Metro Weekly

ACLU files transgender discrimination lawsuit in Gloucester County

Lawsuit argues bathroom policy adopted for transgender student is unconstitutional and violates Title IX protections

Gloucester County (Map courtesy of Dave Bradlee via Dave's Redistricting App.)

Gloucester County (Map created by hand using Dave’s Redistricting App, courtesy of Dave Bradlee.)

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the ACLU of Virginia on Thursday filed a lawsuit against the Gloucester County School Board for what they call a discriminatory bathroom policy that was adopted to accommodate transgender students after parents and conservative groups from outside the county objected to allowing a transgender male student to use the men’s room. 

The student at the center of the controversy is Gavin Grimm, who is set to begin his junior year at Gloucester High School this fall. At the beginning of this past school year, Grimm and his mother notified administrators of his male gender identity. Initially, Grimm was allowed to use a single-stall restroom in the nurse’s office and staff restrooms. But after he complained that he felt isolated from other students, the principal allowed him to use the boys’ restroom. He then used that restroom for nearly two months, without incident, until a coalition of conservative activists and community members, some of them parents of children in the school system, lodged a complaint with the school board. 

Following the complaints, the conservative activists made a show of force at a contentious December school board meeting in an effort to intimidate school board members into approving a motion that requires transgender students to use either the bathroom assigned to their biological sex, single-stall restrooms or some other type of “alternative private facility,” such as a staff restroom. Similar shows of force at school board meetings, organized by social values crusaders with anti-transgender sentiment, have also taken place in other counties, most notably Stafford County, where the school board reversed an earlier decision allowing an elementary school student to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify, and in Fairfax County, where community members shouted down and threatened school board members for adding gender identity to their nondiscrimination policy

The motion prohibiting Grimm and other transgender students from using the bathroom consistent with their gender identity passed 6-1. Board member Kim Hensley (Ware), the sole vote against the motion, argued that the board’s chosen policy prescription might violate Title IX, a portion of the Educational Amendments Act of 1972 that prohibits any form of discrimination on the basis of gender.

It is exactly those arguments that Hensley had raised in December that are the basis for the current lawsuit. In their complaint, the ACLU and ACLU of Virginia argue that Gloucester County’s bathroom policy is unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment and violates Title IX.

“The school board’s policy is deeply stigmatizing and needlessly cruel,” said Joshua Block, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and HIV Project. “Any student — transgender or not — should be free to use single-stall restrooms if they want extra privacy. Instead of protecting the privacy of all students, the school board has chosen to single out transgender students as unfit to use the same restrooms as everyone else.”

The ACLU also previously filed a federal discrimination complaint with the Department of Justice and Department of Education right after the school board passed its new policy, claiming it constitutes sex discrimination and thereby violates Title IX. That investigation remains ongoing.

In the lawsuit, the ACLU filed a preliminary injunction to ensure the court rules in time for Grimm to be able to use the same restroom as other boys when next year’s school begins in the fall. 

Equality Virginia, the state’s top LGBT rights organization, issued a statement emphasizing its full-throated support for the ACLU lawsuit.

“Transgender students have the same needs as other students, and they must be given the same opportunity to succeed,” said James Parrish, Equality Virginia’s executive director. “The job of our schools is to create an atmosphere of tolerance and respect, and part of that is ensuring that no child is stigmatized or treated differently because of who they are. Affirming children for who they are is simply the right thing to do, and rejecting a child’s deeply held sense of who they are can have very serious consequences. It is sad that this is even a debate.”

For Grimm, the issue is simply one of respect. 

“I just want to use the restroom in peace,” he said in a statement. “Since the school board passed this policy I feel singled out and humiliated every time I need to use the restroom.”

John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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