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As his trans daughter struggles, a father pushes past his prejudice. ‘It was like a wake-up’

By HEATHER HOLLINGSWORTH, Associated Press
Published: April 15, 2024, 6:00am
3 Photos
Dusty Farr talks about his efforts to fight bathroom bans after his transgender daughter while visiting a park with his daughter near Smithville, Mo., Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024. Farr is suing the Platt County School District after his daughter was suspended for using the girl&rsquo;s bathroom at the Missouri high school she attended.
Dusty Farr talks about his efforts to fight bathroom bans after his transgender daughter while visiting a park with his daughter near Smithville, Mo., Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024. Farr is suing the Platt County School District after his daughter was suspended for using the girl’s bathroom at the Missouri high school she attended. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel) Photo Gallery

SMITHVILLE, Mo. (AP) — Before his transgender daughter was suspended after using the girls’ bathroom at her Missouri high school. Before the bullying and the suicide attempts. Before she dropped out.

Before all that, Dusty Farr was — in his own words — “a full-on bigot.” By which he meant that he was eager to steer clear of anyone LGBTQ+.

Now, though, after everything, he says he wouldn’t much care if his 16-year-old daughter — and he proudly calls her that — told him she was an alien. Because she is alive.

“When it was my child, it just flipped a switch,” says Farr, who is suing the Platte County School District on Kansas City’s outskirts. “And it was like a wake-up.”

Farr has found himself in an unlikely role: fighting bathroom bans that have proliferated at the state and local level in recent years. But Farr is not so unusual, says his attorney, Gillian Ruddy Wilcox of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri.

“It sometimes takes meeting a person before someone can say, ‘Oh, that’s a person and that’s who they are, and they’re just being themselves,'” she says. “And I do think that for Dusty, that’s what it took.”

___

Looking back, Farr figures his daughter, the youngest of five, started feeling out of place in her own body when she was just 6 or 7. But he didn’t see it.

Farr said he didn’t have “a lot of exposure to what I would consider the outside world” in the conservative Nebraska community where he was raised. “Just old farmers” is how he described it.

Moving to the Kansas City area, which has 20% more people than live in all of Nebraska, was a culture shock. “I had never seen the LGBTQ community up close, and I would still have my closed-minded thoughts.” He said things then that he now regrets. “A lot of derogatory words. I don’t want to go back to that place.”

He settled on the outskirts in one of the more conservative enclaves, a community that is home to some of the troops stationed at nearby Fort Leavenworth. He worked as a service manager at a tractor repair facility.

His youngest — a smart, funny, loves-to-sing, light-up-a-room kind of kid — was his fishing and camping buddy. A competitive archer, she also joined her dad on trips to the shooting range.

“No parent has a favorite,” Farr says, “but if I had a favorite, it would be my youngest.”

But when she was 12, she started to steer away from him, spending more time with the rest of the family. It lasted for a few months before she came out to her family. He knows now how hard this was. “Growing up,” he says, “my kids knew how I felt.”

His wife, whom he described as less sheltered, was on board immediately. Him, not so much.

“Given the way I was raised, a conservative fire and brimstone Baptist, LGBTQ is a sin, you’re going to hell. And these were things, unfortunately, that I said to my daughter,” Farr says. “I’m kind of ashamed to say that.”

They bumped heads and argued, their relationship strained. In desperation, he turned to God, poring through the Bible, questioning teachings that he once took at face value that being transgender was an abomination. He prayed on it, too, replaying her childhood in his mind, seeing feminine qualities now that he had missed.

Then it hit him. “She’s a girl.”

“I got peace from God. Like, ‘This is how your daughter was born. I don’t make mistakes as God. So she was made this way. There’s a reason for it.'”

___

The switch was almost instantaneous. “An overnight epiphany,” he calls it. “It’s uplifting when you can actually accept the way things are, and you’re not carrying that unfounded hate and unfounded disgust.”

His daughter, who is named only by her initials of R.F. in the lawsuit, was stunned. He had been, she recalls, “to say it nicely, very annoying.” Now everything was different.

“There was this electricity in me that was just, it felt like pure joy. Just seeing someone I thought would never support me, just being one of my biggest supporters,” she recalled as she played with her dog, a miniature Jack Russell terrier named Allie, at a park on an unseasonably warm February day. Her father was with her.

She, her father and her attorneys asked that she remain anonymous because she is unnamed in the lawsuit and to protect her from discrimination.

All those years, he had missed it. It is strange to him now.

“I don’t know if it was my inner bigotry not wanting to see it or if I was just blind. I don’t know,” he says.

But the how, the why — these are not things he likes to dwell on much.

“Where we’re at now is what matters,” he says. “Me being a loving father. Me being accepting, me knowing that this isn’t a choice. This is how she was born.”

His daughter was diagnosed with gender dysphoria, or distress caused when gender identity doesn’t match a person’s assigned sex. A common treatment is to prescribe drugs to delay puberty.

That’s what Farr’s daughter did, along with growing out her hair. She had friends, and Farr says things returned to normal — for the most part.

But then came high school. “And,” Farr says, “anything I did to her, school was 10 times worse.”

The school knew about her gender dysphoria diagnosis, Farr says, describing it simply as a medical issue. Telling them about it was something he likened to talking about a case of chicken pox. The whole thing didn’t seem like such a big deal now. “We were golden.” After all, he says: “If we don’t evolve, we die.”

But the 2021-22 school year had just started when the assistant principal pulled his daughter aside. While remote learning persisted in some schools as the pandemic lingered, the high school was in person. According to the suit filed last year, the administrator said students must use the restroom of their sex designated at birth or a single gender-neutral bathroom. The district disputes that happened .

Another employee, the suit said, took it further and told her using the girls’ bathroom was against the law. The district disputed that happened, too.

___

The thing is, there isn’t a law — at least, not in Missouri.

While more than 10 states have enacted laws over bathroom use, Missouri is not one of them. What Missouri has done is impose a ban on gender-affirming care. For bathrooms, it leaves policy debate to local districts.

“Asinine” is how Farr described the whole wave of restrictions, while acknowledging in the same breath that he probably would have supported them a decade ago. “Kind of makes me dislike myself a little bit.”

He figured it was all just a way to intimidate her. He thinks some people believe mistakenly that trans kids are trying to catch a glimpse of someone not fully clothed.

Some Republican legislators who have backed state-level bathroom laws have argued that they’re responding to people’s concerns about transgender women sharing bathrooms, locker rooms and other spaces with cisgender women and girls. But critics argue that restrictions cause harassment of transgender people, not the other way around.

“I don’t think they get the severity of what just telling someone what restroom they can use — what kind of impact something that small can have on someone.”

His daughter didn’t understand: “It kind of just made me feel hopeless in my education,” she recalls thinking. “Because how is this place that’s supposed to teach me everything to be an adult, how are they going to teach me what I need to learn when they’re dictating where I pee?”

The gender-neutral bathroom was far from her classes and often had long lines, the suit says. She, as a freshman, was missing class, and teachers were lecturing her. So she used the girls’ restroom. Verbal reprimands were followed by a one day in-school suspension and then a two-day, out-of-school suspension, the suit says.

“Your policy is dumb,” Farr recalled telling the school, which argued in its response to his lawsuit that his daughter was eating lunch in the girls’ restroom and had unclean hands.

His daughter started using the boys’ restroom. The suit said it was because she feared more discipline, but the district argued in its written response that she was “intentionally engaging in disruptive behavior in numerous bathrooms, perhaps to invite discipline.” It didn’t elaborate on what it meant by disruptive behavior.

One day, she was in the boys’ restroom when a classmate approached and told another student, “Maybe I should rape her,” the suit said. Farr said the student told his daughter he was threatening her because she looked like a girl.

Beyond angry now, Farr called not just the school but the ACLU. The district acknowledged the incident, saying a student made a “highly inappropriate” comment about rape and was disciplined. By now, Farr’s daughter was afraid to go to school.

“If I use the restroom they say I have to, I’m going to get bullied. If I use the gender-neutral restroom, I’m going to be late to my classes,” Farr says, illustrating his daughter’s point of view. “So it’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation.”

The district sees it differently, writing in a court filing that “there were numerous factors and circumstances in R.F.’s life, unrelated to school, which may have caused emotional harm, depression and anxiety.”

___

Ultimately, her parents got the school to agree to let her finish her freshman year online. But she missed three weeks of classes before the switch was approved. Typically an A and B student, she plummeted to D’s and F’s. Worse to Farr, his daughter was withdrawing, losing friends and isolating herself in her room.

He describes it as “a dark rabbit hole of depression.” Twice she tried to kill herself and was hospitalized. Everything from butter knives to headache medicine was locked up.

She returned in person to start her sophomore year, hoping things would be better. She made it only a few weeks before returning to online school.

At semester’s end, Farr and his family moved out of the district. Bathroom access remained a source of friction in her new school, so again she switched to online school. When she turned 16 last spring, Farr and his wife agreed to let her drop out. He says they chose to focus on her mental health and describes it as “probably the best decision we’ve made.” Still, it feels strange.

“I never would have guessed that I would — I don’t want to use happy — but would be OK with one of my kids quitting school,” he said.

She is in counseling now, taking hormone replacement therapy, leaving her room and watching TV with Farr. She is interviewing for a job and considering an alternative high school completion program. She’d like to go to college one day, and study psychology, maybe law.

With the lawsuit filed, customers have approached Farr, telling him they support his fight. He was expecting they would scoff. Even his own parents are on board, which he says “surprised the hell out of me.”

“These aren’t the people who raised me, let me tell you,” he says.

Sometimes Farr’s daughter yells at him, and he admits that he missed the teen attitude. That spirit and fight had faded.

“Being a teenager is hell,” he says. “Being a trans teen is 10 kinds of hell. She’s the brave one. I’m just her voice.”

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He feels he has changed enough to fill this role — that being her voice can help other parents and kids avoid what his family endured. “Our kids,” he says, “are dying.” He thinks that because of where he came from, maybe people will listen when he raises alarms. Maybe.

“It’s almost like a transgender person,” he says of his transformation. “There’s the dead me. And then there’s the new me.”

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