Transgender Girl Nicole Maines Wins Long Battle Against Her School District, And It's Only The Latest Sign of Progress

On November 25th, 17-year-old transgender girl Nicole Maines' concluded her seven-year-long legal battle against her former school district. The case, which centered around the school's decision to bar Maines from using the girls' bathroom and locker room, began when her parents filed a complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission in 2007, and has bounced around the state's judicial system ever since. Last week's ruling brings a happy ending for Maines and her family, with the state stating that $75,000 be paid to her and her attorneys, and that new inclusive policies for transgender students be implemented.

During the 2007-2008 school year, then-10-year-old Maines was a fifth grader at Orono elementary school. For nearly two years, Maines had been using the school’s girls’ restroom without incident, until one day, school administrators contacted Maines’ parents to inform them that Nicole would no longer be permitted to do so. Instead, she would be separated from her classmates and made to use the school’s faculty restroom. This decision by school administrators set in motion Maines’ lengthy, life-changing journey.

Maines recently signed a book deal, and last month, Glamour named her one of their “50 Hometown Heroes.” While Maines story is an encouraging one, she is not alone in her victory. Trans students have been experiencing significant gains in recent years, and it's a movement that's exciting to watch.

Just last year, Colorado first-grader Coy Mathis and her family faced a similar legal battle after being told she needed to use the school’s boys’ restroom. Mathis came out victorious, as the Colorado Division of Civil Rights issued a ruling stating, "Given the evolving research into the development of transgender persons, compartmentalizing a child as a boy or a girl solely based on their visible anatomy is a simplistic approach to a difficult and complex issue.” She returned to school shortly thereafter.

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Coy Mathis and her family at a 2013 GLAAD gala.

On Monday, the U.S. Department of Education clarified an April announcement that Title IX will be interpreted to protect transgender students when it comes to sex-segregated classes, stating, "All students, including transgender students and students who do not conform to sex stereotypes, are protected from sex-based discrimination under Title IX. Under Title IX, a recipient generally must treat transgender students consistent with their gender identity in all aspects of the planning, implementation, enrollment, operation, and evaluation of single-sex classes.”

Last year, California Governor Jerry Brown signed the School Success and Opportunity Act into law, laying out strict guidelines on how schools are to treat transgender students. Immediately, the newly signed bill was hit with a drawn-out repeal through referendum effort, spearheaded by groups like the National Organization for Marriage and the Pacific Justice Institute. Ultimately, these groups were unable to collect enough signatures to include their referendum on the 2014 ballot. While these groups fearmongered that the law would result in boys pretending to be transgender simply to use the girls restroom or to dominate girls’ sports, the law has now been in place for more than 11 months without a single documented incident, let alone the rampant abuse the groups claimed would occur.

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CA Gov. Jerry Brown during a bill signing ceremony.

Sadly, while there generally seems to be progress in the quest for trans rights, there remain massive challenges and ongoing setbacks for the movement.

There’s currently an effort in Minnesota to outline whether or not transgender students should be allowed to compete in school sports. Naturally, opponents of trans inclusion have taken to tried and true scare tactics, claiming that boys will infiltrate girls’ locker rooms and boys will bump girls from varsity rosters. Their plan — led by the Minnesota Family Council — is to generate confusion and fear among residents, leading to an outraged yet misled public. If all goes according to plan, public sentiment will dictate the outcome of the decision, resulting in trans student-athletes being excluded from school sports.

No phrase better sums up the trend in the fight for transgender rights than “two steps forward, one step back.” The victories are grueling, years-long battles; the defeats are swift and painful. For every seven-year victory like that of Nicole Maines, there’s a well-funded effort to roll back these advances. Sadly, it seems that the only way to begin picking apart so much of the misinformation and opposition to trans rights is to have more individuals like Maines and Coy Mathis; we need more bravery and willingness to fight these battles.

Maines, Mathis, and all the other trans students willing and able to publicly advocate for the rights of trans students are, to me, heroes. If we want to honor them as the leaders they are, we need to ensure that their gains aren’t rolled back; we have to push back against efforts like that of the National Organization for Marriage, Minnesota Family Council, Privacy for All Students, and the Pacific Justice Institute.

We have to be loud. We have to be brave. We have to be heroes.