teen’s use of the girls’ facilities.
And for those same two hours, the 17-year-old transgender teen huddled inside her counselor’s office — with the door locked.
“I was concerned about my own safety,” Lila Perry told the New York Times.
It’s not just her fellow students that are upset over Perry’s use of the girls’ bathroom and locker room. The issue has roiled this town, thrusting a quaint community of about 3,000 into the national spotlight. Last week, a school board meeting had to be moved after too many people attended to discuss Perry. And on Monday afternoon, the protesting students — who comprised about 13 percent of the school — were joined by angry adults.
“This needs to stop before it goes too far,” Jeff Childs, who has a niece and a nephew in the Hillsboro School System, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He and his 21-year-old son showed up to the school with “Girls Rights Matter” painted on the sides and back of his pickup truck.
“I’m not trying to be ignorant, but [the transgender student] is bringing it out in public for everybody else to deal with,” Childs said.
The controversy suggests that in some American communities, the debate over transgender rights lags behind the messages contained in glossy magazine spreads.
Here, in the heartland, life as a transgender American remains hard, to say the least.
For Perry, her personal struggle began as soon as she could call herself a teenager. At age 13, Perry began to feel “more like a girl than a boy,” she told the Times.
By the middle of last year, her junior year at Hillsboro High, Perry was ready to come out as transgender. She was tired of pretending to be someone she wasn’t, she told the Post-Dispatch. She began wearing a wig, dresses and women’s makeup, although she has not had gender reassignment surgery.
When school began on Aug. 13, Perry told school administrators that she wanted to use the girls’ bathroom and locker room, instead of the unisex bathroom she had used as a junior.
The school consented, in accordance with guidelines from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights that say students should be allowed to use facilities in accordance with their gender identification.
So far this year, Perry has been using the girls’ bathroom and locker room, according to local TV station KTVI.
That simple act set off a firestorm of controversy.
Nearly 200 people showed up to an Aug. 27 school board meeting, forcing it to be moved to a bigger venue. Although Perry’s gender wasn’t on the agenda, many parents used the meeting to complain about the school’s decision.
“The way I was raised, I have no problem with a transgender, but he shouldn’t be in the women’s locker room until he has the surgery,” said parent Greg Wilson, according to local news Web site the Leader.
“The girls have rights, and they shouldn’t have to share a bathroom with a boy,” Tammy Sorden, who has a son at Hillsboro High, told the Post-Dispatch. Lila should not get special treatment, Sorden said, “while the girls just have to suck it up.”
Derrick Good, a local lawyer with two daughters in the school district, has led the opposition to Perry’s use of girls’ facilities. He got involved after hearing that a female student had encountered “an intact male” in the girls’ locker room, he told the Times.
“As a parent, it’s my right to educate my child, to make decisions on when it’s appropriate for my child to understand things about the opposite sex,” he told KTVI at the Aug. 27 school board meeting. “It’s not the school’s option to insert that at that age.”
But Perry said she was tired of being “segregated” because of being transgender.
“With using the staff bathroom, I felt like I was being segregated off, like: ‘Here are the boys, here are the girls, this is me,'” she told the TV station. “And I wanted to help blend in with all the other girls.”
“I wasn’t hurting anyone,” she told the Post-Dispatch. “I am a girl. I am not going to be pushed away to another bathroom.”
That issue came to a boil on Monday morning, when students walked out of class in protest and Lila locked herself inside her counselor’s office in fear.
Students and parents polled after the walkout were “overwhelmingly in support of keeping Lila… out of the school facilities for girls,” the Post-Dispatch reported.
A small group of Perry’s friends came out to support her, however.
“She is such a good person. They are just judging her on the outside,” Perry’s best friend, Skyla Thompson, told the Post-Dispatch.
“She is choosing her life to better herself, to better accept herself,” echoed another friend, Gianna Warfel. “I don’t know what there is to discriminate about that. I really support the bravery she has.”
Since the controversy started, Perry has dropped out of her physical education class to avoid using the locker room altogether, she told the newspaper. She now also tries to avoid using the bathroom at her high school: a difficult task for a teenage girl.
For many in this Missouri town, that’s the way it should be.
“There is nothing wrong with being different,” Britney Heimos, a Hillsboro graduate who was stopping by the school to pick up her younger brother, told the Post-Dispatch. “But when you are different, there are sacrifices.”
But how long should those sacrifices last? And how deeply should they disrupt the life of a teen who isn’t lucky enough to live elsewhere, or to be celebrity?
“I’m hoping this dies down,” Perry told the Times. “I don’t want my entire senior year to be like this.”
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