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Transgender students, advocates hail Supreme Court’s decision not to hear bathroom rights case

Transgender teen Gavin Grimm during a protest outside the White House in support of trans students on Feb. 20, 2017. (Oliver Contreras for The Washington Post)

Gavin Grimm was a 16-year-old transgender boy in a rural Virginia community when he decided to sue his local school board, which had banned transgender students from using bathrooms that matched their gender identities after finding out that the teen was using the boys’ bathroom.

On Monday, a month after Grimm’s 22nd birthday, the U.S. Supreme Court brought the case to a close, saying it would not hear an appeal from the school board, which lost its bid to defend the policy in a lower court. It allows a ruling to stand from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which had affirmed that Grimm had a right to use the restroom and that federal law protects the right of transgender students to use bathrooms that align with their gender identities.

“It’s an incredible relief to me because it is a victory for trans people and trans youth,” said Grimm, who has spent nearly a third of his life locked in a legal battle with the school district.

Supreme Court will not hear transgender bathroom rights dispute, a win for Va. student who sued his school for discrimination

In the years since Grimm filed suit, new fronts of the battle over transgender rights have opened as conservatives have sought to curtail the rights of transgender people — including schoolchildren — in other arenas.

GOP lawmakers in at least 34 states have sought to ban transgender athletes from high school sports teams that match their gender identities. At least a dozen states have also weighed restricting transgender young people from receiving medical treatments — like puberty blockers and hormone therapy — that help them align their bodies with their gender identities. Two states — West Virginia and Arkansas — have signed medical restrictions into law.

Transgender people have also won key victories. In 2020, the high court ruled that firing employees because they are gay or transgender is a violation of federal civil rights law. And the Biden administration has worked to reverse many of the Trump policies that restricted the rights of transgender people. The Education Department this month said gay and transgender students should also be protected under federal civil rights law.

Those advancing bills to ban transgender athletes from high school sports say it is unfair to allow a transgender girl to compete against other girls, saying they have an unfair advantage. Opponents say that research on the topic is too limited to draw any sound conclusions and that the fights are putting a disproportionate spotlight on what amounts to a tiny fraction of athletes.

So while Monday’s development in the Grimm case was met with jubilation, advocates said there is still much work to be done.

“Sadly, no, the fight is not over,” said Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, the interim executive director of the LGBTQ student group GLSEN. While the “bathroom bill” fights no longer make headlines or dominate school board meetings, Willingham-Jaggers said there are still transgender students who struggle to gain access to restrooms and locker rooms.

“What were headlines about bathroom fights years ago has been replaced with athletic bans and trans medical bans,” Willingham-Jaggers said.

Sabrina Jennen, a 15-year-old transgender girl living in Arkansas, said school officials have never barred her from using the girl’s bathroom. But lawmakers have passed a bill that would ban her from seeking gender-affirming medical care. She has sued the state and is asking for an injunction to stop the law from going into effect.

“It’s a mere steppingstone on the path towards true acceptance and equality,” Sabrina said. “It does not mean we are anywhere near finished with the work.”

In Virginia, where the Grimm case originated, conservative legal groups and parents are still waging a fight over where transgender students can use the bathroom, seeking to overturn a state law that requires schools to have inclusive policies. Two conservative groups sued the Virginia Department of Education this year in an attempt to block implementation of new guidelines.

In Loudoun County, one of the nation’s wealthiest, a teacher sued after the school system suspended him for saying during a school board meeting that he would not address a transgender student by their pronouns. A judge later ordered the school system to reinstate him.

The Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal group that is defending the Loudoun teacher and has a history of taking on lawsuits that question the rights of transgender people, declined to comment Monday. Through the alliance, the teacher, Tanner Cross, also declined to comment.

Judge orders Virginia school district to reinstate teacher who said he wouldn’t use transgender students’ pronouns

And recently, the Loudoun school board cut short a public board meeting after a large crowd — many of them there to protest transgender student rights — refused to quiet down. The raucous gathering resulted in one arrest and left Loudoun’s LGBTQ residents feeling shocked and scared.

Robert Norris Rigby, a longtime Northern Virginia resident and Fairfax teacher who co-founded and serves as president for an LGBTQ group, FCPS Pride, said he hopes the high court’s action Monday “will tamp down the anti-trans rhetoric on- and offline” that he and others are confronting in Northern Virginia.

“It may take the wind out of their sails,” Rigby said.

Residents left fuming, fearful after contentious Loudoun County school board meeting

Kayden Satya Ortiz has been closely tracking the progress of Grimm’s case to the nation’s highest court. Ortiz, a 23-year-old transgender man, said his own experience attending Fairfax County Public Schools mirrored Grimm’s at his high school in Gloucester County, 150 miles away.

The court’s decision came too late for Ortiz, who was unable to use the boy’s restroom, faced bullying from peers and frequently heard teachers or classmates address him with the wrong name or pronouns. The resulting pain led him to try to kill himself a dozen times, he said.

But on Monday, all Ortiz felt was joy.

“I know to many people bathrooms don’t seem like a huge deal, but to a trans kid … being able to use the right bathroom is amazing,” Ortiz said. “It helps validate to them who they know they are inside.”

He added that he views the court’s decision to not decide as a “monumental victory” for the transgender community. Many LGBTQ parents, children and teachers in Virginia took the same view — and said the boost could not have come at a better time.

Anthony Belotti, 21, a transgender person who identifies as nonbinary, helped craft the 2020 legislation requiring Virginia’s education department to issue updated guidelines regulating the treatment of transgender students. Like Grimm and Ortiz, Belotti attended high school in the state — he grew up in Stafford County — and struggled during his teens.

Belotti was barred from using the men’s restroom at school and developed urinary tract infections from having to wait until he got home. He, too, tried to harm himself.

He called Monday’s decision hurtful and disheartening, because it means the Supreme Court will not intervene to protect transgender rights in a lasting way.

“It shows how much work we have to do in the realm of trans rights,” he said, “and with the conservative majority on the Supreme Court I fear we may have to go state by state to do it.”

Read more:

Virginia legislators want schools to ease the suffering of transgender students

Virginia Education Department sued over guidelines to protect transgender students