Maine Supreme Court: Transgender Students Deserve Equal Bathroom Access

The Maine Supreme Court has delivered a significant victory for transgender students. In its interpretation of the Maine Human Rights Act (MHRA), the Court ruled that trans students have the right to use the bathroom with which they identify and cannot be forced to use a separate restroom.

The case involved a fifth grade student who had already been fully identifying as a girl for several years and was using the girls’ restroom at Regional School Unit 26. Another student’s guardian objected, and a media firestorm prompted the school to begin forcing her to use a solitary staff unisex restroom. Eventually, the student’s family had to remove her from the school and move to another part of the state so that she could go to school safely.

Though the decision was not unanimous because of one justice’s concerns about how the law was written, the court did unanimously agree that the student deserved equal access to the girls’ restroom. The Justices explain how the school was doing well to accommodate the student but then made a mistake (Note: Though sexual orientation and gender identity are different identities, the MHRA includes gender identity under the umbrella of the term “sexual orientation.”):

Because section 6501 [which provides that schools must offer sex-segregated restrooms] does not mandate, or even suggest, the manner in which transgender students should be permitted to use sex-separated facilities, each school is left with the responsibility of creating its own policies concerning how these public accommodations are to be used. Those policies must comply with the MHRA. Here, RSU 26 agreed with Susan’s family and counselors that, for this purpose (as for virtually all others), Susan is a girl. Based upon its determination that Susan is a girl, and in keeping with the information provided to the school by Susan’s family, her therapists, and experts in the field of transgender children, the school determined that Susan should use the girls’ bathroom. In so doing, the school provided her with the same access to public facilities that it provided other girls. In this regard, RSU 26 complied with both section 6501 and the MHRA.

RSU 26’s later decision to ban Susan from the girls’ bathroom, based not on a determination that there had been some change in Susan’s status but on others’ complaints about the school’s well-considered decision, constituted discrimination based on Susan’s sexual orientation. She was treated differently from other students solely because of her status as a transgender girl. This type of discrimination is forbidden by the MHRA, and it is not excused by the school’s compliance with section 6501. We vacate the Superior Court’s entry of summary judgment and remand for entry of summary judgment in favor of the Does and the Commission.

When the rights of transgender students are discussed, conservatives are quick to object that any student will be able to use whatever bathroom they want, regardless of their gender identity. The Court preempted these claims by clarifying that providing the best access for transgender students is best considered on a case-by-case basis:

We do not suggest that any person could demand access to any school facility or program based solely on a self-declaration of gender identity or confusion without the plans developed in cooperation with the school and the accepted and respected diagnosis that are present in this case. Our opinion must not be read to require schools to permit students casual access to any bathroom of their choice. Decisions about how to address students’ legitimate gender identity issues are not to be taken lightly. Where, as here, it has been clearly established that a student’s psychological well-being and educational success depend upon being permitted to use the communal bathroom consistent with her gender identity, denying access to the appropriate bathroom constitutes sexual orientation discrimination in violation of the MHRA.

Conservatives are vying to fight California’s new law offering the very same protections to transgender students. Though the jurisdiction of this case is limited to Maine, it still sets an important precedent for what protections transgender students deserve under the law.