It’s been almost a year since Gavin Grimm graduated from the Gloucester County School District in Virginia, but a court has finally granted him justice. Though he was forbidden from using the boys’ restroom up until he received his diploma, a federal judge ruled Tuesday that the district was engaging in unlawful discrimination against Grimm as a transgender individual.
Grimm’s legal journey has been a long one. A different federal judge ruled against him in 2016, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed that decision in his favor. The school appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to stay the Fourth Circuit’s ruling while it considered the case — preventing Grimm from using the bathroom throughout his senior year.
The Fourth Circuit’s ruling, however, was based on guidance the Obama administration had issued protecting transgender students, which the Trump administration rescinded. As a result, the Supreme Court tossed the case back down to the lower court, essentially making Grimm start the process all over again even as his time at the school was ending.
U.S. District Judge Arenda Wright Allen, an Obama appointee, ruled Tuesday that the school was wrong all along. Borrowing heavily from near-identical cases in Maryland and Wisconsin, Allen concluded that Title IX’s protections on the basis of “sex” extend to individuals on the basis of having a transgender identity.
“This Court joins other courts that have concluded that because the [district’s bathroom] Policy relies on sex-based stereotypes, it is a sex-based classification,” Allen wrote.
The school’s policy had dictated that Grimm could only use the girls’ restroom or one of three single-stall bathrooms — none of which were close to his classes. As a result, he refrained from using the restroom at school, which led to a painful urinary tract infection. He also couldn’t stay long at football games because there was no bathroom at the field he could use.
“Offering restroom alternatives that impose hardships like unreasonable distances to a student’s classroom and increased stigma on a student is inadequate,” Allen wrote. “The location of the bathrooms, coupled with the stigmatization and physical and mental anguish inflicted upon Mr. Grimm, caused harm.”
Allen also dismissed the school’s concerns about other students’ privacy as “conjecture.” Grimm, like Ash Whitaker in the Wisconsin case, “used the boys’ bathrooms for weeks without incident before other adults in the community — not
students — complained of this use.” Trans students pose no threat to privacy, and students who feel they want increased privacy could use the single-stall restrooms without a policy segregating Grimm alone to using them.
Like the other courts, Allen also concluded that transgender people constitute what’s known as a “quasi-suspect” class under the Constitution’s guarantee of Equal Protection. This means that if a law targets trans people as a group, courts must examine that law with heightened scrutiny compared to other laws to ensure it doesn’t infringe on trans people’s equality. If adopted as a precedent by higher courts, this would protect trans people discriminatory policies like the district’s bathroom policy.
In a statement Tuesday, Grimm expressed “an incredible sense of relief.”
“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,” he said. “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.”
Allen’s decision denied the school’s request for a dismissal and directed the parties to schedule a settlement conference. While it’s possible the school will consider settling the case, as the Wisconsin school did in a similar case, it has shown no interest in doing so before. The Alliance Defending Freedom, an anti-LGBTQ hate group, is representing the district and may continue the fight all the way back to the Supreme Court, where it is currently representing Jack Phillips, the baker who refused to sell a wedding cake to a same-sex couple.