R.J. Appleberry never saw himself as very different from other kids at school, even if that’s how he was treated as a transgender student in Blue Springs.
The now 22-year-old grew up surrounded by family, friends and a church community that supported him and provided resources that many transgender and non-binary youth lack.
The school district, however, made him use a separate bathroom, marked for neither boys nor girls. School officials also denied him access to the boys locker room.
In 2015, His family filed a sexual discrimination lawsuit against the Blue Springs School District. On Dec. 13, 2021, a jury sided with Appleberry and decided that the district owed the family more than $4 million in damages.
Over the years, Appleberry has seen nearly every facet of his childhood laid out for legal teams to poke and prod. But now, as a recent graduate from the University of Central Missouri, he hopes to chart a path into adulthood where he no longer feels defined by his gender identity.
After the jury verdict, The Star interviewed Appleberry about his experience. Some of responses have been edited for length or clarity.
Was there a time early on when you felt really comfortable in your own skin?
I can’t say that there was a specific moment because ever since I was a kid, I just, I mean, that’s just how I was. I liked to be outside, I liked to play with truck and I liked to be with my dad. I liked to wear NASCAR shirts and ride dirt bikes. Nothing ever felt wrong or out of place. When you’re four or five, six, you don’t know what gender means.
When you think back to using those separate bathrooms, those separate locker rooms, did it push you to view yourself in a different way or view the community around you in a different way?
I don’t think it made me feel any different about myself. I knew who I was. I was very established in my own skin by eighth grade, and it was shitty, obviously I didn’t like it. I didn’t like being singled out or excluded. But I knew that it wasn’t because of my friends at school and it wasn’t because of the football coach or the principal even. It wasn’t like they they wanted to do that. It wasn’t their decision.
Understanding the situation you were in, now being older, do feel you were wronged or were treated unfairly?
Looking back, yeah, it upsets me that I had to go through that and it upsets me even more that I was 13 and didn’t realize. I mean, I knew that it wasn’t perfect, but I didn’t realize just how wrong it was until later on, going through trial and looking at every detail of my entire life and the school situation. And I really hope that no other 13-year-old, 10-year-old or 15-year-old or whoever has to go through that.
Was there an uncomfortable feeling or situation that you wish your younger self had spoken out about?
I would say I wish I just analyzed the way that institutions treated me. And if you wouldn’t treat someone on a different demographic or minorities, you wouldn’t, you know, make all African American students use separate restrooms, but you can make transgender students use separate restrooms. I mean, you can use that simple test and obviously that’s wrong and not right.
Is there anything you learned about yourself in high school that you realized was just completely untrue in college?
I did a lot of theater, a lot of acting in high school, just because that group of people was very open-minded typically. And it’s a very safe community and that’s obviously a good thing. But then when I got out of high school, I realized that I didn’t want to confine myself to the same experiences and so I really branched out. My interests have changed. I dress differently. I hang out with different kinds of people. I really just have opened up and not really confined myself to what I did in high school... It’s a great feeling to not have to feel like I need to tell everybody my gender identity because that’s my business.
You said you were part of the theater community when you were in high school, but how have you branched out? Are you involved in any LGBT groups?
I kind of went the other direction, just because I felt like the only personality I had in high school was being transgender. So I really wanted to leave that behind. I wanted to enjoy doing my church group. I joined a fraternity, I’m friends with a bunch of regular guys. I totally support, you know, GSA, LGBT groups, but I’d feel like I’m just reverting back to high school and confining myself to a group if I only do that kind of stuff. Whereas, if I get a whole bunch of friends and a bunch of experience that rounds me out. There’s more to me than just my gender ID. And that’s what I wanted to do in college and I feel like I succeeded.
What aspirations do you have going forward, either professionally or personally?
I just graduated college. So everything’s different. This is a huge transitional time. In the short term I hope that I can transition well... I would like to see my court case get settled. And I really just want to see that the school district has changed their policy. That’s what it’s all been about since the beginning. So I hope eventually that pans out. I’d like to find a job that I like, somewhere in the music industry. Get married, buy a boat.
I just want to grow up and be normal and, you know, be an adult. I don’t know what that looks like. But it’ll happen one way or another.