Transgender Student's Legal Fight to Use School Bathroom Is the First to Land in Federal Court

Gavin Grimm avoids going to the bathroom all day because he's not allowed to use the men's room

Photo: Steve Helber/AP

Like so many other transgender students, Gavin Grimm of Gloucester, Virginia, faces restrictions on which bathroom he can use at school.

But for the first time Wednesday, a federal appeals court will hear the case and determine whether schools can dictate which bathroom transgender students use, a ruling that could potentially influence similar decisions across the country.

Each day, Grimm, 16, works to hold his bladder so he doesn’t have to use the girl’s bathroom.

“Once a day at max, though I try very hard not to go at all,” Grimm tells MSNBC. “At this point, I’ve just become very good at holding it.”

Grimm is challenging the Gloucester County School Board to allow him to use the boy’s restroom, under the argument that the school is violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution and Title IX, which protects students against gender discrimination.

Grimm first came out as transgender to his parents in April 2014, while he was taking a home-schooling program.

Though his parents “struggled mildly” with Grimm’s announcement, “They pretty much got behind me and supported me from day one when I came out.”

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The problem came when he returned to public school in the fall of 2014. Grimm talked to the school principal and was initially allowed to use the boy’s bathroom, but seven weeks into the school year the school administrators reversed their decision, though Grimm doesn’t know why they changed their minds.

“Genuinely, there was not a single confrontation, not a single funny look, not a single double take. Nothing like that happened at any point while I was using the correct restroom,” Grimm says. “Sure, there were peers who had concerns. But the loudest voices of opposition tended to come from adults in the county.”

He tried to appeal to the community at a school board meeting that November, but the board voted 6-1 to approve the policy that students can only use the bathrooms and locker rooms of their birth gender.

Grimm can now choose between using the girl’s bathroom, a restroom in the nurse’s office, or one of three single-stall unisex bathrooms. He goes to the nurse’s office if he absolutely cannot hold his bladder, but refuses to use the unisex bathrooms, saying he doesn’t like the idea that it separates him from the other students.

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“There’s a mild aspect of principle behind that motivation,” he says. “But the primary reason that I just would not use it is it causes me a lot of discomfort. It’s very ‘othering.’ It sort of puts a magnifying glass on my already existing conflicts with my gender identity and physical sex.”

Now Grimm awaits the appeals court’s decision, though a trial court hearing last summer did not go in his favor. For this round, he’s going in with “absolutely no expectations.”

But if it is successful, Grimm is excited about the potential for other trans students.

“If my fight and my struggle helps even one child not have to go through this, I will consider that an enormous success,” he says. “I’m not doing this just because I’m thinking solely about myself; I’m doing this also in the hopes that it might help anyone else. That’s what motivates me.”

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