The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Youngkin’s ignorance is no match for Gavin Grimm and his fierce mom

Gavin Grimm, 17, listens as his mother, Deirdre Grimm, fights back tears while talking at their home in Gloucester, Va., in 2016. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

She spends at least one evening every week with her 23-year-old son — dinner, a movie or a ferocious game of putt-putt golf (the scores remain disputed).

These are nights Deirdre Grimm is grateful for, nights she knows may never have happened if she didn’t listen to him, didn’t fight for him.

“There’s no other way to do it,” Grimm said during a break she took from her nursing shift this week to return my call about Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s latest attack on transgender youths. “If you want to have an alive child, you have to support them.”

Gavin Grimm and his mom dragged the nation by the lapels into the reality of trans children seven years ago, when he was banned from using the boys’ bathroom at his school in Virginia’s Gloucester County. He prevailed with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, in a case that nearly made it to the Supreme Court.

But as Youngkin (R) seeks to raise his national profile, he has again focused the potent paranoia of culture-war conservatives on schools and children, with a directive to make transgender youths use bathrooms and locker rooms that align with their “biological sex.” Oh, and kids caught in the hell between fearing parental rejection and needing to live their truth now have to ask mom and dad for permission to use their preferred pronouns in school.

Gavin Grimm won $1.3 million from the school board that tried to tell him where to go to the bathroom

Thousands of people weighed in as soon as Youngkin’s proposal was opened up for comments online Monday. Many opposed it, worrying about the harm that can come to vulnerable children and the burden it puts on teachers forced to “out” students. Supporters cheered it as a win for parents’ rights and called it a rebuke to “pedos” and “groomers.”

Please.

It’s a way to launch a culture war on the backs of kids when really, as a society, we’re past that level of ignorance.

Gavin Grimm’s teachers, even in a small Tidewater county, called him Gavin. They called him “him.” So did the kids.

It wasn’t until the adults who didn’t know him, who didn’t understand who he was and whose lives would be totally untouched by which bathroom Gavin would pee in, decided to weigh in.

“It’s like we’re going backwards in time,” Deirdre said. And she doesn’t want to go back to a place she fought so hard to leave.

“I was one of those people who was being close-minded,” she said of the years Gavin Grimm struggled with his gender identity.

Transgender at Five

Gavin tried to come out to his mom when he was younger. She pushed back, tolerating the short hair and the boy clothes. When he grew leg hair and wouldn’t shave his legs, she told him he looked like “a gorilla.”

She knew her kid was struggling and she wouldn’t tell his dad that the struggle was with gender dysphoria. She didn’t want to tell the family that one of her twins may be trans. What is trans, anyhow? Remember, this was before Caitlyn Jenner.

Transgender at 10

The closeted child and the festering secret exploded on Gavin Grimm’s 14th birthday, the day he was planning to kill himself. Mom, still insisting she did not have twin boys, held a birthday party for a boy and a girl.

“I was the birthday girl to her. She got the sheet cake from Walmart, she had my dead name on it,” Gavin said, referring to the name he was given at birth.

He was sullen at the party, and seeing the insistent swaths of pink all over the place, he retreated to his bedroom, imagining how he would end his life. A family fight followed, and Deirdre made a decision.

“She told everyone about me, Gavin, at the birthday party. Told everyone to get rid of the pink cards, the pink s---.” She has two boys, and that’s how it would be from now on, Gavin said.

“She took that drastic action even before knowing I might have taken my life that day,” he said. “It was so different from her worldview. But she did the right thing.”

Deirdre, a self-described “woman of faith,” began fighting.

“I don’t want to be a trailblazer,” Deirdre said, when she testified before the Gloucester County School Board on her son’s behalf in 2014. “But here I am in this position.”

She told the stoic parents that she understands their confusion. “We’ve been struggling with this child since he was 8 years old. And now I know the reason,” she said.

She told them about medical research into gender identity. She read from her Bible. And she told them the main reason she was fighting to understand all this, fighting for her child.

More than half of transgender male teens who spoke with the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2018 had tried to kill themselves. About 30 percent of female trans teens had, too. Those statistics hold for much of the past decade.

“That’s why Gavin wasn’t in school last year, because he’s suicidal,” she told the board, as she argued for him to be seen as the way he sees himself — just another teen boy trying to make it through high school.

When their own friends and the School Board voted against them, the Grimms kept fighting. Gavin Grimm became the national face of transgender kids fighting for their right to exist.

He tried to tell parents how to react when their child tells them they’re trans: “The best thing you can do is arm your children with confidence, so they know they have a future in this world,” he said. “Make sure they know they are loved, make sure they are supported.”

After all Gavin and Deirdre lost during that long legal battle (her marriage, relationships with at least half their family, privacy) and all they gained (the rights for trans children to exist fully in schools, a $1.3 million settlement to cover their legal representation by the ACLU, even the symbolic $1 the judge awarded to Gavin), the current mess that Youngkin is riling up is infuriating, devastating and chilling.

But experts interviewed by my colleagues about Youngkin’s efforts cited Grimm’s case among the reasons the directive probably won’t hold up in court.

“At last, my victory feels final,” Gavin Grimm wrote in a Washington Post op-ed last year. “But I shouldn’t have had to fight this hard.”

If only.

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