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In Mo. town, transgender teen’s use of girls’ locker room causes furor

Lila Perry, a transgender student in a small Missouri town, spoke with reporters on Monday about her request to use the girls’ restroom and locker room at her high school.Robert Cohen/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — When Caitlyn Jenner took to television in April to announce she was transgender, messages of support poured in from across the country. She was featured on the cover of Vanity Fair and received an ESPY award for courage.

But even as Jenner starred in a reality TV docuseries about her transition, a deeper question remained.

If Jenner weren’t already a rich celebrity, would she have received the same support? How would other, less famous transgender Americans be treated?

On Monday morning, a small town in Missouri provided an answer.

For two hours, approximately 150 students stood in front of Hillsboro High School to protest a transgender teen’s use of the girls’ facilities.

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And for those same two hours, the 17-year-old transgender teen huddled inside her counselor’s office — with the door locked.

‘‘I was concerned about my own safety,’’ Lila Perry told The New York Times.

It’s not just her fellow students who are upset over Perry’s use of the girls’ bathroom and locker room. The issue has roiled this town, thrusting a quaint community of about 3,000 into the national spotlight. Last week, a school board meeting had to be moved after too many people attended to discuss Perry. And on Monday afternoon, the protesting students — who made up about 13 percent of the school — were joined by angry adults.

‘‘This needs to stop before it goes too far,’’ Jeff Childs, who has a niece and a nephew in the Hillsboro School System, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He and his 21-year-old son showed up to the school with ‘‘Girls Rights Matter’’ painted on the sides and back of his pickup truck.

‘‘I’m not trying to be ignorant, but [the transgender student] is bringing it out in public for everybody else to deal with,’’ Childs said.

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Here, in the heartland, life as a transgender American remains hard.

For Perry, her personal struggle began as soon as she could call herself a teenager. At age 13, Perry began to feel ‘‘more like a girl than a boy,’’ she told the Times.

By the middle of last year, her junior year, Perry was ready to come out as transgender. She was tired of pretending to be someone she wasn’t, she told the Post-Dispatch. She began wearing a wig, dresses, and makeup, although she has not had reassignment surgery.

When school began Aug. 13, Perry told school administrators she wanted to use the girls’ bathroom and locker room, instead of the unisex bathroom she had used as a junior.

The school consented, in accordance with guidelines from the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights that say students should be allowed to use facilities in accordance with their gender identification.

So far this year, Perry has been using the girls’ bathroom and locker room, according to local TV station KTVI.

That act set off a firestorm of controversy.

Nearly 200 people showed up to an Aug. 27 school board meeting, forcing it to be moved to a bigger venue. Although Perry’s gender wasn’t on the agenda, many parents used the meeting to complain about the school’s decision.

‘‘The way I was raised, I have no problem with a transgender, but he shouldn’t be in the women’s locker room until he has the surgery,’’ said parent Greg Wilson, according to local news website the Leader.

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‘‘The girls have rights, and they shouldn’t have to share a bathroom with a boy,’’ Tammy Sorden, who has a son at Hillsboro High, told the Post-Dispatch. Lila should not get special treatment, Sorden said, ‘‘while the girls just have to suck it up.’’

Derrick Good, a local lawyer with two daughters in the school district, has led the opposition to Perry’s use of girls’ facilities. He got involved after hearing that a female student had encountered ‘‘an intact male’’ in the girls’ locker room, he told the Times.

Working with a Christian advocacy group, he has crafted a new ‘‘student physical privacy policy’’ that would require students in the district to use bathrooms based on their biological sex or unisex facilities.

‘‘As a parent, it’s my right to educate my child, to make decisions on when it’s appropriate for my child to understand things about the opposite sex,’’ he told KTVI at the Aug. 27 school board meeting. ‘‘It’s not the school’s option to insert that at that age.’’

But Perry said she was tired of being ‘‘segregated’’ because of being transgender.

‘‘With using the staff bathroom, I felt like I was being segregated off, like: ‘Here are the boys, here are the girls, this is me,’ ’’ she told the TV station.