Education

Gavin Grimm Film Is Short, but Shows Intimate Side of Transgender Activist

By Mark Walsh — November 14, 2017 3 min read
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Transgender high school student Gavin Grimm’s case in the U.S. Supreme Court was cut short last spring after President Donald Trump’s administration withdrew guidance calling on schools to respect the gender identity of students like him.

That probably played a role in keeping a documentary about Grimm’s battle with the rural Gloucester County, Va., school board on the shorter side. Clocking in at 18 minutes, the film “Gavin Grimm vs.” was shown Monday night in Washington at the first-ever “Meet the Press” Film Festival (with the American Film Institute).

The documentary by director Nadia Hallgren is sympathetic to Grimm, who was born female and recognized his male gender identity when he was 15. He graduated from Gloucester High School last spring without ever being able to rely on the court order he had won in a federal appeals court that would have allowed him to use the boys’ restroom. (Grimm had used it for several weeks while a sophomore before the school board passed a policy requiring him to use the restroom corresponding to his birth gender or a gender-neutral restroom.)

Hallgren’s film is thin on some of the legal details of the case, but that’s OK. Those are widely available for those who want to dig in, and the precise legal question before the Supreme Court was complex, dealing with judicial references to the executive branch’s interpretation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

What’s most valuable about the documentary is the intimate moments Grimm has at home with his supportive mother, Deirdre Grimm, and his more complicated relationship with his father, David Grimm. Still, we see the family sitting down at TV tables with dinner one night and know that a moment like that is a time for family bonding.

There is also Grimm’s bonding with nature as he examines bugs, hikes in the woods, or plays with his pot-bellied pig.

We see Grimm in New York City, meeting with his American Civil Liberties Union lawyers, getting fitted for a suit, and meeting Laverne Cox, the transgender actor actress (“Orange Is the New Black”) who has championed Grimm’s cause on TV talk shows and on awards-show stages.

We also see ACLU lawyers Joshua A. Block and Chase B. Strangio get the word last March that the Supreme Court had sent the case back to the lower courts, just as they are at New York City’s Penn Station evidently preparing to ride to Washington in advance of oral arguments. Even though it was the school board that had appealed the case to the high court, Grimm’s lawyers had urged the justices to keep it on their docket to resolve the underlying statutory and constitutional issues over transgender students in schools.

The documentary, which is available for viewing on the website of Field of Vision films, shows some public comments against Grimm and the vote of the Gloucester County School Board. (This is a case I covered in the Supreme Court, and the school board and district have generally not given interviews.)

Grimm and Hallgren were present for the documentary and for an after-discussion with NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell (who was filling in on short notice for anchor emeritus Tom Brokaw, who was under the weather).

The film “is such a beautiful and poignant rendition of events,” said Grimm, who indicated he will be attending college on the West Coast in the new year. “To have a film represent my message in such a precise and articulate way went a very long way in elucidating the point of my life and the process of this case that don’t always get to get out there as readily.”

Hallgren said the documentary started filming in January. “I wanted people to know the Gavin that I knew and that I connected with personally,” she said. One gets the sense that the film would have been longer and followed the case through to a Supreme Court decision on the merits if that had occured.

Grimm said he intends to become a middle school teacher. He stressed that his case is not over—it’s now back in federal district court over issues such as standing given that he has graduated high school—but that he’s in the fight “for 10 years or more” if that’s what it takes. (In April, Judge Andre M. Gregory of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va., wrote an opinion comparing Grimm to a line of famous litigants for civil rights, including Linda Brown, Fred Koremotsu, and Mildred and Richard Loving, who “looked to the federal courts to vindicate their claims to human dignity.”

The wheels of justice can turn slowly, and sometimes they drive away from one litigant and pick up another. It’s not clear that Grimm will not return to the Supreme Court one day. But his fight is a larger fight, and there will be room for a longer documentary on this topic in the future.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.

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