Equity & Diversity

Supreme Court Halts Transgender Boy’s Bathroom Access, Considers Hearing Case

By Evie Blad — August 03, 2016 2 min read
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Update: The court agreed to hear this case. Read details here.

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay Wednesday, putting on hold a lower court’s order that a Virginia school district must allow a transgender student to use the boy’s restroom at school.

The stay will effectively leave in place a previous school board policy that restricted Gavin Grimm’s restroom access at his Gloucestor County high school based on his biological sex, even though it differs from his gender identity, while the nation’s highest court decides whether it will hear the groundbreaking case. Grimm, 17, was born a girl but now identifies as male.

If the court hears the case, it could settle a controversial dispute over schools’ legal obligations to accommodate transgender students under Title IX. Nearly half the states have sued the Obama administration over its assertion that the civil rights law’s protections against sex discrimination apply to gender identity.

Grimm’s case has set an emerging precedent for transgender student rights; an opinion by the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granting him restroom access based on his gender identity was cited in the Obama administration’s May civil rights guidance, which instructed schools to allow students to use restrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity, even if it differs from their biological sex.

As I wrote previously, that guidance, from the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice, came with an implicit threat that schools found in violation could lose federal education funding. It stirred support from transgender-student advocates and controversy among conservative state leaders, who argued the federal agencies were overstepping their authority by creating a new law instead of interpreting an existing one. (For a deep dive into questions about the limits of administrative guidance, check out this excellent story on the transgender student issue by my colleague, Mark Walsh.)

Grimm’s lawsuit predates both the guidance and the passage of North Carolina’s first-in-the-nation law restricting access to restrooms and locker rooms in public buildings, including schools, based on biological sex.

The Supreme Court voted 5-3 in favor of the stay request, which was filed by Grimm’s school as it fights the lower court’s order. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan voted against granting the stay.

Photo: Gavin Grimm stands on the front porch of his home in Gloucester, Va., in 2015. The high school student, who was born female but identifies as male, says it’s discriminatory to make him use the girls’ room or a single-stall unisex restroom at school. --Steve Helber/AP

Related reading on transgender students:

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.