In the middle of last school year, Lila Perry came out as transgender. Before that, she had been living as a gay male.
But that’s not who she really was. No longer was she going to pretend, Lila said.
So this year, she told teachers and administrators at Hillsboro High School, where she is a senior, that she would no longer be content to use a unisex faculty bathroom. She wanted to be treated like other female students, including access to bathrooms and locker rooms for girls.
Her decision spread quickly through the small Jefferson County school district and, on Monday morning, students at Hillsboro High School walked out in protest. During the walkout, Lila was locked in the principal’s office. She said she and administrators worried about her safety.
The student walkout came on the heels of a School Board meeting Thursday that drew a large crowd — parents concerned that Lila is getting special rights at the expense of other students. Most of the students at Monday’s protest were opposed to accommodations for her. A smaller group gathered in support.
“The girls have rights, and they shouldn’t have to share a bathroom with a boy,” said Tammy Sorden, who has a son at Hillsboro High. It is fine to be different, she said, but it is not right to give Lila special treatment “while the girls just have to suck it up.”
Students and parents interviewed after the walkout were overwhelmingly in support of keeping Lila, 17, out of the school facilities for girls.
But the school’s gay-straight alliance and other supporters held a counterprotest to show that not everyone is in agreement. Some students on both sides left after school administrators broke up the protest. Supporters of Lila said they did not feel comfortable going back into the school.
Opponents said leaving school was a continuation of showing their position.
Lila said she has dropped out of her physical education class because there is little supervision and that makes her uncomfortable. And she rarely uses the bathroom now while at school. Still, Lila said, she should be able to use the facilities girls use.
“I wasn’t hurting anyone. I didn’t want to be in something gender-neutral,” she said, referring to the faculty bathroom administrators encouraged her to use. “I am a girl. I am not going to be pushed away to another bathroom.”
High school administrators referred a reporter to Superintendent Aaron D. Cornman. He would not comment about the issue, which has become the talk of the community since classes began in mid-August. He said he had to protect the privacy of students.
He did, however, hand a reporter a written statement. It said, in part, that the district “respects the rights of all students and appreciates the fact that the students we are educating are willing to stand on their belief system and to support their cause/beliefs through their expression of free speech.”
Students were allowed to protest through second- and third-hour classes and then were asked to return to class.
Cornman’s statement also says that the district accepts all students “no matter race, nationality/ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. We will promote tolerance and acceptance of all students that attend our district while not tolerating bullying/harassing behaviors of any type in any form.”
Lila said the school administration has been very supportive and is working to make her feel welcome. They have allowed her to use the facilities used by girls and women.
Districts that refuse to allow students to use a bathroom for the gender with which they identify could run afoul of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, said Kelli Hopkins of the Missouri School Boards’ Association.
“The Office of Civil Rights has issued an opinion that says, if you do this, you have engaged in gender discrimination,” Hopkins said. “At the same time, there is no case law or statute in Missouri that says this is against the law.”
Schools found to have violated a student’s civil rights are at risk of losing some of their federal funding, Hopkins said.
‘OUT IN PUBLIC’
Several people interviewed outside Hillsboro High on Monday argued that a student who still has male genitalia should not be allowed into a changing room with teenage girls.
“I’m not comfortable with it,” said Britney Heimos, a 2008 Hillsboro graduate who was at the school to pick up her brother. “There is nothing wrong with being different. But when you are different, there are sacrifices.”
Shortly after the protest, Jeff Childs, 47, and his son, Blayke, 21, both of Farmington, drove onto the high school parking lot with “Girls Rights Matter” painted on the sides and tailgate of the Ford pickup. When they were told by police to leave, they went to a Dollar General store, bought poster boards and markers and made signs that they held at the busy entrance to the high school.
“This needs to stop before it goes too far,” said Childs, who has a niece and a nephew who go to an elementary school in Hillsboro. “I’m not trying to be ignorant, but (the transgender student) is bringing it out in public for everybody else to deal with.”
Skyla Thompson, 16, refers to Lila as her best friend. She said Lila often stays at Skyla’s house overnight while Lila’s family tries to come to grips with their child identifying as transgender.
“She is such a good person. They are just judging her on the outside,” Skyla said of those who have been critical of Lila.
Lila wears a long brown wig, with bobby pins keeping the hair from her eyes. On Monday, her outfit included a short blue skirt and wedges.
“She is choosing her life to better herself, to better accept herself,” said friend Gianna Warfel, 16. “I don’t know what there is to discriminate about that. I really support the bravery she has.”
Hopkins, of the Missouri School Boards’ Association, said she is having to explain to school boards with more frequency how the federal government views treatment of transgender students.
“I got no calls on this five years ago,” she said. “I’ve gotten at least half a dozen recently.”
Koran Addo of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.