National News

U.S. Judge Sides With Transgender Student in Bathroom Dispute

Posted May 22, 2018 10:33 p.m. EDT

A federal judge in Virginia has found in favor of a transgender student whose efforts to use the boys’ bathrooms at his high school reached the Supreme Court and thrust him into the middle of a national debate about the rights of transgender students.

In an order handed down Tuesday, Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia denied a motion by the Gloucester County school board to dismiss the lawsuit brought by the student, Gavin Grimm.

The school board had maintained that Grimm’s “biological gender” was female and had prohibited administrators from allowing him to use the boys’ restrooms. He sued the school board in July 2015, alleging that its policy violated Title IX as well as the equal protection clause of the Constitution.

The board had argued in essence that its policy was valid because Title IX allows for claims only on the basis of sex, rather than gender identity, and that its policy did not violate the equal protection clause.

But Wright Allen disagreed, writing that Grimm’s transgender status constituted a claim of sex discrimination and that the bathroom policy had “subjected him to sex stereotyping,” violations of the law.

“There were many other ways to protect privacy interests in a nondiscriminatory and more effective manner than barring Mr. Grimm from using the boys’ restrooms,” she continued. “The Board’s argument that the policy did not discriminate against any one class of students is resoundingly unpersuasive.”

In Tuesday’s order, the judge directed lawyers for both parties to schedule a settlement conference within 30 days.

“I feel an incredible sense of relief,” Grimm, now 19 and headed to college in the fall, said in a statement after the ruling. “After fighting this policy since I was 15 years old, I finally have a court decision saying that what the Gloucester County School Board did to me was wrong and it was against the law. I was determined not to give up because I didn’t want any other student to have to suffer the same experience that I had to go through.”

In a statement issued late Tuesday, the Gloucester County school board said it was “aware of the District Court’s decision.” It was not clear whether the board planned to appeal.

A spokeswoman for the Justice Department declined to comment on Wright Allen’s ruling Tuesday.

One of Grimm’s lawyers said Tuesday that he had moved to Berkeley, California, and would attend college in the Bay Area. The lawyer, Josh Block, said they were seeking nominal damages and a declaratory judgment that the bathroom policy violated Grimm’s rights under Title IX.

“Title IX protects trans people, and that’s what courts have been saying for years,” said Block, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU who was the lead lawyer on Grimm’s case. “Even though this administration wants to try to roll back protections, they can’t change what the law says.”

At issue in Grimm’s case is whether Title IX, a provision in a 1972 law that bans discrimination “on the basis of sex” in schools that receive federal money, also bans discrimination based on gender identity. President Barack Obama concluded that it did.

But in February 2017, President Donald Trump rejected the Obama administration’s position and rescinded protections for transgender students that had allowed them to use bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity.

The practical effect of the Trump administration’s change in position was limited, however, as a federal court had previously issued a nationwide injunction barring enforcement of the Obama administration’s guidance.

Then, the next month, the Supreme Court announced that it would not decide whether Grimm could use the boys’ bathroom at his high school. Although the court decided not to take his case at the time, some predicted that it would almost certainly return there eventually.

The March 2017 decision was a setback for transgender rights advocates, who had hoped the Supreme Court would aid their cause in much the same way it had helped same-sex marriage advocates two years before.

Instead, in a one-sentence order, the Supreme Court vacated an appeals court decision in favor of Grimm, and sent the case back to the federal appeals court in Virginia for further consideration in light of the new guidance from the Trump administration. The case was later returned to the District Court to consider whether the school district’s policy had violated Grimm’s rights.

Grimm’s case is just one of several on transgender rights that have been litigated in lower courts or been the subject of federal civil rights investigations in recent years. In her order, Wright Allen cited several cases with arguments similar to Grimm’s. Even with Tuesday’s federal order, there remains a thicket of conflicting state laws and local school policies on bathroom use. Grimm’s journey into the spotlight began in 2014, when he was 15 and starting his sophomore year. At that time his family told his school, Gloucester High School, that he was transgender. Administrators were supportive at first and allowed him to use the boys’ bathroom.

But amid an uproar from some parents and students, the school board barred Grimm from using the boys’ bathrooms and adopted a policy requiring students to use the bathrooms and locker rooms for their “corresponding biological genders.” The board added that “students with gender identity issues” would be allowed to use private bathrooms.

The ACLU argued that requiring Grimm to use a private bathroom had been humiliating and had, quoting him, “turned him into ‘a public spectacle’ before the entire community, ‘like a walking freak show.'”

In its statement, the school board said that it “continues to believe that its resolution of this complex matter fully considered the interests of all students and parents in the Gloucester County school system.”