In a significant legal win for trans youth in America, a federal appeals court ruled that schools cannot prohibit students from using restrooms that correspond with their gender identity.
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decided on August 26 that restroom policies segregating transgender students from their peers are unconstitutional and violate Title IX, the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in education.
The 2-1 court decision is part of a 5-year-long case launched by transgender student Gavin Grimm, who was a high school sophomore in 2015 when he filed a lawsuit against his Virginia school district after alleging his school’s restroom policies were a violation of his civil rights. The ruling struck down Gloucester County School Board’s defense that not allowing students to use restrooms that matched their gender protected the privacy of other students.
In a statement, Grimm voiced his gratitude for the court ruling, “All transgender students should have what I was denied: the opportunity to be seen for who we are by our schools and our government. Today’s decisions is an incredible affirmation for not just me, but for trans youth around the country.”
After disclosing to his mother that he was trans and beginning to present as a male in his daily life, Grimm and his mom went to his high school principal requesting permission for him to be able to use the boys’ restrooms. The request was granted; however, once adults in the community found out about Grimm’s arrangement, the Gloucester County School Board was met with intense backlash and complaints from parents in and outside the school district.
Community members in Gloucester County complained that by allowing transgender students to use restrooms corresponding with their gender identity, this would open the door to predatory behavior, particularly by male students pretending to be transgender in attempts to use the girls’ restroom. “A young man can come up and say, ‘I’m a girl, I need to use the ladies’ rooms now.’ And they’d be lying through their teeth,” one person said.
Following the complaints, the School Board proposed a policy under which students could only use restrooms matching their biological gender. Grimm was therefore no longer allowed to use the boys’ restrooms. Those struggling with their gender identity were encouraged to use alternate single-stall restrooms.
Grimm told the court that he felt “stigmatized and isolated,” explaining that going to the restroom was like a “walk of shame.” As a result, Grimm suffered urinary tract infections from trying to avoid the restrooms altogether, and in his junior year, was hospitalized for suicidal thoughts resulting from being in an environment where he felt “unsafe, anxious, and disrespected.”
The appeals court’s decision provides a heartbreaking look into the challenges that trans students face, including harassment, discrimination, and major mental health issues.
In one survey, 58% of trans youth reported being discouraged from using restrooms that corresponded with their gender identity due to harassment, mistreatment, and judgement. “When being forced to use a special restroom or one that does not align with their gender, more than 40% of trans students fast, dehydrate, or find ways not to use the restroom,” such as in Grimm’s case. Being able to use restrooms that match their gender identity is an effective way for transgender students to affirm their gender and socially transition, but as shown, many are barred from doing so.
The appeals court’s ruling puts Grimm’s case—and the subject of trans rights—back on track to the US Supreme Court. It was previously set to be debated in 2017 but was sent back after President Donald Trump’s administration rolled back protections for transgender students initially issued by the administration of President Barack Obama regarding restroom access.
In a statement, Judge Henry Floyd wrote, “The proudest moments of the federal judiciary have been when we affirm the burgeoning values of our bright youth, rather than preserve the prejudices of the past. How shallow a promise of equal protection that would not protect Grimm from the fantastical fears and unfounded prejudices of his adult community.”
Judge James Wynn Jr. joined Floyd’s majority opinion and wrote , “I am left to conclude that the policy instead discriminates against transgender students out of a bare dislike or fear of those ‘others’ who are all too often marginalized in our society for the mere fact that they are different. As such, the policy grossly offends the Constitution’s basic guarantee of equal protection under the law.”
Grimm, now 21, lives in California and is an activist for transgender rights.