Gavin Grimm just wants to be able to use the high school boys’ room without being called a “freak.”
A 15-year-old sophomore at Gloucester High School in Virginia’s Tidewater region, he was barred from using the boys’ restrooms at school after the local School Board voted to limit boys’ and girls’ restrooms and locker rooms “to the corresponding biological genders,” a policy that requires transgender students to use “alternative private facilities.” Public commenters at the board meeting hurled insults at those like Gavin, saying that transgender students should not be allowed to use the bathroom that boys do because it would infringe on their privacy.
The board, in a 6 to 1 vote, agreed.
Gloucester County Public Schools Board Member Carla B. Hook proposed the policy at a routine meeting: “I think the primary factor for everyone is respecting the dignity and privacy of all students,” Hook said.
The American Civil Liberties Union believes that the policy is problematic, and it filed a complaint Friday with the U.S. Justice and Education departments arguing that students like Gavin — who are born one gender but identify with the other — deserve to be able to use the bathrooms of the gender with which they identify. Anything else, they said, is unfair discrimination.
The Gloucester School Board’s new policy calls for a separate unisex bathroom for transgender students, but Gavin opts instead to use a different bathroom. Gavin, who was diagnosed with gender dysphoria and had been using the boys’ restrooms since October 2014 until the policy passed Dec. 9, said that having to use a special bathroom highlights a difference when Gavin just wants to be like everyone else.
“I use the private nurses’ bathroom exclusively, because using a unisex bathroom is humiliating,” Gavin said, noting that he has become outspoken on the issue because he doesn’t want other transgender students to likewise suffer. “I think that working with the community and getting the story out there is important. I don’t know if what I’m doing will change my community, but it doesn’t matter. This is a legal violation.”
Joshua Block, a staff attorney for the ACLU’s national LGBT project, said that while some states have instituted laws of varying degrees to protect transgender students’ ability to use a bathroom of the gender with which they identify, “sometimes it’s fear and stigma on a school-board level” that needs to be addressed.
While Virginia law offers basic protections against sex discrimination, some states, including Maryland, protect transgender students against discrimination based on gender identity. California, for example, passed a clarification to its gender identity protection law that explicitly gives students the ability to use a bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity.
Block said that offering unisex bathrooms is a step forward, but he argues that unless schools remove all traditional bathrooms, it’s not a complete, fair solution. Block said transgender students just want to be treated equally.
“There’s an unfortunate attempt to raise the specter that somehow this affects the privacy of other students,” Block said. “These are just kids who are trying to go to the bathroom like anyone else. It’s unfortunate that they are demonizing them.”
Beth Panilaitis, who directs a central Virginia support group that serves LGBT youth and trains school personnel and human-service providers, said Gavin’s case exemplifies the fact that more students are public about being transgender and are willing to speak up for their rights.
“Finally, there are young people who have words to put with the feelings that they’ve had,” Panilaitis said. “They’re starting to have role models and language that they can use to identify what those feelings are.”
With the exception of a thank-you note from Kimberly Hensley, the lone Gloucester School Board member who voted against the new policy, the ACLU has not heard from the School Board. Hensley said that the majority of public comments the board received were in favor of having transgender students use private bathrooms.
“A lot of people are confused about what it means to be transgendered, and that’s why education is so key,” Hensley said. “Being transgendered is not a girl going into a boy’s bathroom. It’s someone who identifies as a boy going into the boy’s bathroom. It’s just someone living their life.”
Hensley said she voted against the policy because she believes it violates the federal rights of transgender students and that by accepting federal education funding, the school system is required to comply. The ACLU’s federal complaint cites Title IX, the federal education law that bars sex discrimination.