Metro Weekly

HRC Foundation Sues Tennessee Over Anti-Transgender Restroom Law

State law prohibits transgender students from using restrooms that don't match their assigned sex at birth.

A public restroom – Photo: Buchen WANG, via Unsplash.

The Human Rights Campaign Foundation, the educational arm of the nation’s largest LGBTQ organization, is suing a Tennessee school district and the Tennessee Department of Education over a statewide bill that bars transgender students from using restrooms, locker rooms, and other facilities that do not match their assigned sex at birth.

In the lawsuit, filed on behalf of a transgender third-grade girl and her parents on Thursday, Aug. 4, in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, the HRC Foundation claims that, by enforcing the law, the Williamson County Board of Education and the Tennessee Department of Education are violating their client’s right to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and her right to be free from sex-based discrimination under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

According to the lawsuit, the 8-year-old trans girl at the center of the case, referred to as D.H., began her social transition at age six, when she began living in accordance with her gender identity. D.H. was repeatedly misgendered by teachers and bullied and harassed by students. When her parents approached school staff to complain, the school initially agreed to use female pronouns to address D.H., but told her to tell each of her 19 classmates individually about her transgender identity. After two failed attempts, including classmates becoming argumentative and hostile, D.H. stopped trying and began hiding her face.

Although D.H.’s parents complained about her mistreatment at school, the school was barred by the anti-transgender “bathroom bill,” known as the School Facilities Law, from fully recognizing D.H.’s gender identity. She was barred from girls’ restrooms, and, in lieu of using the boys’ restroom, was relegated to one of four single-occupancy restrooms at the school. However, those presented their own problems, including requiring D.H. to clean restrooms covered in human waste before using them, and effectively outing herself as transgender to other students or janitorial staff by having to use a single-stall restroom. As a result, she has limited her food and water intake, and refrains from using the bathroom whenever possible.

Additionally, the lawsuit claims the school has also refused to stop bullying of D.H. by other students, even when she’s been harassed on the playground or punched in the head on the school bus. When D.H. has complained to teachers, they have defended the aggressors by claiming they have a right to their own opinions about her gender identity — equating physical assault with a legitimate expression of free speech.

The school has also refused to change the gender marker on D.H.’s school records, claiming that the school board requires students to submit evidence of a gender marker change on a birth certificate, even though there is no policy that explicitly states that. This requirement, even if it did exist, would also be complicated by the fact that Tennessee is one of four states that does not allow gender marker changes on a birth certificate. 

As a result of her treatment in school, D.H. developed migraines, acid reflux, and recurring nightmares, all stemming from her anxiety around being outed and misgendered. She also began showing signs of gender dysphoria and internalized transphobic thoughts, which she previously had not experienced. Although these symptoms have subsided during the summer break, her parents worry they will resume as she starts third grade. They thought of transferring her to another school, but D.H. worried about having to effectively “out” herself to a new group of people, rather than remaining at her current school, where she at least knows which students are friendly or hostile.

Years ago, I chose to move to Tennessee because it was known as ‘the Volunteer State,’ whose citizens cared for their neighbors without hesitation — not a state that legalizes discrimination against helpless children,” A.H., the mother of D.H., said in a statement. “Now, I am embarrassed to say that I live in a state that refuses to see anything beyond my child’s gender. She is a bright, friendly, funny, creative, enthusiastic, little girl and is always the first kid to cheer you on if you are struggling. By filing this lawsuit, I am showing my volunteer spirit — because I’m fighting to not only affirm my child’s existence, but also the thousands of transgender and nonbinary children who live in Tennessee.”

Last year, Tennessee enacted five anti-transgender laws following its legislative session, including the School Facilities Law and a “Business Bathroom Bill,” the latter of which has been blocked by a federal court. HRC Foundation filed a lawsuit on behalf of another pair of students challenging the School Facilities Law, but that was dismissed after the plaintiffs moved out of state.

“It is unfortunate that Tennessee lawmakers are using their authority to attack some of our nation’s most vulnerable — our children. These power-seeking politicians will not stop pandering to their base, even if it means controlling which restrooms an eight year old uses at school,” Cynthia Cheng-Wun Weaver, the litigation director for the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement. “We should all be inspired by D.H.’s strength and determination to fight for the right to be who she is. She, and all transgender and nonbinary children in Tennessee, deserve to be affirmed and encouraged to be who they are, in all aspects of their lives.”

Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a memorandum affirming that prohibition on sex-based discrimination contained in Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits forms of anti-LGBTQ discrimination — the very claim that HRC Foundation makes in its lawsuit. Additionally, the U.S. Supreme Court has left an appeals court ruling in place that recognizes the rights of transgender students under both Tittle IX and the Fourteenth Amendment. That case, involving the ability of former Virginia high school student Gavin Grimm to access gender-affirming restrooms, shares many similarities to the Tennessee lawsuit.

“Transgender and nonbinary students deserve schools focused on their success and free of discrimination,” Chris Sanders, the executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, the state’s top LGBTQ advocacy organization, said in a statement. “We are unwavering in our support of the Human Rights Campaign as they work to advance equal protection of the law for these students in court.”

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