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'Horrifying,' Says Teen of Being at Center of Transgender Bathroom Ruling


FILE - Gavin Grimm leans on a post on his front porch at his home in Gloucester, Virginia, in August 2015. Grimm is a transgender student whose demand to use the boys' restrooms has divided the community and prompted a lawsuit.

FILE - Gavin Grimm leans on a post on his front porch at his home in Gloucester, Virginia, in August 2015. Grimm is a transgender student whose demand to use the boys' restrooms has divided the community and prompted a lawsuit.

Sixteen-year-old Gavin Grimm describes himself as a "very private person." When he's not in class, he enjoys playing video games, reading books, going to Wal-Mart, and whatever else counts as entertainment in the part of rural Virginia he calls "the sticks."

So it shouldn't come as a surprise that Grimm, a junior at Gloucester High School, is more than a bit uncomfortable with being at the center of a national debate about whether transgender people like himself should be allowed to use the restroom of their choice.

"The debate of whether I can use the bathroom is centered around my genitals," Grimm lamented in an interview with VOA. "That is horrifying, to say the least. It's bizarre and creepy and unpleasant."

But Grimm, who was born female but identifies as male, received good news this week when the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that his high school discriminated against him by banning him from the boy's bathroom.

FILE - Supporters of House Bill 2 gather outside the North Carolina State Capitol in Raleigh, North Carolina, April 11, 2016.

FILE - Supporters of House Bill 2 gather outside the North Carolina State Capitol in Raleigh, North Carolina, April 11, 2016.

The ruling was a significant legal victory for transgender rights advocates and could establish precedent in other pending cases. But experts warn the legal wrangling over the issue is far from over and say it could eventually reach the Supreme Court.

National debate

Transgender bathroom use has fiercely divided public opinion in recent months, especially after some state and local municipalities passed laws requiring transgender people to use public restrooms that correspond to the sex listed on their birth certificates.

Supporters say such laws are common sense and are aimed at protecting women and children from sexual predators. Opponents say the laws enshrine bigotry against LGBT people, adding that it is offensive to link transgender rights with the threat of sexual predators.

Much of the public debate has centered on North Carolina, the latest state to pass a law that, among other things, restricted transgender use of public bathrooms. The law, known as HB2, has prompted a severe public backlash, including an economic boycott that has cost the state millions of dollars.

The ruling in Grimm's case dealt a significant blow to the North Carolina law, since North Carolina falls within the jurisdiction of the 4th circuit. The ruling is also relevant because both the Grimm case and the North Carolina case deal with gender discrimination laws in schools that receive federal funding.

Title IX

In the Grimm case, the Richmond-based court found that the Gloucester County School Board was in violation of Title IX, a federal statute that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in schools that receive federal funds.

FILE - Opponents of House Bill 2 protest across the street from the North Carolina State Capitol in Raleigh, North Carolina, April 11, 2016.

FILE - Opponents of House Bill 2 protest across the street from the North Carolina State Capitol in Raleigh, North Carolina, April 11, 2016.

The tricky part is that Title IX is silent on the issue of how to treat transgender students.

In 2014, the Department of Education stepped in to say that it interprets the law as saying that all federally funded schools must permit transgender students to use the restroom that corresponds to their gender identity.

Many school boards, and state and county legislators across the country, have chosen to ignore that interpretation. After Tuesday's ruling, which upheld the Department of Education's interpretation, that will be harder to do — including for authorities in North Carolina.

"The 4th circuit's ruling is binding precedent for all federal courts within the 4th circuit, and that includes North Carolina," said Joshua Block, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, who represented Grimm. "And that ruling requires district courts defer to the Department of Education interpretation.

"The ruling clearly indicates that the portions of HB2 that apply to schools violate Title IX, without any question," he said.

Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe agrees that the decision "would carry great weight" in any federal court challenge to HB2. He also told VOA it "adds fuel to the fire already aimed at HB2."

'Far from over'

But the litigation surrounding transgender bathroom use is "far from over," according to Matt Staver, a lawyer with the evangelical Christian Liberty Counsel, which has backed efforts to remove transgender protections.

In a phone call with VOA, Staver called the ruling in Grimm's case "absurd," saying it does not follow the text of Title IX. "When it says 'sex,' it refers to the construct of male and female. There was never any other intent or meaning or application," he said.

FILE - A website screen grab shows a statement by the rock band Pearl Jam, announcing the cancellation of a planned April 20 concert in North Carolina, April 18, 2016. They called a recently passed North Carolina law "despicable."

FILE - A website screen grab shows a statement by the rock band Pearl Jam, announcing the cancellation of a planned April 20 concert in North Carolina, April 18, 2016. They called a recently passed North Carolina law "despicable."

Staver concedes the ruling will have "some impact" on the states within the 4th circuit.

"But at the end of the day, this is not a final ruling. This was done at what was called the preliminary injunction stage, and there's more litigation to come forth," he said.

Appeal possible

North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, a Republican who has refused to back down on the most controversial parts of HB2, has said he is consulting with attorneys to determine the impact of the Virginia ruling.

"It is my understanding that this ruling will most likely be immediately appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court," McCrory said this week. "I mean, this is a major, major change in social norms."

The issue could eventually wind up at the Supreme Court, says Adam Romero, a professor at the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, which focuses on sexual orientation and gender identity issues.

But it could take awhile, he tells VOA, since the lower federal courts are just beginning to consider the issue of what federal anti-discrimination law requires with respect to transgender people and public accommodations.

"I suspect the Supreme Court will wait for this issue to sufficiently percolate at the courts of appeals and, importantly, to see if the courts of appeals disagree," he added. "If they do not end up disagreeing ... then the Supreme Court would have less reason to take it up."

Returning to 'normal life'

While the Virginia ruling may not bring an end to the legal battle over transgender rights, it does mean that Grimm can stay out of the spotlight, and focus more on the stresses involved in getting through his junior year of high school.

"My grades have suffered a bit," he admitted. "It has not been easy."

Grimm says he is "relieved" and that he is looking forward to returning his focus to normal things — like doing his homework without distraction.

"It's like I can finally return to my normal life," he said.

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