Federal judge sides with transgender student in Va. bathroom case

Student Gavin Grimm, who was barred from using the boys' bathroom at his local high school in Gloucester County, Virginia, U.S. is seen in an undated photo. Grimm was born a female but identifies as a male.
Student Gavin Grimm, who was barred from using the boys' bathroom at his local high school in Gloucester County, Virginia, U.S. is seen in an undated photo. Grimm was born a female but identifies as a male. | (Photo: Crystal Cooper/ACLU of Virginia/Handout via Reuters)

A federal judge ruled Friday that a Virginia school district's policy preventing transgender student Gavin Grimm from using boys' bathroom facilities violates the U.S. Constitution, the latest ruling in a case remanded to lower courts by the U.S. Supreme Court. 

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia granted Grimm's motion for summary judgment against Gloucester County School Board.   

Judge Arenda Wright Allen, an appointee of President Barack Obama, contended in her court order that the school district violated the14th Amendment and Title IX of education civil rights law by not allowing the biologically female student into boys' bathrooms and by refusing to change school transcripts to reflect the student's gender identity. 

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The judge ordered the school district to change Grimm's transcripts to reflect a male identity within 10 days and pay Grimm's attorney fees.

"[T]he perpetuation of harm to a child stemming from unconstitutional conduct can not be allowed to stand," the judge wrote.  

Wright Allen argued that there is "no question" that the school board's policy "discriminates against transgender students on the basis of their gender nonconformity." 

Having graduated in 2017, Grimm first filed a lawsuit in 2015 as a sophomore over a school district policy that required students to use restrooms and changing facilities that correspond with their biological sex. 

"Under the policy, all students except for transgender students may use restrooms corresponding with their gender identity," the judge stated in her order. "Transgender students are singled out, subjected to discriminatory treatment and excluded from spaces where similarly situated students are permitted to go." 

Grimm, now 20 years old, expressed relief in a statement and said the ruling brought "closure and vindication" after "years of fighting" for himself and other trans youth in the U.S. 

"I promise to continue to advocate for as long as it takes for everyone to be able to live their authentic lives freely, in public, and without harassment and discrimination,” Grimm concluded. 

Grimm's case had previously gone to the Supreme Court for consideration. 

But in 2017, the nation's high court sent the case back to lower courts because the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals based its ruling in favor of Grimm on a 2015 Obama administration guidance encouraging all public schools to allow transgender students to use facilities consistent with their gender identity. 

The Obama-era guidance interpreted Title IX law that bars discrimination on the basis of sex to also include protections on the basis of "gender identity" and "sexual orientation" even though such protections are not expressly written into federal law. 

The Obama guidance was opposed by a number of social conservatives and concerned parents who feared that a policy allowing access based on gender identity would violate the privacy rights of other students who feel uncomfortable changing clothes in front of members of the opposite sex.

The Obama-era bathroom guidance was rescinded under the Trump administration in 2017.

After the Supreme Court remanded Grimm's case back to the Fourth Circuit, the case was again remanded back to the U.S. District Court of Eastern Virginia. 

Last year, the district court rejected a motion from the Gloucester County School Board to dismiss the case. 

At the time, the court cited the fact that Grimm had a documentation letter from doctors showing that he was receiving medical treatment for gender dysphoria and to be treated as a male "in all respects."  

Joshua Block, Grimm’s attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, told The New York Times that last Friday's ruling only applies to Grimm but could become a "persuasive precedent" for other cases. 

Additionally, the ruling does not force the school district to change its policy.  

The Gloucester County School Board has the option to appeal the federal court's ruling. The school board has not yet commented on the judge's order.

Across the nation, policies on transgender students and bathroom access vary by the school district and by state. While some school districts have opened their bathroom and locker room facilities on the basis of gender identity, others have passed rules allowing bathroom access only in accordance with one's "biological sex." 

A Gallup poll earlier this year found that more Americans (51%) believe governing policies should require transgender individuals to “use the restroom that corresponds with their birth gender.” 

Nevertheless, other federal courts have ruled in favor of transgender students. Last year, a federal judge in Oregon upheld a school district's policy allowing students to use bathrooms that align with their gender identity. 

In his July 2018 ruling, District Court Judge Marco Hernandez rejected the argument that a student's right to privacy was violated by the school district's transgender policy. 

"Courts have recognized that the presence of transgender people in an intimate setting does not, by itself, create a sexually harassing environment that is severe and pervasive," Hernandez wrote

According to Block, it is not clear if the Supreme Court will take up any transgender-related cases until there are conflicting opinions between federal appellate courts.    

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

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