LITTLE EGG HARBOR, N.J. — Lily McBeth, the teacher whose battles with school boards in conservative areas of New Jersey made her a reluctant symbol of the transgender rights movement, has died. She was 80.
McBeth died Sept. 24 near her home in Little Egg Harbor after a long illness, her daughter Maureen said.
“She was very much at peace with her life,” Maureen McBeth said. “She just wanted to be who she was.”
McBeth had undergone sex reassignment surgery in 2005 after nine years of substitute teaching in Eagleswood Township, and she sought to continue in the job.
But vocal opposition from some parents concerned about the impact of a transgender teacher on young students led to a contentious debate that ended with her rehiring. She later substituted at the Pinelands Regional school district as well.
The schools’ 2006 decisions to keep her on as a substitute were hailed around the nation as a model of tolerance and acceptance of transgender Americans. But she resigned in frustration in 2009 after getting only a handful of assignments. The schools said they had permanent substitutes and outside subs were only called when the permanent subs were unavailable.
Steven Goldstein, founder of the Garden State Equality rights group, said McBeth never wanted to become a symbol of anything, but became one nonetheless.
“It is so much easier to understand an issue with a human face, and Lily became the human face of transgender rights for many people,” he said. “She did so much to increase understanding and awareness of transgender people just by being strong and being who she was.”
Goldstein called McBeth one of the most important figures in New Jersey civil rights history in the last two decades.
After selling a physical therapy marketing company, McBeth moved from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, to New Jersey, where she got a substitute teaching job in Eagleswood, a community 17 miles north of Atlantic City. After her 2005 surgery, she sought to return as a substitute, which drew vocal opposition from some parents.
But many students were unfazed, particularly those that remembered her as a competent male teacher.
McBeth was a ukulele player and an avid carver of wooden decoy ducks. She acted in local theater productions, sang in a church choir and was active in a group seeking to re-establish clam populations in Barnegat Bay.
She donated her body to a medical school for research and physician training; funeral arrangements were private, her daughter said.
In a 2009 interview with The Associated Press, McBeth said she treasured interacting with students in the classroom.
“I tried to be an example of something you might want to be when you grow up: a kind, caring person,” she said.
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