Caitlyn Jenner and other transgender celebrities like Laverne Cox, Candis Cayne, and Chaz Bono have received a large show of public support. But Lila Perry’s situation is not uncommon for transgender people who aren’t in the spotlight. (Photo: AP/Robert Cohen)
A transgender teen in Missouri is at the center of a heated debate about her right to change in her high school’s girls’ locker room.
Nearly 200 students walked out of Hillsboro High School on Monday in a protest that lasted two hours.
Lila Perry, the 17-year-old at the center of the debate, reportedly identified as a gay male until she was 13 and publicly came out as transgender in February. She previously used a gender-neutral faculty bathroom but began changing in the girls’ locker room this school year before her physical education class.
Protesters were divided: One side supported Perry’s right to change in the girls’ locker room; the other wants her to continue to use the gender-neutral bathroom.
“It wasn’t too long ago white people were saying, ‘I don’t feel comfortable sharing a bathroom with a black person,’ and history repeats itself,” Perry told Fox News.
Lila Perry stands outside her school with a group of friends. (Photo: AP/Robert Cohen)
She also assured parents that she is not going to “hurt” their daughters. “I’m not going to expose myself. I’m not a pervert,” she says. “I’m a transgender woman. I’m a girl. I’m just in there to change, do my business, and if they have any questions about being transgender, they are more than welcome to talk to me, and I’ll be happy to explain it.”
Perry says she began using the girls’ locker room because she didn’t want to feel segregated.
But some female students say they’re uncomfortable because, while Perry wears dresses and a wig, she still has male genitalia.
“I find it offensive because Lila has not [gone] through any procedure to become female,” student Sophie Beel told Fox. “Putting on a dress and putting on a wig is not transgender to me.”
Some parents also argue that many are left feeling uncomfortable to accommodate one person. “The girls have rights, and they shouldn’t have to share a bathroom with a boy,” Tammy Sorden, who has a son at the high school, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She added that it’s not right to give Perry special treatment “while the girls just have to suck it up.”
The debate comes as a time when Caitlyn Jenner and other transgender celebrities like Laverne Cox, Candis Cayne, and Chaz Bono have received a large show of public support. But Alison Gill, senior legislative counsel at the Human Rights Campaign, tells Yahoo Health that Perry’s situation is not uncommon for transgender people who aren’t in the spotlight.
“Awareness has certainly increased, but … transgender people and young transgender people continue to face discrimination and harassment,” she says. “They’re pushed out of schools and are subject to bullying.”
Transgender students have legal rights in this type of situation, specifically under federal Title IX law, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. “The Department of Education has made it clear that discrimination against gender identity or expression is covered by Title IX,” Gill says.
However, there has been pushback, which has led to court cases on the subject. A court ruled in 2013 that a transgender student in California be allowed to use the appropriate bathroom in school after he was previously denied access. And a transgender teen in Maine was also awarded $75,000 after suing her school for the right to use the girls’ bathroom.
While there is no law or statute in Missouri that specifically says it’s illegal to refuse a transgender person the right to use the bathroom designed for the gender with which that person identifies, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights issued guidelines last year that suggest refusing a student’s right to use the bathroom of the sex with which the student identifies qualifies as gender discrimination.
Harper Jean Tobin, director of policy for the National Center for Transgender Equality, tells Yahoo Health that telling transgender teens they have to use a staff bathroom is also a form of gender discrimination.
“That clearly is a form of segregating and isolating a student,” she says. “There’s no good reason to do that.” While the move is often well-intentioned by school officials, Tobin says it can stigmatize a transgender student and lead to bullying.
But what about the argument made by parents that their daughters feel uncomfortable changing alongside a student who has male genitalia?
Gill points out that, in general, young people don’t have access to a procedure like top or bottom surgery until they’re 18 (and even then, it can be very expensive). She also adds that it’s “not appropriate” to limit a person’s access to a restroom based on surgery that they can’t get or may not even want.
There is not a set timeframe in which a transgender person can begin using the bathroom designated for the gender with which that person identifies, says Gill, but typically that happens when a person identifies full time as that gender, which Perry does.
Gill acknowledges that this can be a tricky situation for schools, which is why she says it’s so important for school districts to have a plan in place. Several organizations, including the Human Rights Campaign, American Civil Liberties Union, and Gender Spectrum, have issued a model guide for schools to follow.
Included in that guide: the recommendation that alternative accommodations be made available for all students — not just those who are transgender. “If any student feels uncomfortable using a sex-segregated space, then they should be given another option,” Gill says.
Transgender students who experience gender discrimination at school have options, though. Gill recommends looking at the school board’s antibullying or antiharassment policies, and then filing a complaint with the school board if the situation applies. There may also be a state agency with which a student can file a complain, she says, and, at the federal level, a complaint can be filed within six months of the issue with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights or the Department of Justice. (Those complaints don’t require a lawyer’s help, Gill says.)
Despite the protests, Perry is adamant that she has the right to use the girls’ locker room, telling Fox, “I am a girl. I shouldn’t be pushed off to another bathroom.”
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