WASHINGTON — In November 2014, Gavin Grimm, then a high school sophomore, approached the lectern at a meeting of the school board in Gloucester County, Virginia. Standing with his hands in his pockets, he explained that as a transgender teen, being forced to use bathrooms at school besides the one that matched his gender was “alienating” and “humiliating.”
“All I want to do is be a normal child and use the restroom in peace,” he said, noting that no students had given him trouble about this, only adults. “I’m just a human. I am just a boy.”
Seven years later, Grimm won. The US Supreme Court released an order on Monday rejecting a petition from the school board to hear the case after Grimm prevailed in the lower courts; the order leaves in place a federal appeals court decision last summer finding the school board violated his constitutional rights. The justices usually don’t specify how they voted when they decline to hear a case, but Justices Samuel Alito Jr. and Clarence Thomas noted that they would have agreed to take it up, a sign that they were open to the school board’s position.
Speaking by phone shortly after Monday’s order, Grimm, now a 22-year-old activist and educator, said he didn’t regret taking on the board at such a young age and felt “joy” and “honor” about his role in the fight. But now that he could look back on the experience as an adult, he said it was also “really important that we highlight that that should not have happened to a child.”
“What an ugly horrible world we live in that that happened to a child. What a nightmare it is that this child has now become the mouthpiece of a movement countering hatred against his very personhood, the validity of his happiness and joy and who he is,” Grimm said.
Asked if he had advice for other teen activists, he warned about burnout and urged them to take care of themselves, too: “You have to preserve yourself to push forward.”
Grimm said he isn’t sure what is next for him, but in the short term, he is taking care of his sick cat and hopes to get his driver’s license by the end of the year; long-term, he said he wants to pursue a career as an English teacher, but he isn’t enrolled in school for that yet.
“My life has been unexpected from moment to moment for a very long time,” he said. “At this point, I need a crystal ball to tell you what happens with me.”
In a series of tweets immediately responding to the court’s order, Grimm thanked the “too many people [who] played integral roles in our success and too many people who loved me so much.”
The school board released a statement declining to comment on the Supreme Court's order.
The Supreme Court’s decision not to hear the case means there won’t be any nationwide resolution from the court for now about how schools must treat transgender students. The order comes as Republicans have shifted the fight from bathrooms to sports, attempting to ban transgender student-athletes from playing on teams the correspond to their gender in several states.
Monday’s order left intact an August 2020 decision from the US Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit that featured strong language supporting constitutional protections for transgender children against discriminatory treatment at school. The precedent set by the court in Grimm’s case covers states that fall within the circuit — Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, and West Virginia — and will provide a roadmap for courts elsewhere in future fights over transgender rights.
"The proudest moments of the federal judiciary have been when we affirm the burgeoning values of our bright youth, rather than preserve the prejudices of the past," 4th Circuit Judge Henry Floyd wrote in last summer’s decision. "How shallow a promise of equal protection that would not protect Grimm from the fantastical fears and unfounded prejudices of his adult community."
Grimm, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, sued the school board near the end of his sophomore year in June 2015. He’d gotten permission from his high school to use the boys’ bathroom, and did so for the first few weeks of his sophomore year without a problem, according to court records in his case. But then adults in the community learned about him and complained.
At public school board hearings, community members insulted Grimm and threatened to oust board members if they supported him. The board voted 6–1 in favor of a policy that banned Grimm from using the boys’ bathroom. His high school eventually added unisex single-stall bathrooms, but they weren't located where he took most classes and he told the court that he felt "stigmatized and isolated"; he had multiple urinary tract infections from avoiding the bathroom at school and was at one point hospitalized because of suicidal ideation.
In the years that followed, the case moved up and down in the appeals courts. Judges weighed how to apply guidance issued by the Department of Education under former president Barack Obama directing schools to “treat transgender students consistent with their gender identity" under Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in federally funded education — and what it meant for Grimm’s case when the Trump administration later rescinded that policy.
Finally, in August 2019, a federal district judge ruled that the school board’s bathroom policy and its refusal to issue records that reflected Grimm’s correct gender violated his constitutional rights. The school board appealed to the 4th Circuit, which issued the 2–1 decision in Grimm’s favor a year later finding the policies were sex-based discrimination in violation of the Constitution’s equal protection guarantee as well as Title IX.
4th Circuit Judge James Wynn Jr., who joined Floyd’s majority opinion, wrote separately to compare Grimm’s treatment to previous eras of racial discrimination.
“No less than the recent historical practice of segregating Black and white restrooms, schools, and other public accommodations, the unequal treatment enabled by the Board’s policy produces a vicious and ineradicable stigma," Wynn wrote.
Josh Block, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union LGBTQ & HIV Project, said in a statement that the Supreme Court’s order allowing the 4th Circuit ruling to stand was an “incredible victory” for transgender students, and vowed that the organization would continue to challenge laws targeting transgender teens.
Updated with a response from the Gloucester County School Board.