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Transgender students sue Tennessee over law barring them from restrooms matching their gender

Parents of transgender children say they worry their children will be singled out for harassment and discrimination under new law.

restroom, bathroom, transgender, trans
Photo by Sung Jin Cho on Unsplash

Two transgender students have sued the state of Tennessee over a bill that bars them from accessing restrooms, locker rooms, and other sex-segregated facilities that match their gender identity.

The federal civil rights lawsuit, filed by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation and the law firms of Linklaters and Branstetter, Stranch, & Jennings PLLC on behalf of the two students, argues that the so-called “bathroom bill” passed by Tennessee lawmakers this year violates both Title IX — the 1972 law prohibiting sex-based discrimination in federally-funded education programs — and the students’ right to equal protection and due process under the law, as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

Under the bill, public schools must provide a “reasonable accommodation” to any students who do not wish to use multi-occupancy facilities — regardless of their gender identity — while maintaining a general policy of segregating facilities (or sleeping assignments, in terms of school-sponsored field trips) based on a student’s assigned sex at birth.

However, any cisgender student who requested and was denied an “alternative accommodation” may sue a school district for “psychological, emotional, and physical harm suffered” if they later encounter “a person of the opposite sex in a multi-occupancy restroom or changing facility designated for the person’s sex.”

In addition to the so-called “bathroom bill,” the Volunteer State has enacted four other anti-transgender laws this year, including a bill to ban transgender athletes from competing on sports teams matching their gender identity, a bill to restrict transgender minors from accessing gender-affirming health care treatments, a “Business Bathroom Bill” requiring establishments without sex-segregated bathrooms to post “warning” signs alerting their customers of their restroom policies, and a bill to require school districts to alert parents 30 days before students are taught about sexual orientation or gender identity — even in passing, as in the case of historical figures — so they can “opt out” of the lesson.

The plaintiffs in the case, 14-year-old Alex, and 6-year-old Ariel, as well as their respective parents, argue that the law will single them out for mistreatment or discrimination, while denying their true identities and causing them additional stress. 

Alex, who will be a high school freshman this fall, relocated with his family to Tennessee in 2018 and came out as transgender prior to entering seventh grade. However, after he came out, he was barred from using the boys’ restroom at his middle school and forced to use either the girls’ room or a single-stall facility in the nurse’s office. Because of the difficulty of accessing restroom facilities, and the feelings of alienation and isolation he felt, Alex stopped drinking liquids at school in order to avoid using the restroom.

In eight grade, he transferred to a private school that affirmed his gender identity and allowed him to use the boys’ restroom — making his life much easier. But now he intends to attend public school, meaning that, under the recently passed law, he will once again be barred from certain spaces designated for people whose assigned sex at birth was male.

“When I started 7th grade, I just wanted to blend in. Having to use a ‘special’ bathroom made me stand out because other kids would wonder why I didn’t just use the boys’ bathroom,” Alex said in a statement. “It was also a pain because the bathrooms I was allowed to use were not close to any of my classes. So, I just stopped having anything to drink during the day. It stresses me out that I’ll have to deal with this all over again at my new school.”

“We didn’t know we had a trans child when we relocated to Tennessee — if Alex had come out to us before the move, we wouldn’t have come here,” his parents, Amy and Jeff, added in a statement expressing anger at lawmakers who voted for the legislation. “If lawmakers were to take the time to get to know my son, they would see that he is an amazing, smart, caring, creative person who has so much to offer. Alex just wants to be a regular kid. He should be able to look forward to starting high school without the added layer of anxiety about something as basic as using the bathroom.”

Related: Federal judge blocks Tennessee’s “Business Bathroom Bill” requiring anti-transgender restroom signs

Ariel, who first began expressing her gender identity at two years old, told her parents of her gender dysphoria at four after being read the children’s book I Am Jazz, explaining she had a “boy body with a girl brain.” She began her social transition that year, and her teachers and schoolmates have only known her as a girl.

When she was enrolled in kindergarten, her gender identity was affirmed, but her parents are concerned that the law will make her life more difficult, disrupting her normal practice of using the girls’ restroom and singling her out for disparate treatment. Using the boys’ bathroom “would make me feel weird cause I’m a girl, not a boy,” Ariel said in a statement.

“The state’s political leaders are making Tennessee a dangerous place for our daughter, and other children like her,” Ariel’s parents, Julie and Ross, added. “We are extremely worried about her future here, and the bills that are being passed have put us in panic mode. They are attacking children that cannot defend themselves for what appears to be political gain over a non-existent problem. We wish our leaders would take the time to speak with transgender youth and adults — instead, their fear of the unknown is unnecessarily leading their actions and causing irreparable harm to these children.”

The lawsuit comes just over a month after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of a case involving former Virginia high school student Gavin Grimm’s lawsuit challenging the Gloucester County School Board’s policy that barred him, and by extension, other transgender students, from accessing gender-affirming facilities.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had previously ruled in favor of Grimm, and the high court’s refusal to hear the school board’s challenge means that schools under the jurisdiction of the 4th Circuit — in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina — should allow transgender students to access facilities matching their gender identity.

See also: 13-year-old girl sues Florida over bill barring transgender athletes from female sports teams

Similarly, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a revised opinion upholding its earlier finding that Drew Adams, a former transgender student of a Jacksonville-area school district, was subjected to discrimination when he was barred from the boys’ restroom. The revised opinion was much narrower, finding that the restroom policy violated Adams’ right to equal protection but omitting earlier findings that the policy violated his rights under Title IX — an attempt to discourage the full 11th Circuit, which leans conservative, from agreeing to rehear the case.

The Department of Justice also recently issued guidance affirming that Title IX’s prohibitions on sex-based discrimination extend to instances where transgender individuals are denied equal access to rights or privileges that are extended to their cisgender peers, including the ability to access facilities consistent with their gender identity.

The Tennessee lawsuit marks the second legal action taken by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, which is also challenging an anti-transgender sports ban in Florida.

“The common threat that ties our legal challenges together is our commitment to protect our community’s most vulnerable — children,” Alphonso David, the president of HRC, said in a statement. “The Tennessee law, which denies transgender young people the ability to use to facilities consistent with their gender identity, is not only morally reprehensible but devoid of any sound legal justification and cannot withstand legal scrutiny.

Courts have time-and-again ruled against these dangerous and discriminatory laws and we are going to fight in court to strike down this one and protect the civil rights of transgender and nonbinary young people,” David added. “With our representation of two transgender kids today, we are sending a strong message of support for all transgender and non-binary children across the country — you matter, and your legal rights should be respected.”

“We are determined that a brutal legislative session that especially targeted transgender and nonbinary youth will not be the last word,” Chris Sanders, the executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, which lobbied heavily against the various anti-transgender bills passed this session, said in a statement. “Justice demands that we fight for the constitutional guarantee of equal protection. So we are proud to support the Human Rights Campaign as they make sure Tennessee students will have their day in court.”

See also:

Oregon man threatens to stone Black city official for being a “gay sinner”

Anti-LGBTQ Republican who mocked COVID vaccines dies after contracting virus

New Jersey man charged in fatal shooting of trans advocate Shai Vanderpump in Trenton

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