Nearly 150 students at Hillsboro High School in Missouri staged a walkout on Monday to protest a 17-year-old senior's desire to use the girls' bathroom at school. After coming out as transgender during the last school year, Lila Perry decided she would no longer accept using a segregated, gender-neutral restroom.
Despite the condemnations of many of her peers and their parents, who rallied on school grounds to denounce Perry as some sort of danger to her fellow female students, the teenager has spoken eloquently about the unfolding human rights violation at her school, offering important historical context.
Surrounded by almost 40 supporters gathered Monday to counter the transphobic rally, Perry drew parallels to well-known anti-segregationist, Jim Crow-era battles in the American civil rights movement.
"It wasn't too long ago that white people were saying that they don't feel comfortable sharing a bathroom with a black person, and history repeats itself," Perry told Roche Madden of St. Louis TV station KTVI.
Indeed, the struggle for safe, inclusive access to basic facilities has long been a hallmark of American battles for human rights. While administrators at Hillsboro appear to be making a genuine effort to accomodate Perry, she fairly concluded that being relegated to using only separate, gender-neutral restrooms was an unworkable solution.
"I wasn't hurting anyone and I didn't want to feel segregated out... in the gender-neutral bathroom," Perry told St. Louis TV station KMOV. "I am a girl."
Tall, incisive, and possessed of the determination of an individual who gazes steadily into the eyes of interlocutors, Perry embraced her girlhood at the age of 13, according to Heavy.com. For more than a year, she has presented as her true self, in the feminine clothes that make her happy, with long straight brown hair.
She has already dropped out of the physical education class she began this semester, out of concern for her own safety following escalating protests against her using the girls' locker room.
Nevertheless, protesters against Perry contend that she is not who she says she is. “Boys need to have their own locker room," adult named Jeff Childs told KMOV. "Girls need to have their own locker room and if somebody has mixed feelings where they are, they need to have their own also."
Several local media reports refer to Perry as "still physically a male." Such problematic characterizations expose persistent myths about transgender people — primarily that a person only becomes their true gender upon receiving specific gender-confirming surgeries. In reality, only 33 percent of transgender people have reported undergoing some form of gender-confirming surgery, with 14 percent of transgender women and 21 percent of transgender men telling the Human Rights Campaign last year they are not interested in ever having such surgery.
On a broader scale, Perry’s right to use the girls' bathroom comports with Title IX of the federal Education Amendments of 1972. In June, the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice issued a letter on behalf of a transgender boy named Gavin Grimm, declaring that "prohibiting a student from accessing the restrooms that match [the student's] gender identity is prohibited sex discrimination under Title IX." The American Civil Liberties Union is suing Grimm's Virginia high school on the grounds that prohibiting him from using boys’ bathrooms segregates, stigmatizes, and disenfranchises him based on his gender.
Indeed, trans advocates nationwide have pointed out that separate facilities stigmatize trans youth, while failing to accomplish the commonly stated purpose of protecting student safety and privacy. In fact, as Perry's case demonstrates, trans students can easily find their own privacy violated, while research has shown that it is trans people who are far more likely to face physical or verbal violence in a restroom, as compared to their cisgender (nontrans) peers.
Perry's struggle also exposes the health dangers that can arise from such misguided policies. After refusing to be segregated to a gender-neutral bathroom — on the grounds that she is not gender-neutral, but rather a girl — Perry suggested to Missouri TV news reporters that she would simply try not to use the bathroom at school altogether.
But when transgender people forgo such relief for lack of inclusive access and fear of discrimination, they may put their health in jeopardy.
Avoiding using the bathroom can lead to urinary tract infections and chronic constipation, and if the problem persists, even more perilous conditions like early-onset diabetes, hypothyroidism, Hirschsprung's Disease, and inflammatory bowel disease may arise. These realities are so serious that when the Department of Labor issued instructions for businesses seeking to integrate transgender individuals into the workplace in June, the federal agency specifically cited bathroom access for transgender people as a matter of "health and safety.”
Calls to Dr. Aaron Cornman, the Superintendent of Hillsboro Schools in Missouri, for comment regarding the officials’ rationale for segregating Perry into a gender-neutral restroom, were not returned by press time.
Perry's linking of transgender struggles for access with the broader American civil rights movement complements the views of notable leaders in the African-American civil rights leaders like the late Julian Bond, a strong advocate for LGBT rights. Bond was the former chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the first president of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
"Sometimes it is the simplest of ordinary acts that can change the way we act and the way we think," Bond presciently noted in his classic speech on October 11, 2009, at the National Equality March for LGBT rights in Washington, D.C. "Civil rights are positive legal prerogatives, the right to equal treatment under the law. These are rights shared by everyone. There is no one in the United States who does not share or enjoy these rights."