SPECIAL REPORT: Bathroom Bill Battle

SPECIAL REPORT: Bathroom Bill Battle (MGN Online)

Months of debate over who can use which bathrooms in schools is about to come to a close - for now.

As Missouri lawmakers wrap up this year's legislative session, the controversial idea appears to have been stalled once again.

But the senator who sponsored the "bathroom bill" plans to bring it back, while opponents are prepared to fight it every step of the way.

"We've never mixed male and female," state Sen. Ed Emery (R-Lamar) said.

Emery is dedicated to passing Senate Bill 98, a proposal that would put an end to transgender students using the bathroom, locker room, and shower room of their choice in public schools.

He sponsored the bill for the second time this year; he had proposed an identical bill in 2016, Senate Bill 270.

"It is designed to address some of the things that have developed - new - in terms of gender. Historically we've had two genders; male and female," Emery said. "In the recent years we've suddenly seen other genders kind of created out of nowhere that occur more in the mind than in physiology."

The proposal would require students in public K-12 schools use bathrooms that correlate with their biological sex at birth and some schools would provide other options like gender-neutral bathrooms.

"That's separating people and that does not feel good at all," Emery (Em) Wakefield said.

15-year-old Em attends Rock Bridge High School in Columbia. Em's favorite class is art and loves roller coasters, Star Wars and traveling. But Em is not a "he" or "she" but rather identifies with "they" or "them".

"My transition is kind of different because I identify as non-binary so I use they/them pronouns so I'm not a boy or a girl," Em said.

Em worries about how a bathroom bill would impact transgender youth across Missouri.

"I feel like it's alienating and putting us in the mysterious "other" category and making us seem a lot different than we really are. And creating more stigma and separation in our community," said Em.

Sen. Emery said he proposed the bill after hearing concerns from parents who were not aware their child was sharing a bathroom with a transgender student in school.

"We had no idea that our daughter was being forced into this kind of situation in terms of state of undress with what appeared to be young men," is how he described some parent's comments. "Until it happened. Until they discovered it was going on in the school. I think it's very inappropriate that schools would be making those decisions absent of their parents."

KRCG 13 asked Emery if the bill was based on research.

"I don't know that there's been a lot of research because it's relatively new phenomenon and it takes a while. It takes time to do research," said Sen. Emery.

Em's mom, Lara Wakefield, disagreed. She wanted supporters of the bill to take a closer look.

"They need to look at the data and school violence and what happens in bathrooms. If they start looking at the data, which i have done, they will discover that the number one perpetrators of violence in bathrooms are white cist heterosexual males," Lara said.

According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, hundreds of school districts in 18 states protect transgender people's rights to use restrooms and none have seen a rise in incidents of people attacking anyone or of people pretending to be transgender in order to get access to restrooms. Also included in their report, law enforcement officials said the claim that these policies cause safety problems is absurd and completely false.

"There's been no recorded cases of trans violence, like transgender people being the people bring violence on. But the opposite is very prevalent," said Em.

Cathy Serino, an equal rights activists in mid-Missouri said she believes they're putting fear into people.

Serino knows first hand what it's like to be forced to use a certain bathroom.

"I was forced into a men's bathroom several times. The first couple times I was verbally harassed. The third time I was actually physically assaulted and dragged out of the building," Serino said.

She believes violence happens when transgender people are forced into bathrooms that do not align with their identity. Also Serino said it could be worse for students who are not publicly open with the fact that they are transgender.

"Nowadays, youth are transitioning at a very young age so they'll go to a new school as their correct gender and nobody will know they're trans," Serino said.

Em said a lot of young transgender people find it easier to keep their secret because they say there's a lot of transphobia.

"Getting outed like that can be really dangerous and can change your dynamic at school so people who were originally nice and friendly with you can be hostile so it can be really bad for your mental and physical health," said Em.

Emery said he doesn't see transgender students facing that negative impact because he's heard opponents express how supportive their communities have been.

"They're coming to the capitol. They're appearing on television. They're very public about these issues, so I don't see that as a problem," Emery said.

But the NCTE reports 75 percent of transgender youth feel unsafe at school. And 59 percent of trans student have been denied access to restrooms consistent with their gender identity, affecting their grades and attendance.

Lara asked that other parents put themselves in her shoes.

"What if this was your child? How would you feel if it was your child, really, think about that. Would you want your child to be segregated? Would you want your child to be further subjected to violence because of this? Would you want the ensuing health damage that is sure to come if it was your child?"

"Their privacy is important too - the larger student body," Emery said. "And so the fact that they don't want to be mixed with another gender is just as important as important as protecting the identity of those that are no conventional in terms of male or female."

Em said they plan to fight the bill if it is proposed again next year.

"We're just trying to live and survive and locker rooms are part of that. And we just need to change and get out. We're not trying to hurt anyone. I'm really sad that that is a misconception out there," Emery said.

Emery said he thought the bathroom bill had a lot of traction early on but could not get the chairman of the committee, Sen. Gary Romine, to put it up for a vote.

KRCG 13 reached out to Romine to find out why he decided against it but he declined to comment.

The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary education said it does not collect information on which schools offer gender-neutral bathrooms.

Two resources passed along for parents of transgender youth are The Center Project and Transparent.

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