Missouri transgender teen Lila Perry began to feel like a girl when she was 13 and started appearing as one in school this year when classes began in August.
The 17-year-old Hillsboro High School senior wears skirts, makeup and a long wig styled with bobby pins. She even started using the girls’ locker room to change for gym class, despite the school’s offer of a single-occupancy restroom.
“I am a girl. I am not going to be pushed away to another bathroom,” she told CNN affiliate KPLR. “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.”
In less than two weeks, however, it became clear she was not welcome in the locker room.
Because Perry has male anatomy, many students simply see her as a boy in a wig changing in the girls’ locker room — and that makes them uncomfortable. They whispered about her in hallways, complained to faculty and told their parents, who brought it up at the school board meeting on August 27.
In a petition read aloud, one parent asked the board to stop extending privileges to “confused teenagers who want to be something they are not sexually” at other students’ expense. Another parent, insinuating that the board was avoiding liability, asked which side it would support if he sues them for violating his right to “parent” as he chooses.
When they didn’t get the response they had hoped for, a group of students organized a walkout Monday with their parents’ support. By then, Perry had already dropped gym class, fearing for her safety, her friend Skyla Thompson said. Perry declined to speak to CNN for this story.
“This protest wasn’t out to bully Lila or call her out on anything or try to make her feel depressed; that wasn’t what it meant to be. It was so the students could have a voice,” said Hillsboro senior Sydney Dye, who helped organize the walkout.
“I believe that inside Lila is a female. I believe that she wants to have the female body and wants to be like the rest of females, but I know right now that’s not physically possible,” the 17-year-old said. “The only thing that bothers me is that Lila was in the girls’ locker room. Some girls already have insecurity problems getting dressed in front of other girls as it is, much less having to get dressed in front of a boy.”
Her view reflects conflicting attitudes toward Perry in this small town of 2,900 people about 30 miles south of St. Louis with “more wild mice than people,” as one resident described Hillsboro. Experts say it also demonstrates a lack of awareness of what it means to be transgender, even in an era of progress for LGBT equality.
Celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner may be advancing transgender visibility in popular culture, but for many Hillsboro residents, Perry is the first transgender person to enter their lives and challenge their idea of what it means to be a boy or a girl.
“It’s a mess,” said Sydney’s mother, Wendy West. “People don’t know how to feel.”
Perry’s case reflects the reality in some small rural communities that are addressing the issue of accommodations for transgender students before the state legislature gets around to it. Missouri is one of 28 states with no state-level protections for LGBT people from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations. This year, voters in Springfield rescinded an anti-discrimination ordinance less than six months after it was passed by the Springfield City Council.
The divide was evident at the walkout, where friends of Perry’s held a smaller counterprotest a few feet from the large crowd, and in Facebook posts concerning the event, which displayed vitriol and support for Perry.
“It’s disappointing because everyone in the community is really torn and people who moved away are ashamed to call Hillsboro their home,” Perry’s friend Thompson said. “They should be ashamed of the way some people are dealing with it, but they should be proud of the people supporting Lila.”