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JEFFERSON CITY • If there was a crescendo in the long line of transgender people and their supporters speaking against the nation's latest "bathroom bill" Tuesday, it probably came when Samantha DeMichieli of St. Louis stopped talking and started crying.

With her black hair tied back in a ponytail, Samantha, 13, offered the Senate education committee her credentials as a "normal girl": a role on her school's cheer team, a love of drawing, a fondness for the family cats. 

Then she revealed that she lived her first six years as Samuel before deciding to identify as female. At the school she goes to now, it's not a problem, she said. Her friends and teachers accept her and don't make a big deal about where she goes to the bathroom. 

A few years ago, things were different. 

"At my old school, I was bullied for just being who I was," she said before the tears began. 

Samantha's fear of exposure and humiliation at school for being transgender was at the heart of the opposition to a proposal Lamar Republican Sen. Ed Emery says is essential to keeping all students safe in public school restrooms and locker rooms.

Under his bill, public school students would be required to use the bathrooms or locker rooms corresponding to their "biological sex," of either male or female, "identified at birth by a person's anatomy" and recorded on their birth certificate.

That means transgender students who haven’t had surgery or legally changed their birth certificates would have to go to the restroom matching their sex at birth. 

The bill's introduction comes at a pivotal time for transgender rights in the country as the Trump administration prepares to roll back controversial protections for public school students issued under former president Barack Obama.

The hearing also comes a month before the Supreme Court hears arguments in the case of a transgender Virginia teen who sued his school district after it barred him from the boys' bathroom.

Emery said his legislation came in response to what he saw as the "creation" of new gender identities by those courts and the federal government. 

"We now have genders that no longer align with physiology and science and biology; they're subjective," he said. "But Senate Bill 98 says that we still have the same responsibility to every student — whether they're the 1 percent or the 99 percent — to continue the separation of genders in stages of undress."

He added that the bill accommodated students with transgender "mindsets" by requiring access to alternatives like single-stall, unisex or faculty restrooms. 

LGBT advocates were having none of it.

Steph Perkins, executive director of the LGBT rights group PROMO, said barring transgender students from choosing a bathroom matching their identity isolates them and can easily lead to them being outed against their will. 

"Requiring transgender students to use a bathroom that doesn’t match their gender identity is discriminatory, period," she said.

Several parents of transgender children who spoke at the hearing agreed. They also worried that new rules could needlessly force their kids into restrooms and locker rooms where they would be teased or harassed. 

Debi Jackson of Kansas City said her 9-year-old daughter Avery used to be terrified to use any public restroom when she was first transitioning as a transgender girl.

"Her fear of being yelled at or hurt just for using the bathroom was almost crippling," she said. "That's how a lot of trans people feel, especially in school. Rather than focusing on learning, they have to monitor how much they eat or drink before and during school hours." 

Studies would appear to show Jackson isn't making that up.

A 2015 survey by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network found that 57 percent of transgender students in Missouri were unable to use the bathroom matching their gender identity. 

And Avery, who became the first transgender person on the cover of National Geographic in December, isn't likely imagining threats, either.

More than 75 percent of transgender adults in a 2011 survey by National Center for Transgender Equality said they were verbally harassed in grade school, and 12 percent said they were sexually assaulted.

That can lead to dire consequences for transgender kids, who hurt themselves and commit suicide at higher levels than even other LGBT people. In 2013, researchers at Columbia University found LGBT kids attending school districts with less inclusive policies were more than twice as likely to attempt suicide than their counterparts in districts that accommodated their wishes. 

Republicans remained wary.

Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester thought the state should avoid pushing children to embrace a transgender identity, especially at such a young age.

"Kids say a lot funny things, you know, 'When I grow up I want to be a dog,'" Koenig said. "But that doesn't mean I turn around and try to cultivate that and say 'Yes, you can be a dog.' 

"We tell these kids they can't drive, they can't drink alcohol, they can't smoke because they're not old enough to make those decisions. At the age of 5, is it appropriate to cultivate something that they genetically are not?"

Most parents scoffed at that point.

"No one does this for fun," said a Webster Groves parent who asked that her name be excluded to protect her transgender son. "My son is not confused, he is not delusional, he is not mentally ill and he is not a sexual predator."

At his closing remarks, Emery remained resolute. 

"No one here is arguing against anyone's right to think what they want to think," he said. "This is about safety and it's about privacy."

But Samantha had already spoken for many in the room after she regained her composure.

"Knowing that there might be a change in the law saying that I would have to use a different restroom is horrifying for me," she said. "I'm not in the bathroom to do anything bad, to vandalize or peep in the stalls ... I'm there to pee and wash my hands." 

Most St. Louis-area school districts handle transgender issues quietly on a case-by-case basis.

One notable exception is the Hillsboro School District, which in 2015 saw students walk out of Hillsboro High School in protest of a transgender student using the girl's restroom.

The district eventually codified a policy saying "anyone who desires greater privacy" could request alternative accommodations so long as the restroom or dressing area doesn't include that of the opposite sex.

Emery's measure has already garnered the controversial "bathroom bill" label, shorthand for similar bills targeting transgender people and defining "biological sex" filed in 14 states this year. But his legislation is somewhat more narrow than more high-profile efforts like those in North Carolina and Texas.

North Carolina last year successfully reversed reversed a Charlotte ordinance allowing transgender people to use any public restroom based on their gender identity and made it illegal for cities to expand on state human rights law. 

A bill making its way through the Texas Senate this year adds enforcement mechanisms. The current proposal increases penalties for crimes committed in a bathroom and allows the state's attorney general to fine cities, school districts and state agencies up to $10,500 per day if their bathroom policy stepped out of line.  

But Emery's bill could easily garner national attention if Democrats launched a filibuster similar to their record effort in protest of a "religious freedom" bill last year.

All three Democrats, including St. Louis-area Democratic senators Maria Chappelle-Nadal and Jill Schupp, are against the bill. No vote was taken at the hearing.  

The legislation is Senate Bill 98.

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Austin Huguelet 573-556-6184

@ahuguelet on Twitter

ahuguelet@post-dispatch.com