Most students only need to raise their hand and ask a teacher’s permission to use the restroom. For Gloucester High School teen Gavin Grimm, it’s a bit more complicated than that.
The transgender boy is at the center of a legal case pushing back against a policy enacted by the Gloucester County, Va. school board that requires students to use bathrooms and changing facilities that correspond with their “biological gender.”
Gavin, now 16, and his mother, notified school officials that he is transgender at the beginning of his sophomore year, and the school’s principal permitted him to use the boys’ bathroom for about seven weeks without incident, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Virginia, which filed a federal lawsuit on Gavin’s behalf against the Gloucester County School Board on June 11, 2015.
The school board approved the policy limiting students to bathrooms associated with their biological gender in December 2014 after an outcry from parents and other community members.
After a district court denied Gavin a preliminary injunction that would let him use the boys’ bathroom while the case is pending, the ACLU appealed the decision on Oct. 21, 2015, and on Jan. 27, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals became the first federal appeals court to weigh in on the debate over which restrooms transgender people should be allowed to use.
Though Gavin’s case specifically focuses on Gloucester County, its outcome could have national implications, potentially influencing the way that other localities, including Fairfax County, approach this issue.
“[If Gavin wins the preliminary injunction,] it will be the first time a federal court says that trans kids can use the right bathroom,” Robert Rigby, the founder and president of employee group FCPS Pride, said. “It will have a striking national impact, and…it won’t just be big news. Other courts, other people, other kids and other states will be able to refer to this case.”
Rigby says that the 4th Circuit Court is expected to issue its ruling soon.
The rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people have dominated national politics in recent weeks after several states debated or passed bills that many people argue promote discrimination against LGBT individuals in the name of religion.
Mississippi passed a “religious freedom” bill on Apr. 5 that allows religious organizations and private businesses to refuse services to people who violate their beliefs. Only a week before that, Georgia’s governor vetoed a similar bill after facing pressure from numerous corporations, including Hollywood studios and the National Football League.
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCory (R) signed a bill known as the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act into law in March, requiring that people use bathrooms and changing facilities in public schools and government agencies based on the biological sex listed on their birth certificate. The law also prohibits local municipalities from creating their own legal protections from discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation.
Virginia received relatively little attention when Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) vetoed a “religious freedom” bill on Mar. 30, but Gavin’s case, which is called G.G. v. Gloucester County School Board, could put the state at the center of the ongoing conversation over transgender rights.
Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) added gender identity as a category covered under its anti-discrimination policy in May 2015, but the school board has yet to implement specific procedures dictating bathroom use, name changes on school records and other issues that affect transgender and non-gender-binary students.
According to FCPS public information officer John Torre, the board is currently in the middle of developing those regulations, and staff members are working with an outside consultant to review existing state and local policies related to gender identity.
“Many state and federal court cases are currently underway or in-process regarding this topic. FCPS is monitoring these cases and continues to evaluate the impact they may have on any potential FCPS regulations and procedures,” Torre said in an email.
For now, schools mostly deal with these issues on a case-by-case basis.
The mother of a transgender girl who attends a Fairfax County middle school, a woman who asked to be identified only by her last name, Brewer, says that her daughter currently uses a utility closet when she has to change outfits for physical education classes.
While she’s permitted to use a gender-neutral bathroom for those purposes, the school’s unisex bathroom is too far away from the gym, meaning that she would frequently arrive late for class, and it doesn’t have a locker where she can store her books and supplies.
Brewer says that it also took several weeks for the school to figure out whether to use her daughter’s new name or her old one on homework and other records, but the family otherwise hasn’t encountered any major problems since her daughter started transitioning at the beginning of the school year.
“My kid, she’s the first trans person at the middle school that she’s at, so they’re learning,” Brewer said. “Are there ways they could make it better? Yes, but they’re really working hard to try.”
Opposition to transgender individuals using bathrooms that correspond with their gender stems in part from a fear that men will use it as an opportunity to harass and assault women, a fear that activists and members of the transgender community say is misplaced.
“In terms of any assault occurring in a bathroom or any other area, it is the trans individuals who are the victim,” said Rev. Emma Chattin, a pastor at the Metropolitan Community Church of Northern Virginia and executive director of the Transgender Education Association of Greater Washington D.C. “These are the kids who are at-risk, and it pains me to see individuals turn it around.”
The Metropolitan Community Church of Northern Virginia, located in Fairfax, explicitly welcomes LGBT members and operates a TransFormations ministry that runs support groups for transgender and gender-expansive (an umbrella term for individuals who broaden commonly held definitions of gender) people.
The church also holds a service every Nov. 20 to mark a Transgender Day of Remembrance, which commemorates people in the transgender community who have been murdered.
“The society in which we live all too often doesn’t offer any support and in fact often, through misunderstanding and misinformation, actually kind of works against many of these individuals,” Chattin said. “They do need that safe space and that safe harbor. They need to know that people care.”
If Gavin wins his case, the court decision would affirm FCPS’s existing policies regarding gender identity while offering a guide that the county can follow when implementing more specific regulations in the future.
FCPS Pride, which advocates for LBGT students and employees, formed on July 1, 2015 after the school board voted on May 7 to add gender identity as a protected category under its anti-discrimination rules.
In addition to pushing FCPS to implement regulations on names, records and bathroom facilities for transgender students, FCPS Pride has also been lobbying for the county to cover transitions as well as fertility treatments for gay and lesbian couples under its employee health plan.
While he says there’s still a lot of work to be done, Rigby says that he has seen significant changes in the ways that FCPS treats LGBT students and staff since he first arrived in the county 17 years ago.
“It’s like turning a battleship around, but I think…Fairfax is on the right track,” Rigby said. “A lot of the changing hearts and minds of other students and faculty has come from the kids themselves.”