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Judges hail transgender teen Gavin Grimm as human rights leader

Gavin Grimm, 17, at his home in Gloucester, Va., in August. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Federal appeals court judges on Friday hailed the Virginia transgender teen fighting to use the boy’s restroom at his high school as a courageous civil rights leader even as they lamented that the school year would end without a resolution of his case.

The praise for Gavin Grimm came from two judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, who could have issued a short, unsigned order but instead chose to post a five-page memo.

The Supreme Court in March put off a ruling in Grimm’s case after the Trump administration revoked federal guidelines that directed schools to allow transgender students to use a bathroom consistent with their gender identity. The high court sent Grimm’s case back to the Richmond-based 4th Circuit. The appeals court earlier had sided with the teen and deferred to the federal guidelines on transgender rights that had been in place under the Obama administration.

The 4th Circuit announced Friday that Grimm’s case against the Gloucester County School Board would not be heard before he is scheduled to graduate. But Judge Andre M. Davis, a senior judge appointed by Barack Obama in 2009, used a separate court order issued the same day to passionately express his support for Grimm’s legal journey and state his dismay that the legal system sometimes lags behind the realities of people’s lives.

Grimm’s case “is about much more than bathrooms. It’s about a boy asking his school to treat him just like any other boy. It’s about protecting the rights of transgender people in public spaces and not forcing them to exist on the margins,” wrote Davis, who was joined by Judge Henry F. Floyd, another Obama appointee.

The order from the judges was procedural and unopposed, formally dropping an earlier decision that blocked the school system’s bathroom policy. That decision was preempted by the Supreme Court’s involvement.

Davis said Grimm would be remembered alongside of other “brave individuals,” including Dred Scott, Fred Korematsu and Mildred and Richard Loving, who “refused to accept quietly the injustices that were perpetuated against them.”

“Today, hatred, intolerance, and discrimination persist — and are sometimes even promoted,” Davis wrote, referring to Grimm by his initials, G.G.

“But by challenging unjust policies rooted in invidious discrimination, G.G. takes his place among other modern-day human rights leaders who strive to ensure that, one day, equality will prevail, and that the core dignity of every one of our brothers and sisters is respected by lawmakers and others who wield power over their lives.”

An attorney for the school board, David Corrigan, declined to comment on the court’s order.

The 4th Circuit generally tries to assign cases to judges with previous involvement, but it is not known whether Grimm's case will be taken up again by Davis, Floyd and a third judge, Paul V. Niemeyer, who was appointed by George H.W. Bush.

The Obama administration released its guidance in May 2016, directing all U.S. public schools to accommodate transgender students, including by allowing them to use the bathrooms matching their gender identity. LGBT rights advocates cheered the move, but it was decried by many conservatives, who said that the administration was overreaching and violating the privacy of children.

Grimm, who was on spring break this week, said he was honored to be compared to men and women whose names feature prominently in civil rights fights.

“It’s crazy to me that I get people of such esteem comparing me to such heroes just because of trying to use the bathroom,” Grimm said.

He was disappointed that the court order foreclosed the possibility that he would get to use the bathroom before he graduates, but he said it was something he had resigned himself to long ago.

Grimm spoke this week at public forum on civil rights in the Trump era, recalling how he had endured school board meetings where neighbors derided him and insisted on using female pronouns to refer to him.

"I sat while people called my a freak. I sat while my community got together to banish a child from public life for the crime of harming no one," he said. When school board members voted to ban him from the boys' restroom, they "invalidated me in perhaps the most humiliating way possible."

Obama's guidance had given transgender students hope, he said, and Trump's decision to withdraw the guidance told transgender students that the new administration would not defend them from discrimination.

"Regardless of what obstacles come before me and other trans students, regardless of what hatred or ignorance or discrimination we face, we will be fine because we have love on our side. That is something even the withdrawing of the guidance cannot change."

Moriah Balingit contributed to this report.