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St. Louis groups launch ‘banned book program’ to distribute challenged books

“If you look at most of the books that they are trying to ban, they are the stories of people from historically marginalized groups”

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Several books which have been challenged by parents based on their content are pictured at Left Bank Books in St. Louis’ Central West End neighborhood last November. (Photo: Brian Munoz/St. Louis Public Radio)

By Kate Grumke | ST. LOUIS (St. Louis Public Radio) – Two local organizations are partnering to distribute free copies of controversial books in response to the recent increase in attempts to remove titles from school libraries.

In Purpose Educational Services and the St. Louis bookstore EyeSeeMe will deliver free copies of “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison to Missourians who request it.

The organizations raised more than $3,000 in the first few hours after launching the book program, said Heather Fleming, founder of In Purpose Educational Services.

“If you look at most of the books that they are trying to ban, they are the stories of people from historically marginalized groups,” said Fleming. “We have to grapple with some of the things that have happened in our society. Number one, to make sure that they don’t happen again. But then number two, because we need to learn how to live with one another.”

Brian Munoz/St. Louis Public Radio
Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” is photographed in this photo illustration last November at Left Bank Books in St. Louis’ Central West End neighborhood.

St. Louis Public Radio analysis of the books being challenged in the area in November found two-thirds were written by authors of color or authors who identify as LGBTQ. “The Bluest Eye,” was the book with the most official requests for removal from libraries. It was the first book by Toni Morrison, who would go on to win a Nobel Prize in Literature and a Pulitzer Prize.

The Wentzville School Board voted 4-3 at its Jan. 20 meeting to remove the book from school libraries. That’s after a committee voted to recommend keeping the book, writing, “committee members believe that removing the work would infringe on the rights of parents and students to decide for themselves if they want to read this work of literature.”

A committee in the Francis Howell School District voted to retain the book this month and a review of “The Bluest Eye” is still underway in the Lindbergh School District.

The organizations that are planning the “banned book program” have a form for people to fill out if they are interested in receiving free copies of the book. The books will be distributed to people in Missouri and the groups plan to pick a new book each month, Fleming said.

These conversations and these types of book bans, they’re placing our students at a disadvantage,” Fleming said. “Whether people want to admit it or not, we are becoming an increasingly diverse society … students who are not culturally competent are not going to meet with as much success.”

There has been a national increase in attempts to remove books from school libraries, according to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.

“We’re just really stunned by the fact that there seems to be this campaign to erase certain books, certain topics from school libraries and public libraries across the country,” said director Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.

The people challenging the books say they contain sexually explicit material and are not suitable for children.

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Kate Grumke became St. Louis Public Radio’s education reporter in October, 2021. She grew up in St. Louis but spent more than five years covering politics and policy in Washington, D.C., most recently as a producer for the PBS NewsHour. Kate has covered two presidential elections and has reported from Cuba, El Salvador and Mexico. She won a 2019 National Murrow Award for her coverage of Oklahoma’s teacher walkout.

See stories by Kate Grumke

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The preceding article was previously published by St. Louis Public Radio and is republished by permission.

Missouri

FBI joins investigation of threats against LGBTQ+ bars in St. Louis

Since September of 2022 the FBI has been on heightened alert over violence against LGBTQ+ facilities, groups and events

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St. Louis Grove Neighborhood Business Association/Facebook

ST. LOUIS – The FBI has joined the investigation into violent threats of bombs and shootings against three LGBTQ+ bars in the Grove neighborhood of St. Louis this past weekend. A fourth threat against a children’s playground and adult café that was scheduled to hold a drag queen story hour is also being looked into by the FBI.

The three establishments, PRISM STL, Just John, and Rehab, are all located on Manchester Avenue in the city’s trendy Grove neighborhood and entertainment district. According to St. Louis’ alternative weekly press outlet The Riverfront Times, late Saturday afternoon, the bars received calls from an individual threatening violence.

Around 4 p.m. at Prism, bartender Jordan Cox answered the phone. “The caller off the bat started talking about how they were the Joker, and they were going to blow up the bar, send bombs and shoot up everybody,” Cox said, adding that it sounded like at least two people were on the other line.

Just John bar owner John Arnold said he received a voicemail around the same time.

“They said they were going to come in at 3 a.m. and burn the place down,” Arnold says. “And that they were fed up with us ‘fags’.” The same voicemail named a Just John employee whom the caller liked. “They told us to make sure he wasn’t there,” Arnold added.

St. Louis NBC affiliate KSDK NBC 5 reported that a bartender at Michael Klataske and Sean Abernathy’s bar PRISM actually spoke to the suspect.

In the incident regarding the fourth location, CBS affiliate KMOV 4 reported that the FBI is also investigating threats against a children’s playground and adult café called Urban Fort in South City. The owner said they received violent threats and were forced to tighten security and change the date, time and location of a scheduled story time lesson featuring a drag performer.

Photo Credit: Federal Bureau of Investigation

Since September, the FBI has been on heightened alert over violence against LGBTQ+ facilities, groups and events. A threat assessment distributed by the Department of Homeland Security after November Club Q mass-shooting in Colorado Springs warned that hate criminals and violent domestic extremists could increase threats to the LGBTQ+ community “due to their responses to legislative or societal changes in the United States.” related to LGBTQ+ issues, and conspiracy theories involving the LGBTQ+ community.”

In the bulletin issued by DHS, the HSI agency noted: “Some domestic violent extremists who have conducted attacks have cited previous attacks and attackers as inspiration. Following the late November shooting at an LGBTQI+ bar in Colorado Springs, Colorado—which remains under investigation—we have observed actors on forums known to post racially or ethnically motivated violent extremist content praising the alleged attacker.

Similarly, some domestic violent extremists in the United States praised an October 2022 shooting at a LGBTQI+ bar in Slovakia and encouraged additional violence. The attacker in Slovakia posted a manifesto online espousing white supremacist beliefs and his admiration for prior attackers, including some within the United States.”

The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department said in a statement, “The investigation is ongoing.”

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Rabbi & 11-year-old son testify against anti-trans legislation

Daniel Bogard and his family are part of an interfaith movement led by Missouri clergy aimed at stopping bills targeting the LGBTQ community

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Courtesy of Rabbi Daniel Bogard

ST. LOUIS, MO. — Rabbi Daniel Bogard should be spending this Shabbat preparing for tonight’s service at the synagogue he leads in St. Louis, Central Reform Congregation. Instead, he’s defending his family from death threats and planning his next trip to the state capitol, two hours away in Jefferson City, where Republicans hold a super majority in the state legislature and the governorship. 

That’s also where the state GOP is pushing forward six bills: Three that would ban gender-affirming healthcare for transgender children and three more that would prohibit them from competing in school sports according to their authentic gender identity. Every year for the past few years, Bogard said he has testified against bills like these.

“Every year, again and again and again,” he said. “And it’s dehumanizing and degrading and genuinely traumatic.”

In fact, Missouri lawmakers have filed the most anti-LGBTQ+ bills of any state, according to a database from the American Civil Liberties Union that tracks anti-LGBTQ+ legislation nationwide. The ACLU called this the “most dangerous” session of the Missouri Legislature for the LGBTQ+ community it’s seen in years. 

“The Republicans said that targeting trans kids is the single most important agenda on their list, especially targeting trans because it is their top priority this session. And I think, ‘What the fuck?’” said the rabbi. “We had, I don’t know, 50, 60 Jews who showed up in the state capitol with 25 hours’ notice to protest these bills last Tuesday.”

That day, Bogard was one of a half dozen fellow Jewish as well as Christian clergy who spoke out against the legislation, many of them testifying at a marathon, nine-hour hearing focused on student-athletes. 

Bogard’s 11-year-old eldest son testified, and boy’s grandmother was there in support. The young man told lawmakers he was there to represent his nine-year-old brother and a friend, who are both transgender.

“I have to be here because you, the Missouri government, keeps trying to take away what they have a passion for. Why do you keep trying to take things from these kids? Kids just want to have fun, playing sports, not being stressed having to come here to tell you to let them play,” he said. “This has affected my brother, because now he is scared he will not get to do what he loves.” 

The Blade agreed to not disclose either boy’s name or their faces for their protection. “I’ve had a half dozen death threats in the last year,” Bogard said. “It’s taken a huge toll. It colors everything about how I see the world at this point. I find hope really hard, which is tough as a rabbi.”

And this week wasn’t the first time the rabbi’s oldest son testified, he said. But he draws the line at putting his youngest child in the hot seat. 

“My 11-year old, he’s been testifying for years now,” Bogard told the Blade. “We don’t allow our child who’s trans to testify because, first of all, he’s only nine. But they are so cruel in that testimony room. They’re cruel, and they say awful things. I mean, they call you groomers in the testimony room. They tell you you’re mutilating your child. They ask children if they’d like to be taken away from their parents, and why their parents are forcing them to believe these things. They ask children what their genitals look like.”

“So, we don’t, we don’t let our nine-year old go there,” he said, noting his child does have plenty of support, and not just from him and his wife, Rabbi Karen Bogard and their oldest son. 

“My kid lives the life that every trans kid deserves. He is embraced and supported by every single one of his relatives, our friends, and the school and his teacher. They threw him a party on the one-year anniversary of his transition. The rabbi made him a kippah in the colors of the trans flag,” the pink, white and blue banner which was designed by Navy veteran and trans activist Monica Helms. 

Bogard’s nine-year-old attends a school which is greatly supportive of the effort to win hearts and minds at the capitol. “The school sends a senior level person to testify against every single one of these bills,” he said. “That’s the world my kid lives in.” 

To give other children like his a chance to live in a better world, even briefly, Bogard teamed-up with PROMO senior director of public policy and advocacy Shira Berkowitz last year, to start Camp Indigo Point, a summer camp for trans youth, at a secret location in Missouri.

“We thought we were going to get 20 kids from this area,” Bogard said. “And we ended up filling every one of the 97 bunks that we had for kids at the facility we had rented out, and had 60 kids on the waitlist. Those kids come from 27 states. It was the most magical thing, the best thing I’ve ever been a part of.”

Bogard said the entire staff at the camp, except for him, is trans and nonbinary. It’s efforts like this and the work he and other cisgender parents do at the capitol that has won him admiration and allies, including one woman who describes herself as an Orthodox feminist.

“The efforts to take away trans rights in Missouri — and attack and erase all LGBTQ+ people in our state — have felt like repeated gut punches as we see more and more bills proposed and work to build up the energy to travel to the capitol week after week to testify. It often feels like more than enough to break a person,” Rori Picker Neiss, Maharat and executive director of the JCRC in St. Louis, told the Blade. “And yet what continues to inspire me each day are these brave kids and their resilience, the parents who fight for them to the ends of the earth, and the faith leaders who refuse to allow religious language to be coopted for harm.”

Bogard and others making this effort do more than testify, they lobby the lawmakers. “Many of these Republicans will tell you in private how much they don’t like these bills and don’t want to be a part of them, but they feel like they have to.” 

And what about those who are pushing the bills forward, such as Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden? Bogard calls them “disgusting” and “enablers of fascism.” 

“They are the people who are torturing my family, because it’s good politics for them,” he said. “I think it’s fascism that’s rising here. I think that’s what this is and that’s what we’re facing. It’s white Christian nationalism, certainly, and it’s taking over red states.” 

As the Blade has reported, families from Texas, Florida and other states of hate are fleeing to sanctuary states like California, Connecticut and Massachusetts because of the kinds of bills being considered in Missouri. Even though Bogard has deep roots in St. Louis, he confessed moving away is something his family may have to consider. 

“I don’t know a loving parent of a trans kid in a red state who isn’t up at night, terrified that they’re going to need to flee,” he said. “I live in the house that my grandpa built, that my dad grew up in, that I grew up in, that my kids are growing up in. My folks are here at home, very close to us and who love their grandkids. My mom came down to testify with us. My brother’s here, his family, my niece.

“I’m terrified we’re going to need to flee the state, because if they give me the choice between doing what is right for my child, and staying, that’s not a choice. The great fear is, government goons showing up at your door to take your child away.”

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Central Missouri School District pulls Trans affirming policy

The Assistant Superintendent said there’s been zero incidents of sexual misconduct in school bathrooms since the policy has been in place

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Blair Oaks High School Gymnasium (Blair Oaks High/Facebook)

WARDSVILLE, Mo. – The Blair Oaks School Board in this rural area of Central Missouri, located south of the state capital city of Jefferson City, voted unanimously Tuesday to rescind a policy that protected transgender students, replacing it with a blanket discrimination policy.

The local newspaper, the News-Tribune, reported that the former policy, Policy 2115, allowed transgender students to choose a name and pronoun by which to be identified and to dress according to their gender identity. It also allowed all students to use restrooms that are gender-neutral, aligned with their “biological sex” or aligned with their “self-identified gender.” It also outlined Missouri State High School Activities Association rules for transgender athletes.

The board, in voting to rescind the policy, approved a plan to work with legal counsel to make sure existing policy and procedure complies with federal and state law regarding transgender students.

Columbia, Missouri NBC News affiliate KOMU-TV News 8 reported that despite being one of many mid-Missouri districts with a transgender student policy, Blair Oaks’ policy particularly became a topic of discussion after the News Tribune published an opinion piece online in May. The piece disapproved how the district’s policy was introduced to the public and voiced concerns about “biological males” using the restroom with “biological females.”

KOMU also noted that schools Assistant Superintendent, Kimberley Walters, said there’s been zero incidents of sexual misconduct in school bathrooms since the policy has been in place.

She added that while she is not allowed to disclose the identities of the transgender students in the district, around 1% of Blair Oaks students identify as transgender.

Jason Paulsmeyer, the Blair Oaks Board President, was quoted as saying: “I personally find it disappointing that there’s been so much focus on this issue at Blair Oaks. Ultimately, this is an issue that goes far beyond Blair Oaks, or Jeff City, or Columbia Public Schools or anywhere else. And I really want to readjust the focus on the great things we’re doing at this school, school district and the great things our students do.”

He then pointed out that in his opinion actions by the school board in regard to the issue were limited: “The crux of the issue is how transgender students are treated under Title IX, and that’s a federal law issue,” Paulsmeyer said. “And ultimately, this is an issue that’s gonna be resolved by authorities way beyond the Blair Oaks School Board, most likely by the U.S. Supreme Court.”

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Missouri high school faculty ordered to remove Pride flags

Removal of LGBTQ+ Pride flags and classroom materials that denote safe spaces for LGBTQ+ students has become a flash point of heated debate

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Photo Credit: Kickapoo High School, Springfield Missouri

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – Teachers at the largest high school in this southwestern Missouri city were ordered to remove LGBTQ+ Pride flags from their classrooms last week by the principal and according to the local newspaper, the Springfield News-Leader, all complied.

“I’m writing today in regards to the Pride flag each of you has in your classroom,” wrote Kickapoo High School Principal Bill Powers in an email message obtained by the News-Leader. “It was recently brought to my attention that we should not be displaying the flags.”

The News-Leader reported that Powers cited a school board policy that was approved in 2014 and updated in 2019 which reads in part:

The faculty told the News-Leader that Powers wasn’t being seen as being adversarial, one teacher telling the paper; “All I will say is that I believe our principal to be an inclusive person and inclusive leader in the SPS community,” the teacher said. But the teacher also expressed frustration with the decision.

Powers initiated a dialogue with the employees while urging them to review the school board policy.

“Conversations have begun and will continue with the individuals in question,” confirmed Stephen Hall, chief communications officer with Springfield Public Schools in an email to the News-Leader. “His door remains open.”

Removal of LGBTQ+ Pride flags and classroom materials that denote safe spaces for LGBTQ+ students has become a flash point of heated debate around the nation. Recently in Wales, Wisconsin, the Kettle Moraine School District Board voted to uphold a policy that schools Superintendent Stephen Plum had interpreted as banning displays of political or religious messages, including LGBTQ+ Pride flags, and Black Lives Matter and We Back the Badge signs.

Three months ago, the Carroll County Board of Education in Maryland adopted a policy that prohibits Pride flags from being displayed in schools under its jurisdiction.

Students in a suburban Newark, New Jersey city in the metropolitan Tri-State area of New York City walked out of classes from three schools, protesting a new school board policy that bans the LGBTQ pride flag and most other flags from being flown outside schools.

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Out Missouri candidate for local office campaign banner defaced with slur

If elected, Justice would become the first openly Out Jackson County Legislator, as well as the first Black representative of the district

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Photo Credit: Justice Horn/Twitter

KANSAS CITY – Over the July 4 holiday weekend an oversized campaign banner for community activist Justice Horn, who is running for the Jackson County Legislature, District 1, was vandalised with the homophobic slur ‘FAG.’

Horn, who announced his candidacy for Jackson County’s first district in May last year, tweeted Saturday about the vandalism:

Horn did not file a police report. In an interview with the Kansas City Star on Monday he said:

“I don’t know how much more blatantly that this was a hate crime. It was specifically targeted at me because of my sexual orientation.

“What bothers me the most is that it happened in broad daylight. They were so emboldened to do this. It was specifically a defacing to attack me not based on my policy or my candidacy but on me personally. It was the same as calling me the N-word.”

Horn was set to hold a press conference on Tuesday morning but prior to its scheduled time the banner was ripped down and stolen. Horn then tweeted:

The LGBTQ Victory Fund, a Washington D.C.-based group that supports LGBTQ+ candidates reacted in a statement sent out from its president & CEO Mayor Annise Parker:

“Recent anti-LGBTQ attacks from officials serving at the highest levels of government empower bigots across the country to espouse hate openly. The reality is that out LGBTQ candidates of color bear the brunt of much of this animus. We stand firmly with Justice and unequivocally condemn this homophobic attack. Hateful acts like this make it abundantly clear that progress is not linear and should never be taken for granted. This is a reminder for the LGBTQ community and our allies that the fight for equality is far from over and that we must enter this election with urgency and strength. The stakes could not be higher.”

If elected, Justice would become the first openly LGBTQ+ Jackson County Legislator, as well as the first Black representative of the first district. Justice is also of Pacific Islander and Native Blackfoot heritage.

Justice is a former Student Body President of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where he recently graduated with his Bachelors of Business Administration. He rose to notoriety after his role in the Black Lives Matter movement in Kansas City as a lead organizer, which concluded with a list of demands recommitting the City to the safety of the public through police reform, signed by Mayor Quinton Lucas. This resulted in body cams for police officers, which has recently been put into practice, as well as elevating the issue of local control to a top state legislative priority.

Throughout the past year, Justice has been the author behind multiple pieces of legislation to pass out of city council, including the creation of the first LGBTQ+ Commission in the state. Subsequently, he authored the Trans Inclusive Healthcare resolution, which directs the City Manager to ensure health insurance contracts initiated by the City are inclusive of all gender identities to prevent discrimination.

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Out Missouri lawmaker blasts GOP author of anti-Trans amendment

“I think every day about the kids who are still there who haven’t made out, who haven’t escaped from this kind of bigotry”

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Photo via Missouri Department of Transportation

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – In a video on social media that went viral, viewed 700,000 times plus on Tik-Tok alone, openly Out Democratic Missouri State Representative Ian Mackey, blasted an amendment to legislation designed to audit the state’s voter rolls and tweak elections laws that gave local school districts the ability to ban Trans youth from playing sports.

The Springfield News-Leader‘s capital bureau and politics reporter Galen Bacharier noted the House approved the amendment by an 89-40 vote after almost three hours of “fierce and emotional debate.” Democrats called the measure discriminatory and designed to invoke fear.

Mackey confronted the amendment author, Republican Rep. Chuck Basye who had characterized his amendment as an attempt to “save women’s sports.” 

“This isn’t about hate, this is about fairness,” Basye said.

“I was afraid of people like you growing up and I grew up in Hickory County, Missouri,” Mackey, who is from St. Louis and openly gay, said to Basye. “I grew up in a school district that would vote tomorrow to put this in place.” 

Shouting on the House floor, Mackey called the amendment “bigotry” and said to Basye, “Thank God I made it out […] I think every day about the kids who are still there who haven’t made out, who haven’t escaped from this kind of bigotry. Gentlemen, I’m not afraid of you anymore- Because you’re gonna lose. You may win this today, but you’re going to lose.”

“We have spent nearly three hours talking about this issue and why?” said Democratic Minority Leader Crystal Quade of Springfield. “Members on the other side of the aisle have said directly to my face that they spoke on this issue because of their primary elections. Because they need to win elections in a redistricting year.”

The Springfield News-Leader also noted the amended bill would also require the legislature’s joint committee on education to study the impact of barring trans athletes and produce a report for the entire legislature by Jan. 1, 2024.

The House needs to take another vote on the bill before it is sent across the building to the Senate with just a few weeks of this year’s legislative session remaining.

Similar measures have failed pass in the last two legislative sessions.

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Missouri LGBTQ+ book ban advocate arrested for molesting a child

Utterback spoke in November against LGBTQ+ books in North Kansas City school libraries that showed sexual acts

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Ryan Utterback (Screenshot via KMBC ABC 9, Kansas City, Missouri)

CLAY COUNTY, Mo. – A man who spoke in support of banning LGBTQ+ and other books depicting sexual acts, citing specifically the book ‘Fun Home,’ which won a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Comic Book, in North Kansas City school libraries is now facing a felony count of child molestation and two related misdemeanors.

Ryan Utterback, 29, appeared in a Clay County courtroom last week to face those charges.

Screenshot via KMBC ABC 9, Kansas City, Missouri

According to KMBC ABC 9 investigative reporter Matt Flener,  in the first case, a probable cause statement alleges Utterback laid down on a bed with a child less than 12 and fondled the child in December of 2020. A separate case alleges Utterback started showing videos sexual in nature on his cellphone to a young child around the time the child was 4 years old.

Utterback spoke in November against books in North Kansas City school libraries showing sexual acts KMBC reported. He was also present at an October North Kansas City School District board meeting holding enlarged drawings of sexual acts depicted in the book ‘Fun Home’.

Utterback was standing beside Northland Parent Association president Jay Richmond as Richmond spoke against keeping that specific book in school libraries.

Richmond on Friday told KMBC:

Ryan was an attendee at the board meeting, I needed help holding a presentation and he helped. I can’t comment on the alleged charges against him because I have no knowledge about them and they have nothing to do with me or the Northland Parent Association.”

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Missouri Trans student awarded $4 million in lawsuit against school district

The lawsuit states the district’s reason for denying him access was because he was transgender and “is alleged to have female genitalia”

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Photo Credit: Blue Springs R-IV School District

BLUE SPRINGS, Mo. – A Trans male student was awarded more than $4 million in damages for sex discrimination against him by the suburban Kansas City Blue Springs R-IV School District. A jury in Jackson County delivered its verdict Monday.

In documents filed in court, the lawsuit noted that the student had legally changed his named in 2010 and had successfully petitioned the Jackson County Circuit Court in 2014 to amend his birth certificate to reflect his gender and new name, NBC News affiliate KSHB 41 News in Kansas City reported.

The student was denied use of the boys’ restrooms and locker rooms at Blue Springs R-IV School District’s Delta Woods Middle School and the Freshman Center.

“Defendants again denied [the plaintiff] access to the boys’ restrooms and locker rooms even though he is recognized as a boy under the laws of the state of Missouri,” the suit stated. “Defendants continue to deny [the plaintiff] access to the boys’ restrooms and locker rooms as of the filing of this Petition.”

The student participated in boys’ P.E. and athletics in middle school, including the eighth grade boys’ football team and track team, and he had to use a “separate, single person, unisex bathroom outside the boys’ locker room because Defendants refused to give him access to the boys’ locker rooms.”

The student “chose not to participate in fall sports for the 2014-2015 school year at the Freshman Center due to being denied access to the boys’ locker room and restrooms,” the lawsuit’s filing stated.

KSHB News 41’s Katharine Finnerty noted:

The lawsuit was filed in 2015 after the defendant filed a charge of discrimination with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights in late 2014.

The lawsuit filed for the student states that the district’s reason for denying him access was because he was transgender and “is alleged to have female genitalia.”

Upon information and belief, Defendants do not speculate, inspect, or otherwise inquire as to the genitalia of other male students,” the lawsuit said. “Defendants have discriminated and continue to discriminate against Plaintiff R.M.A. based on his sex.

The school district released a statement that it intends to appeal the jury’s verdict.

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Gay High School senior who makes his mark on TikTok is crowned queen

“He’s engaged in school, active in activities, including cheer, & is not afraid to ask questions and identify challenges he sees around him”

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Zachary Willmore (Photo by Desmond Kisida, Photo Editor, RBHS Bearing News)

COLUMBIA, Mo. – This eighteen-year-old senior at South Columbia’s Rock Bridge High School is fierce, fabulous, funny and now a queen after this past week’s homecoming when he won the title of ‘Homecoming Queen’ after being selected by his schoolmates. Oh and this varsity cheerleader is the first boy at Rock Bridge to ever claim the crown.

In an interview with NBC News affiliate KOMU 8 in Columbia, Zachary Willmore, who has been Out since middle school told reporter Kathryn Merck he put up a social media poll that determined whether he would become king or queen. 

“They thought queen could look prettier on the sash,” Willmore explained. “So I chose queen.”

Willmore is also a successful social media presence on TikTok with over a million viewers. His Instagram has a respectable following as well. What makes him unique according to school administrators, friends, and family is his pro-active engagement in school activities.

“Zachary Willmore is a wonderful student,” Columbia Public Schools spokesperson Michelle Baumstark told KOMU 8. “He’s engaged in school, active in activities, including cheer, and is not afraid to ask questions and identify challenges he sees around him.”

Homecoming Queen isn’t the only victory won for Wilmore. On his TikTok feed he has showcased numerous outfits that he has worn to school- that promptly got him sent to the office for violations of the school’s dress code.

On his way to the office Wilmore would stop off in one of the boy’s restrooms and with a backdrop of a row of urinals’ arrayed behind him he’d do a quick reel dancing to an upbeat song. “It’s honestly funny at this point,” he told the Columbia Missourian newspaper, “They tell me, ‘Don’t wear that outfit again.’ But I never wear the same outfit twice, so it’s not a problem.”

Wilmore explained, “Teachers were allowed to make the call of what was appropriate,” Willmore told the paper. “Many times I did feel like they could target students, and I did feel targeted in some scenarios.”

Using his TikTok account as his vehicle for change, Wilmore challenged the school policy.

According to the Columbia Public Schools spokesperson, “He has challenged the dress code over his time at Rock Bridge and is working with the school to develop a more up-to-date dress code for the school,” Baumstark said.

Wilmore via Instagram

Willmore said he’s a part of a group of students taking active steps to fix some of the dress code rules. 

“They put me in charge of creating the new dress code,” Willmore said. “I got to make a rough draft which got sent to the student council and then to the principal.”

“A group of students has been assembled to work on the dress code revisions with administration,” Baumstark said. “They are still at the beginning stages, but Rock Bridge hopes to have a revised dress code by the end of the school year and before Zachary graduates.”

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Student led anti-bullying walkout to defend Out high school senior

Lillis, who is openly gay, said he and his friends have been targeted and bullied by another group of students

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Lee's Summit High School, Lee's Summit, Missouri (Photo Credit; Lee’s Summit R-7 School District)

LEE’S SUMMIT, Mo.  – A fight between students that led to the suspension of a victim of anti-gay bullying and his friend who defended him, led to hundreds of students walking out of classes Monday in solidarity to protest the school administration punishing them and not addressing the behaviour of the bullies.

Danny Lillis, who is openly gay, told multiple media outlets that since the beginning of the school year at Lee’s Summit High School in suburban Kansas City, he and his friends have been targeted and bullied by another group of students.

This year, Lillis started wearing make-up to express himself. 

Malani Hohlbaugh, a friend of the Out senior had enough of her friend being targeted with anti-gay slurs and bullying. Last Wednesday she along with her friend Lillis accosted the group of 3 males who had been the primary cohort. The confrontation escalated into a physical altercation landing her in the emergency room with a broken nose and being suspended along with Lillis and one other friend of theirs.

Lillis told the Kansas City Star newspaper that the group of students had routinely spouted hateful remarks and thrown food at them. He claimed that he went to administrators at least four times to report the incidents, “crying, saying ‘I don’t feel safe’ repeatedly. And nothing changed.”

Danny Lillis speaking with WDAF-TV Fox4 Kansas City (Screenshot via Fox4)

They were just talking about how we’re ugly, how we’re rude,” Carly Vento, another senior, told WDAF-TV Fox4. “How we’re all fat.”

Melanie Davies, the mother of Lillis’ friend Malani Hohlbaugh, told the Kansas City Star; “Every single time that this happened, our kids have gone to student administration and reported it,” Davies said. “There is supposed to be a zero tolerance policy for bullying, but nobody is doing anything about. They haven’t gotten the help that they needed.”

The same group of kids started in on them again, and my daughter just had enough. She ran up the stairs after one of the boys and yelled at him to not talk to them like that, to not say those things,” Davies said.

They turned around and he was walking in front of them. My daughter tried to get around him. But their shoulders hit, and then he shoved her. So she shoved him back, and he punched her right in the face.”

According to Lillis and Hohlbaugh, “No teachers were around. Students broke it up.”

In an interview with Fox4 Monday, Missy Lillis, Danny’s mother told the station that she had even met with the assistant principal to work out a safety plan weeks ago.

We never, ever wanted things to get escalated to this point. Unfortunately, it did, and physical harm was done,” she said.

Lee’s Summit R-7 School District spokeswoman Katy Bergen said in an email to The Star that, “all forms of bullying are prohibited in LSR7. We investigate all complaints of bullying that we receive.”

She declined to provide specifics to the paper regarding the alleged bullying, fight and disciplinary action.

“Everyone in the Lee’s Summit R-7 School District community deserves to feel safe and welcome. Harassment or discrimination in LSR7 is strictly prohibited,” she said. “Although laws protecting students’ privacy prevents us from discussing the specifics of this incident, we can share that school and district administrators are conducting an investigation and taking action to ensure the safety of all students and staff.”

“District administrators will follow Board of Education policies and procedures as we determine next steps. In LSR7, it is a top priority to ensure an inclusive culture where our students, staff members and families are valued and treated with dignity.”

As a result of the fight and suspensions the students were not allowed to attend the high school’s homecoming events this past weekend.

Prior to the walkout, students created a Change dot org petition, that listed the following factors:

Things to know:

1. The harassment had been reported by students prior to the altercation, and administration did not investigate it.

2. Administration’s standard policy is to punish both parties regardless of who started the altercation.

3. A contract of no contact had been reached between the parties privately, which went unenforced by the school and after which verbal harassment continued.

4. An ally to the LGBTQ+ student shoved back a member of the harassing party after having asked them to leave (the student was directing homophobic slurs at the LGBTQ+ student and violating the no contact contract), and the harassing party inflicted visible injuries to the ally as a response.

Our demands of Lee’s Summit High School Administration:

1. Excuse the LGBTQ+ student and their allies from suspension and remove the incident from their permanent records.

2. Investigate reports and justly punish the other party for harassment on the grounds of sexual orientation.

3. Pledge to enforce the school’s Zero Tolerance Policy for bullying and harassment.

4. Issue a school-wide apology for administration’s initial handling of the incident and for inflicting fear in all LSHS LGBTQ+ students in regards to their physical and mental safety at the school.

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