A federal judge in Norfolk ruled Friday that the Gloucester County School Board violated Gavin Grimm’s rights by banning him from using the boys bathroom, the latest in a string of decisions nationwide to favor transgender students who faced similar policies.
The order issued by U.S. District Judge Arenda Wright Allen is a major victory for Grimm, a transgender man, and the American Civil Liberties Union. Grimm’s four-year lawsuit was once a federal test case and had come to embody the debate about transgender student rights.
But the issue remains far from settled in the country, amid other court cases and a patchwork of differing policies governing the nation’s schools.
In Friday’s ruling, Wright Allen said the Gloucester School Board discriminated against Grimm, who transitioned from female to male while at Gloucester High School, by passing a policy limiting students to use either bathrooms corresponding to their biological sex or single-stall unisex bathrooms, and by refusing to change Grimm’s transcript to say “male.”
“There is no question that the board’s policy discriminates against transgender students on the basis of their gender noncomformity,” Wright Allen wrote.
“Under the policy, all students except for transgender students may use restrooms corresponding with their gender identity,” she continued. “Transgender students are singled out, subjected to discriminatory treatment, and excluded from spaces where similarly situated students are permitted to go.”
Grimm, who graduated from high school in 2017, is now 20 years old and attends Berkeley City College in California. He said by phone Friday that the judge’s order was “beautiful.”
Grimm said he felt a sense of relief but would continue to fight the case if the School Board appeals.
“My case has given me something of a platform that I intend to use, as long as I have it available to me, for trans education and advocacy,” he told The Associated Press.
The ACLU of Virginia, which represented Grimm, said in a tweet celebrating the ruling: “Trans people belong in schools. Trans people belong EVERYWHERE.”
William “Jarret” Lee, the chairman of the Gloucester School Board, did not return a phone call seeking comment after normal business hours on Friday. The School Board is expected to appeal the ruling, The Daily Press reported.
The case has been in court for four years, starting when Grimm was a student and he sued the county School Board for violating his rights under the 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection of the law. He was initially allowed to use the boys bathroom but, after complaints from parents and students, was later told he couldn’t.
Grimm’s lawsuit was set to go before the U.S. Supreme Court, but the country’s highest court declined to hear the case because a previous ruling relied on Obama-era recommendations that aimed to help school administrators support transgender students and the Trump administration revoked that guidance.
The school district argued in court that it had treated Grimm fairly by allowing him to use his birth-sex bathroom or a stand-alone bathroom. A lawyer for the board said last month in court that gender is not a “societal construct” and that Grimm remains female.
Grimm, who underwent chest reconstruction surgery and hormone therapy, obtained a court order and Virginia birth certificate declaring his sex is male in 2016, when he was still in 12th grade.
“One need only trace the arduous journey that this litigation has followed since its inception over four years ago to understand that passion and conviction have infused the arguments and appeals along the way,” Wright Allen wrote in her ruling.
Wright Allen said the School Board’s bathroom policy violates the U.S. Constitution and federal law. In 2018, the judge denied a motion by the School Board to dismiss the lawsuit.
Grimm was awarded $1, and the U.S. District Court ruled that his high school transcripts be changed to say “male.” The School Board must also pay Grimm’s court costs and attorneys fees.
The judge acknowledged that the School Board had the “unenviable responsibility” of navigating challenges that were unimaginable a generation ago.
“There can be no doubt that all involved in this case have the best interests of the students at heart,” Wright Allen said.
The judge was appointed to the bench by President Barack Obama in 2011. In February 2014, on the night before Valentine’s Day, she struck down Virginia’s 2006 constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. In that ruling, the judge invoked the landmark Loving v. Virginia case that overturned laws banning interracial marriage.
“Tradition is revered in the commonwealth, and often rightly so,” the judge wrote. “However, tradition alone cannot justify denying same-sex couples the right to marry any more than it could justify Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage.”
Wright Allen’s ruling in the Grimm case will likely strengthen similar claims made by students in eastern Virginia. It could have a greater impact if the case goes to an appeals court that oversees Maryland, West Virginia and the Carolinas.
Harper Jean Tobin, policy director for the National Center for Transgender Equality, said last month that she expected Grimm’s case to join the “steady drumbeat” of recent court rulings favoring transgender students, including in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
But she said differing transgender bathroom policies are still in place in schools across the country. Those policies are often influenced by court rulings or by states and cities that have passed protections for people who are transgender.
“Whether it’s the best of times or the worst of times for transgender students really can depend on where you live and who your principal is,” she said.
Gary McCaleb, senior counsel for the conservative Christian group Alliance Defending Freedom, said last month that the issue is far from resolved.
McCaleb cited a federal discrimination complaint his organization filed in June that says a Connecticut policy on transgender athletes is unfair because it allows transgender girls to consistently win track and field events.
He also said a pending U.S. Supreme Court case involving a transgender woman who was fired by a Michigan funeral home could affect school bathroom policies.