A 16-year-old transgender student at Allen D. Nease High School in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL, is suing his school district after being denied access to the bathroom that aligns with his gender identity.
Drew Adams came out as transgender when he was 14, and started his freshman year at the school in August 2015 as a boy, which was reflected on his drivers' license and in the pronouns teachers and other students used for him. He also used the boys' bathrooms — until Sept. 22, when he was pulled out of class by guidance counselors who told him that someone had anonymously reported that he was using the boy's bathrooms, and that he had to use the school's gender-neutral bathrooms instead.
"I was shocked, I was confused, I didn't know what I had done wrong to warrant taking away this seemingly basic right I had," Adams told BuzzFeed News on Wednesday. "The gender neutral bathrooms as opposed to the standard men's rooms are few and far between and inconvenient. I started restricting my fluid intake, limiting my bathroom use, I started planning my day around when I would have access to a bathroom… I started thinking a lot more about bathrooms than I might have liked to."
He has since only used the gender-neutral bathroom, though it felt like "an insult to [his] identity," and caused him humiliation and anxiety, according to the court documents filed Wednesday in the Middle District of Florida.
"His transgender status was not widely known among the school administrators, and he was anxious about encountering staff in the hallway who would have thought he was skipping class if he had said he was going to the restroom — while he was walking right past a boys’ restroom," the lawsuit states. "It also created an inaccurate and discriminatory distinction between Drew as a boy and all other boys. Rather than treat Drew equally and in all material respects like a boy, he is singled out as different from the other boys at the school, which interferes with treatment for his gender dysphoria."
The St. John's County School Board, which oversees the high school, is named in the lawsuit as a defendant, along with Tim Forson, the superintendent of schools, and Lisa Kunze, the high school's principal.
Forson told BuzzFeed News in a statement that the school district stands by its policy.
“We disagree with the plaintiff’s interpretation of the law,” Forson said. “Beyond that it would be inappropriate for us to try this case in the media. We had no knowledge of the complaint filed today before a press conference was held. We will work through the legal process with our school board and its general counsel.”
Adams told BuzzFeed News he had, along with his parents, first appealed to school administrators. When that failed, they filed a complaint with the federal Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, which began investigating his case, but has not issued a decision.
The suit argues that the school’s actions are a violation of Adams’ constitutional rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and a violation of his civil rights under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which bans discrimination on the basis of sex.
"It sends a message to transgender students that schools see transgender students as different or unworthy of the same educational opportunities as other students. The law is quite clear in terms of the recent decisions," Paul Castillo, senior attorney for Lambda Legal who is representing Adams in the case, told BuzzFeed News.
In cases filed around the US by trans students, the issue at stake has been whether trans people are included in these protections, which explicitly prohibit sex-based discrimination, but don't spell out whether that includes gender identity.
LGBTQ rights advocates and lawyers argue that gender identity is implicitly included in those protections. In recent court cases, trans teens have won legal battles on the basis of that argument.
In February, three teenagers in Pennsylvania were granted a preliminary injunction by Third Circuit judge Mark Hornak, who wrote in that decision, "the plaintiffs appear to the court to be young people seeking to do what young people try to do every day – go to school, obtain an education, and interact as equals with their peers."
In May, a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled in favor of a transgender teenage boy in Wisconsin, Ash Whitaker, who also sued his school district for the right the use the boy's bathroom.
Similar lawsuits have gained importance particularly as a federal guidance intended to protect trans students from discrimination in schools was rolled back by the Trump administration in February. The guidance, which was issued under President Obama by the education and justice departments, encouraged schools to interpret Title IX as being inclusive of trans students, and in line with that to allow them to use bathrooms in line with their identities and to respect their choice of gender pronouns.
The decision in Whitaker's case was particularly significant because it was the first to be handed down after the guidance was rescinded, and in light of the Supreme Court deciding not to hear what was expected to be a landmark, precedent-setting trans rights case in Gloucester County School Board v Grimm.
Lawyers and advocates argue that the guidance being rolled back doesn't change anti-discrimination laws under the constitution and Title IX, but that it does mean transgender students could be more vulnerable to discrimination at schools because a layer of explicit protection for students at schools with policies like Adams' has been revoked.
"I would like people to know that this is who I am and I am not any different than the rest of the students," Adams said. "Discrimination based on just me being trans and discrimination in general is just not okay."