Federal court rules trans students are protected by sex discrimination law
The high-profile bathroom case involving transgender student Gavin Grimm moved forward Tuesday when a federal judge in Virginia ruled in favor of Grimm’s right to use the boys’ bathroom at his high school in Gloucester County, Virginia.
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, ruling that the district’s decision to bar Grimm from using the bathroom corresponding with his gender identity constituted sex discrimination under Title IX.
The school board claimed its policy did not violate Title IX, arguing that the law’s language prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex did not apply to gender identity. After prohibiting Grimm from using the boys’ bathroom following complaints from some parents and students, Grimm’s high school instituted a policy requiring students to use bathrooms and locker rooms for their “corresponding biological genders.” The school also urged Grimm and other students with “gender identity issues” to use private bathrooms, according to the New York Times.
Allen called the school board’s insistence that it did not discriminate against Grimm “resoundingly unpersuasive.”
“Preventing Mr. Grimm from using the boys’ restrooms did nothing to protect the privacy rights of other students, but certainly singled out and stigmatized Mr. Grimm,” she wrote in her ruling.
Allen directed lawyers for both sides to schedule a settlement conference within 30 days.
Josh Block, the lead lawyer on Grimm’s case and a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, told the New York Times that Grimm was seeking “nominal damages” and a “declaratory judgment” that the school’s bathroom policy violated Title IX. Now 19 years old and living in Berkeley, California, Grimm has graduated from high school plans to attend college in the fall.
“I feel an incredible sense of relief,” Grimm said in a statement following 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.”
Tuesday’s ruling marked the latest development in the yearslong court case, which Grimm first filed in 2015. A judge initially denied Grimm’s request for a court order allowing him to use the boys’ bathroom, after which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled in Grimm’s favor. The school board appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear oral arguments on the matter in March 2017.
However, after the Trump administration rescinded Obama-era guidance that protected trans students’ rights to use bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity, the Supreme Court sent the case back to a lower court.
According to the New York Times, the Gloucester County school board is “aware” of the ruling but has yet to indicate whether it plans to appeal.
Tuesday’s legal guidance could have broader implications for similar fights across the country. The Education Department revealed in February it was no longer investigating complaints from trans students over their schools’ discriminatory bathroom policies, though such policies are still being debated and litigated in the courts and state governments.
In April, for example, the Missouri Supreme Court heard arguments in two separate cases over whether the state’s Human Rights Act protects against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. One case concerned a trans male student who was prohibited from using the boys’ restroom and locker room at a Kansas City-area school.
The Oregon case was brought by the group Parents for Privacy, who allege the Dallas School District’s policy of allowing students to use bathrooms corresponding to their gender identity violates other students’ civil rights.
Similarly, the Pennsylvania case concerns the Boyertown Area School District, which also allows trans students to use the bathroom of their choice. Parents of cisgender students filed a lawsuit claiming the policy “violates the privacy rights of non-transgender students.” ACLU attorney Ria Tabacco Mar told NBC News the case marked the first legal challenge by a cis student against a school’s trans-inclusive policy in a federal appeals court, which means the forthcoming decision “could set important precedents.”
In Montana, the ACLU is suing the state in an attempt to block a proposal — one that would require people to use the bathroom dictated by the gender on their birth certificate — from appearing on the ballot in November.
Voters in Anchorage, Alaska, rejected a similar measure in April, leaving the city’s existing nondiscrimination policies in place.
Since the 2016 passage of North Carolina’s controversial bathroom bill — which has since been partially repealed — the introduction of anti-trans bathroom legislation has become commonplace. The Human Rights Campaign reported that 8 states introduced such bills in 2017, though none were successful.
Six states have introduced similar legislation so far in 2018, according to the ACLU, including Tennessee, where the bill would allow the state’s attorney general to “legally represent any local education agency or employee if they designate public bathrooms for use based only on ones’ biological sex,” the Memphis Flyer reported.
In South Dakota, lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee defeated a proposal in February that would have required schools to write and make public their bathroom policies.
That said, many local and state governments have enacted policies in support of trans rights: In April, the mayor of Hoboken, New Jersey, ordered all city-owned, single-occupancy restrooms to be designated as gender-neutral. Mayor Ravinder Bhalla also directed the city council to vote on an ordinance making all Hoboken bathrooms — including ones in privately owned buildings — accessible to all gender identities.
Vermont lawmakers passed a similar law in May, CNN reported.
“In the face of the kind of hysteria that has been generated around transgender restrooms in other states, this makes common sense,” state Rep. Bill Lippert Jr., who co-sponsored the Vermont bill, said. “Because it really makes a difference for transgender people who want to use a bathroom where they feel safe. It is satisfying to take the next step forward.”