Lila Perry, a senior at Hillsboro High School in Hillsboro, MO., was living a lie – that was, until her decision to come out as transgender at the beginning of this school year. Naturally, Perry wanted to be treated as any other female student within the building and alerted the school administration of her desire to use the girls’ bathroom and locker room. The news of Perry’s request spread quickly throughout the student body and ultimately culminated in student protests – both in opposition and support of allowing Perry the use of the female facilities. The Hillsboro student body and community were effectively divided on the issue of permitting the transgender senior into these areas designated for females, with many parents and students both supporting and dissenting with the school administration’s decision to grant Perry access to the female bathroom.
The intense controversy underlying Perry’s request, however, is a matter of far greater magnitude than the decision to allow her to use the girls’ bathroom; indeed, the conflict in Hillsboro extends beyond one simple administrative decision, as it implicates many moral and legal issues in today’s society.
THE LEGAL PERSPECTIVE
Adrienne Davis is the Vice Provost and a Law Professor at Washington University. Despite the great controversy at Hillsboro High, Davis says, the school administration would not be required to make any decision regarding Perry’s case simply because there no laws governing the proper procedure under these unique circumstances.
“In the absence of a law, schools can create their own rules – so Hillsboro could create their own policy,” Davis explained, mentioning that many different institutions and schools across the country have approached similar issues in a variety of different fashions.
In addition, Davis described how the beliefs of the surrounding community are often reflected in the ways the institutions choose to address these issues, and the variety of ways with which these different situations have been dealt raises the question as to which is correct. In turn, the enactment of different policies also raises larger questions regarding the degree of responsibility a school possesses to ensure the fair treatment of every student considering the conflicting views they may hold.
“The question becomes, ‘Who’s the outlier – the transgender person or the people who aren’t comfortable with it?’” Davis said, citing that some more progressive institutions have defined the “outlier” as those who are uncomfortable in their decision to make all of their school bathrooms gender neutral.
Ultimately, says Davis, the fate of transgender students’ permission to use the bathrooms of their choosing is up to the administration of the school they attend – and until the issue is addressed at the federal or state level, we will continue to see conflicting policies in application to the same kinds of situations.
THE ADMINISTRATIVE PERSPECTIVE
CHS teacher and GSA sponsor Doug Verby explained the difficulty of the decision for schools in determining a course of action for these types of issues. “Administrators want a blanket policy, but you’ve got to help the individuals as well,” he said.
Although it would be undoubtedly unpopular with some elements of the school and community – as in Hillsboro – Verby feels that it is ultimately necessary for schools to address the needs of transgender students.
“It’s something that’s come to the forefront of our [nation’s politics], and I think all legal rights need to be examined,” Verby said. “I also think it’s an issue that needs to be talked about and discussed. It’s definitely at the forefront of a lot of school communities.”
Verby is hopeful that controversy on this issue, as exhibited at Hillsboro High and many other schools and institutions across the country will, in the long run, be for the better.
“It’s difficult, but like any social change, I think schools, individuals and communities are working to navigate the road,” Verby said. “As long as we can have open and honest dialogue, I think we can get to some real deep understandings to help make things easier for the future.”
CHS Principal Dr. Dan Gutchewsky admitted that the school administration has yet to have any official conversation regarding the events at Hillsboro, but did stress the importance of awareness of the issue among the CHS administration.
“We have a responsibility and obligation to make sure all students feel safe here,” Gutchewsky said. “I am aware that we have transgender students in the district and in the building right now, and it hasn’t been an issue.”
Gutchewsky explained that in the past, the CHS administration has worked with transgender students and their families on an individual basis in order to generate solutions with which all are comfortable. And the student body and Clayton community, Gutchewsky says, has been very receptive.
“It hasn’t been disruptive, and I haven’t had any phone calls [from people angry with the situation],” Gutchewsky said. “It’s one of the things I really appreciate about CHS and about the community – it’s always been a very accepting and rational.”
In most cases, Gutchewsky said, the CHS administration offered transgender students use of the private restroom in the nurse’s office, a facility open to all students who may require it – the same settlement Perry had with Hillsboro High prior to this school year. Gutchewsky explained that if a CHS student were to make the same request as Perry and request the restroom of the gender with which they identify, he would not anticipate the same controversy seen at Hillsboro.
“My experience [with] the Clayton community is that people have been quite accepting, and I’d be surprised if there was any kind of backlash over an issue like that,” Gutchewsky said. “That’s just not my experience here.”
THE (TRANS)PARENT PERSPECTIVE
Kim Hutton is the executive director of Transparent, a St. Louis based non-for-profit that aims to provide support and resources to the parents and caregivers of gender independent children. She feels that the Hillsboro administration handled the Perry’s situation well, and that she is very appreciative of the school’s efforts to accommodate the transgender teen.
“[The administration was] trying to do the right thing and address her needs as a transgender person,” Hutton said. “They are trying to be inclusive within their facilities, and I think they really do want to create an inclusive atmosphere.”
Hutton believes, however, that the only proper resolution to the conflict at Hillsboro – and any similar situations in schools across the nation – is one of absolutely no discrimination.
“We [have to] coexist with our transgender citizens, and if you’re uncomfortable then you need to remove yourself and go somewhere that you can be comfortable,” Hutton said.
For schools constructing new facilities in the future, Hutton also offered some advice.
“I think it would be very wise for any district that is building any new facility to perhaps consider having unisex bathrooms all over the school, so that anyone can use whatever they’re comfortable with,” Hutton said. “I believe that schools should have a lot more unisex options, or have strictly male or strictly female bathrooms [but] not restrict those to anyone.”
With institutions such as private businesses, Hutton acknowledged the possibility of increased difficulty and expense in adding gender neutral bathrooms. Hutton believes, however, that eventually, gender neutral bathrooms will not even be necessary to ensure that all feel comfortable.
“I don’t think that we need to tear things down and rebuild things [to make everyone comfortable],” Hutton said. “I would like to think that as a society we can get over this, with more education”
Hutton also described how she believes that one of the most effective ways of education is through discussion.
“I personally would like to believe that if we elevate the gender conversation, and we desensitize it – by talking about it, by seeing it in the press, by [seeing it in] television shows – eventually, this will be a non-issue,” Hutton said. “It’s a matter of re-educating people in general. This binary gender model that we have is broken – it’s never been right.”
Although transgender rights often lack awareness in comparison to other LGBT issues, Hutton is hopeful that like gay marriage, transgender rights will soon make similar strides of progress.
“We’ve got some catching up to do here, but I think it can be done.” Hutton said. “There’s great progress in the gay community as far as acceptance and understanding and equality. And so, I think for the transgender community, we’re behind them, but I feel like we’re catching up fast.”
THE NATIONAL PERSPECTIVE
Although perhaps most evident in schools, transgender rights are quickly becoming a national issue.
“I think there’s going to be a movement, and we’re going to have to decide all people guaranteed rights based on gender identity and gender expression,” Davis explained. “Eventually the courts will have to rule on it […] and I suspect it will go up to the United States Supreme Court.”
Davis does not anticipate, however, that the decision will be easy by any means.
“I think you’re going to find a split between the states that will probably map the split over abortion and same sex marriage and interracial marriage,” Davis said.
Although Davis hopes that the Supreme Court will rule that rights cannot be denied based upon gender identity, she acknowledges that even a Supreme Court decision is not likely to be the end of the issue. “Even then I think we might find defiance, like we’re finding defiance right now with Kim Davis, and that parallels the defiance that states had in the 1950s over desegregating schools,” Davis said.
Despite the long road ahead for transgender rights, Davis finds hope in the Hillsboro protests.
“I think that the protests are a sign of people’s consciousnesses being raised, and I think protests usually signal the beginning of a social movement,” Davis said.