GLOUCESTER, Va. — There was nothing remarkable about Gavin Grimm's first trip to the boys' bathroom at Gloucester High School. It was a little more than a month into his sophomore year, when the transgender teenager had begun quietly reintroducing himself to the student body as a boy.
“I went in, went out, same deal as always,” Grimm said. “It was like, ‘Okay, great — I can use the bathroom now.’ ”
But that decision to use the boys’ bathroom one fall day in 2014 clashed with this town’s sensibilities and led to an acrimonious public debate. Now, Grimm’s case has made this quiet, out-of-the-way community in Virginia’s Tidewater region the unlikely center of the national debate over how public schools should accommodate transgender students.
On Monday, the school board asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case.
And the case has made Grimm, an introspective teen who once was painfully shy, the standard-bearer in the fight for transgender student rights. He approaches the role with a mixture of pride and apprehension.
“I’m afraid to function as myself in my community sometimes,” Grimm said.
Grimm’s parents said it seems that many people forget there’s a kid involved.
“These people have no idea how they’ve hurt my child and how they continue to hurt my child,” said Deirdre Grimm, a nurse.
“We didn’t set out to do anything,” said David Grimm, a trades supervisor at a local shipyard. “Only thing we’ve done is try to protect our child. And that is what it means, and that takes whatever form it takes.”
Debate in and out of court
At the center of the issue is a policy barring Grimm from the boys' bathroom. He in turn filed a federal civil rights lawsuit. The legal wranglings that have ensued have been central to a national debate about transgender rights and could elevate what was a hyper-local controversy to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Grimm sued his district’s school board last year, alleging that the policy violated his civil rights. In April, the case reached the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, which ruled that Grimm’s suit could continue. The court deferred to the Obama administration’s position that barring transgender students from bathrooms is a violation of Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in public schools. A lower court ordered the school board to allow Grimm to use the boys’ bathroom while the case proceeded, but the school board appealed to the Supreme Court, which stayed the order.
The debate in Gloucester underscores how deeply polarizing the issue has become. Parents who support the bathroom ban and those who back Grimm believe the health and safety of students are at stake, and they have had difficulty finding middle ground. The school board offered what it thought was a reasonable compromise — designating one bathroom at the high school as gender-neutral — but the teenager said it humiliated him further, making an already anguished transition worse.
But to some here, Grimm’s being transgender violates their basic sensibilities, some of which they say they draw from the Bible. They believe changing one’s gender is an affront to nature and to God.
“In my opinion, as a pastor, looking at this situation, I do not believe that God makes mistakes,” said Ralph VanNess, a security guard at the high school who is also the pastor at Calvary Baptist Church. “God puts us on this Earth as who we are.”
VanNess, who leads a school Bible club, spoke at a school board meeting in favor of banning Grimm from the boys’ bathroom in 2014. “It was a responsibility I had before God,” he said.
A lengthy transition
The process of Grimm’s transition has been long and painful. As a young child, he was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety, conditions he now connects to his gender-identity struggles. He yearned to follow his twin brother onto the football field. And he felt deeply uncomfortable wearing dresses, opting for mostly boys’ clothes and short hair as he entered middle school. Once, he was forced to wear a dress to a sister’s wedding and was so upset and traumatized that he spent the day “catatonic,” he said.
“It’s like my self wasn’t really living,” Grimm said. When he recalls his life before the transition, he said, it is as if he is recalling someone else. “It feels like a different human being altogether, and living in that sort of limbo I couldn’t really enjoy anything.”
When Grimm took part in online role-playing games, he always played as a male.
He came out to his friends at the end of middle school, and when he was with them off school grounds, he would use men’s bathrooms without issue. He told his parents at the end of his freshman year.
“I didn’t even know what transgender was,” David Grimm said.
Gavin Grimm returned to school that fall, legally changing his name and his school records to reflect that he was a boy. By October, with the principal’s blessing, he began using the stalls in the boys’ bathroom. Grimm used the bathroom for seven weeks without incident.
Parents soon caught wind of what was happening; some phoned the school, demanding to know whether a transgender student was using the boys’ bathroom. Their concerns quickly gained steam publicly — they raised the specter of bathroom sex and rape and expressed fears that their sons would be uncomfortable in the bathrooms.
The school board took up the issue, and Grimm pleaded with them at an open meeting.
“I am just a human. I am just a boy,” he said. “Please consider my rights when you make your decision.”
The board voted to require students to use bathrooms that aligned with their “biological gender.”
‘How God made you’
Many Gloucester High School students start the day with a prayer group, and some once vocally criticized a lesson on evolution as contrary to biblical teaching. Many students object on religious grounds to Grimm’s use of the boys’ bathroom; they still see him as a girl.
“I don’t think it’s right,” said John Groen, a rising 10th-grader. “I just believe if you’re a man, you’re a man, and if you’re a woman, you’re a woman. . . . That’s how God made you, and that’s how He sees fit for you to be.”
Some just want their school year to start with some amount of normalcy next week, but they know that is unlikely.
Tucker Sharp, a lanky 15-year-old who lingered on campus one August day playing baseball with friends, said he is tired of hearing about bathrooms and wishes people would talk about something else, “like maybe something our sports team did, or something academic.” Like the girls’ field hockey team, which won the state championship last year and had just shut out their first opponent of the new season.
Even those dismissive of Grimm — referring to him with female pronouns or as “whatever” — now approach the subject with an apathetic shrug.
Jordan Roane, a rising 10th-grader, said Grimm should be able to use the boys’ bathroom because “he doesn’t really look like a girl.”
“I don’t really care,” said Roane, who was walking with his brother Carter, a freshman, on a recent evening after he finished football practice. “I feel like she” — his brother piped up, “No, he!” — “can do what he wants.”