This Key Transgender Rights Ruling Reveals The Secret Weapon That Could Really Change Things

The scales of justice have come down in favor of trans rights, and not a moment too soon. In Virginia Tuesday, a federal appeals court ruled in favor of a transgender student invoking his right to use the boy's bathroom at his rural Virginia high school, arguing that Title IX protects his right to do so. The court agreed — and this first time that a federal appellate court has ruled on the issue, setting a precedent that Title IX can be used to protect transgender students from discrimination.

The ruling came down following months of debate in state houses around the nation on anti-trans "bathroom bills." The anti-LGBT legislation passed in North Carolina just weeks ago not only overturned local nondiscrimination ordinances, but also included a transphobic bathroom measure prohibiting transgender individuals from using a bathroom that doesn't correspond with the sex dictated by their birth certificate.

North Carolina has already been sued by LGBT rights groups and the ACLU due to the discriminatory law, dubbed House Bill 2. The measure's opponents contend the overall law "violates the most basic guarantees of equal treatment and the U.S. Constitution." But they specifically address Title IX in regard to bathrooms. Title IX is a measure in the Education Act of 1972 which protects students from sex-based discrimination in publicly funded educational programs.

Tuesday's decision bodes well for that argument. That's because the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit heard the Virginia case, and it has jurisdiction over North Carolina as well. That means the decision arguably applies to North Carolina already, leading LGBT advocates to call on North Carolina schools to apply the ruling as soon as Wednesday.

"Our expectation is that the North Carolina schools reverse course immediately, as in tomorrow,” the Human Rights Campaign's legal director, Sarah Warbelow, told The New York Times Tuesday night.

The National Center for Transgender Equality also released a statement Tuesday, calling the ruling one of the "biggest milestones" for the trans community in 2016:

This decision makes it clearer than ever that restricting trans students’ restroom use is illegal under federal law, and laws like North Carolina’s HB 2 are trumped by Title IX. The decision provides especially critical guidance for schools in North Carolina, which is located in the Fourth Circuit and is bound by this ruling. The court has sent North Carolina schools an important message: following HB 2 is discriminatory, harmful and illegal.

Even if North Carolina schools don't instantly follow the ruling, the pending legislation against the state is likely to be successful. Any anti-trans district-level ruling can be appealed with near certainty of success.

This also should strengthen the Department of Education's position in defending trans students nationwide. They have threatened school districts around the country with a loss of funding and even court action for denying transgender students their right to use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity. They cited Title IX in doing so, but before this decision the courts had not spoken on the matter.

How the Supreme Court would rule is a mystery, but the likelihood of a tie remains as long as Scalia is not replaced. That means the district court ruling would hold, again a good sign for North Carolina.

Tuesday's ruling specifically applies to 16-year-old Gavin Grimm. His school, in a rural county east of Richmond, denied him the use of the boy's restroom after intense public debate. They instituted a policy limiting bathrooms to what they deemed "corresponding biological genders." With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, Grimm sued in 2015.

The district court ruled in favor of the school, but Tuesday, the appeals court sent it back down for reconsideration, instructing the lower court to take the federal government's interpretation of Title IX into consideration — that transgender students need to be treated in a manner consistent with their gender identity. Whether this will help stem the tide of anti-trans bills from popping up around the nation is another story. One bright spot on that front, though: Also on Tuesday, Tennessee legislators pulled a similar bill from consideration.