Steph Perkins couldn’t help but feel under assault.
Years trying to persuade the Springfield City Council to outlaw discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender citizens finally paid off in late 2014 when a nondiscrimination ordinance became law.
Perkins and his fellow supporters didn’t have long to celebrate. Evangelical groups worked quickly on a petition that placed a repeal of the ordinance on the ballot.
The opposition wasn’t much of a surprise. But the strategy — ultimately successful at overturning the discrimination protections — caught Perkins off guard.
Opponents of the nondiscrimination ordinance argued that by including transgender Missourians, the law would protect cross-dressing sexual predators who wished to lurk in women’s restrooms.
“This ordinance … allows them free access next to our women and children,” opponents proclaimed on their website, in public meetings and in advertising.
“It’s just scary to realize that people really believe this,” said Perkins, a transgender man and interim director of the LGBT-rights group PROMO. “When I go into a restroom I’m doing the same thing everyone else is going in to do. To even suggest otherwise is really scary to me.”
Gay and lesbian couples have the right to marry in this country. But in most states, including Missouri and Kansas, there are still no laws on the books protecting them from discrimination.
That means a person can be fired from his or her job, kicked out of a restaurant or evicted from an apartment for being gay or being perceived as gay.
As LGBT advocates have pushed to change the laws around the nation, opponents are increasingly trying to thwart those efforts by stoking fears surrounding bathroom access.
Nowhere is that more evident than in public schools.
Last fall more than 100 students of Hillsboro High School, about 40 miles south of St. Louis, walked out of school to protest a transgender teen’s use of the girls locker room to change for gym class.
The student, Lila Perry, told the New York Times she spent the two hours the protest was going on huddled inside the counselor’s office out of fear for her safety. She had already dropped gym class for the same reason.
The situation got the attention of Missouri legislators in Jefferson City, who’ve filed a handful of bills that would make schools enforce gender-specific bathrooms and locker rooms. The bills would also prohibit students from using facilities that do not correspond to the gender on their birth certificates.
“If you had a daughter, you might not feel that she was completely safe if young men were allowed into her shower room,” said state Sen. Ed Emery, a Lamar Republican sponsoring one of the so-called bathroom bills.
For transgender Missourians, the push to ban them from bathrooms and locker rooms that match their identity is an attempt to invalidate their existence.
“Being transgender may look like confusion, but it is absolutely not,” Perkins said. “It’s not something where you wake up one day and say, ‘Well, it must be easier to be a man. I’m going to see what it’s like.’ For most people, they know who they are their entire lives, and it doesn’t match with their body.”
Emery’s bill says a student must use the restroom, locker room and showers of the gender that “is identified at birth by a person’s anatomy and indicated on their birth certificate.”
The bill also stipulates that schools must accommodate students who assert that their gender is different from what’s on their birth certificate — for example, letting them use faculty restrooms — though only with their parents’ permission.
The federal government has made its position on this issue clear: Transgender students should be allowed to use facilities that correspond with their gender identity.
A school district in Illinois was notified in November that requiring a transgender student to use private changing and showering facilities was a violation of that student’s rights under Title IX, a federal law that bans sex discrimination.
The Missouri School Boards’ Association has two proposed policy guides for local school districts on the subject — one that allows transgender students to use restrooms and locker rooms associated with their gender identity and another that doesn’t.
“The law remains very unsettled on this issue,” said Brent Ghan, chief of staff for the Missouri School Boards’ Association.
The entire situation, Emery said, is frustrating.
“Suddenly, the birth certificate is just an opinion,” he said. “It used to be considered a mental illness when a young man thought he was a woman, or vice versa. We gave these people treatment. We addressed that mental illness. We gave them counseling. Today, you and I get the counseling. How did we get here?”
Madeline Johnson, a Kansas City lawyer, said the fears over allowing transgender people to use the restroom that corresponds with their gender identity are absurd.
“The hype around bathroom exclusion, that somehow we’re going to allow sexual predators access to commit sexual assaults, is illogical,” Johnson said. “It’s illegal to sexually assault another person. It’s going to continue to be illegal. You’re not giving anyone access to get away with anything.”
Meanwhile, advocates for greater legal protections for LGBT individuals continue to press forward with little hope of success in either Kansas or Missouri.
In Kansas, a long-shot attempt is being made to amend a bill protecting gun dealers and manufacturers from discrimination to include protections for sexual orientation and gender identity.
Kellie Fiedorek, an attorney with the national conservative group Alliance Defending Freedom, told a Kansas House committee that passing such a law would “allow men — or men who think they may be women — into women’s bathrooms.”
The idea stands little chance of winning passage. Even if it did, Gov. Sam Brownback is unlikely to approve, given that last year he rescinded an executive order that had provided protection from discrimination to lesbian, bisexual and transgender state employees.
In Missouri, a Senate committee recently held a public hearing on a statewide nondiscrimination ordinance. The push took on new momentum last October, when Western District Court of Appeals in Jackson County dismissed the case of a Kansas City man who alleged he’d been fired for being gay because of the lack of discrimination protections in state law.
Bathroom use didn’t come up during the hearing. Instead, Associated Industries of Missouri President and CEO Ray McCarty said adding new protections for sexual orientation and gender identity could open businesses up to lawsuits.
“We encourage our members to have policies that discourage discrimination at every turn,” McCarty said. “But we do not feel that setting up an additional protected class is something that would be good for the state of Missouri.”
Legislative leaders in Missouri have repeatedly balked at the idea of passing the nondiscrimination bill, despite Gov. Jay Nixon including it as one of his top priorities during his annual State of the State address.
The real ramification of Missouri’s law, Perkins said, is forcing people like him to live in fear about being who they truly are.
If a transgender man is forced to go into a woman’s restroom, he said, it not only devalues you as a person but also puts your job in jeopardy.
“You can be fired just because you’re transgender,” he said. “Losing your job could mean losing your home.”
Perkins considers himself fortunate.
He has a wife who supports him and a job where he’s in no danger of being fired for being transgender.
Not everyone is lucky enough to have a support system like that, he said, and even still his transition took years of soul-searching before he went public just last year.
“I’m not hiding myself anymore,” he said.