On Tuesday, a federal court ruled in favor of Gavin Grimm, the transgender activist who sued Gloucester School Board for refusing to let him use the men's restroom when he was a high school student. The U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Virginia ruled that federal anti-discrimination laws protect trans students' right to use the bathrooms that correspond with their gender identities, and ordered the school board to schedule a settlement conference with Grimm within 30 days.
Grimm's legal battle for transgender bathroom rights has taken a long, winding path. Along with the ACLU, he initially sued the school board in 2015, when he was a student at Gloucester High School. When his family informed the school that he was receiving treatment for gender dysphoria, administrators initially allowed him to use the men's room for two months without issue, the lawsuit says. However, the board then reversed course, deciding on a 6-1 vote that trans students must use a separate bathroom facility from cisgender students.
A district court initially ruled against him, but an appeals court ordered that court to review its ruling after the Obama administration issued a guidance advising public schools to let trans students to use the bathrooms of their choice. The case ultimately made its way to the Supreme Court — but before it could be heard, the Trump administration withdrew the Obama administration's guidance on bathroom use, thus sending the case back to the lower courts.
But on Tuesday, the district court ruled that Grimm and transgender students across the country are protected under Title IX, the federal law that bans discrimination "on the basis of sex" in public schools. At the heart of the legal dispute is the fact that, as U.S. District Judge Arenda Wright Allen wrote in her ruling Tuesday, "neither Title IX nor its regulations defines the term 'sex.'" This makes it unclear whether the law is intended to protect against discrimination based on gender identity or merely biological gender.
The school board argued that Title IX does not protect transgender students from discrimination, and that its policy on bathroom use "distinguished boys and girls based on physical characteristics alone." But Wright determined that this policy "fails to acknowledge that there are individuals who possess both male and female physical sex characteristics," thus making it "unmanageable."
Furthermore, Wright noted that although the board's policy is based on "biological identity," that concept "has not been accepted by the medical community," as it fails to account for gender identity. As such, the school board's policy allowed the school to "isolate, distinguish, and subject to differential treatment any student who deviated from what the board viewed a male or female student should be, and from the physiological characteristics the board believed that a male or female student should have," Wright wrote.
Wright added that multiple appellate courts — specifically, those for the First, Sixth, Ninth and Eleventh circuits — have ruled that transgender discrimination claims are covered under the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employers from engaging in various types of discrimination. Lastly, Wright cited other court ruling that transgender discrimination is banned under the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution, and said that she concurs.
Although Grimm graduated from high school in 2017, and is thus no longer directly affected by any court rulings on the case, the district court's ruling is important in that it adds to the growing judicial precedent that transgender students are protected under anti-discrimination laws, including the Constitution.
"I feel an incredible sense of relief," Grimm said in a statement celebrating 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."