News Law and Policy

Appeals Court: Transgender Student Can Sue for Bathroom Access

Jessica Mason Pieklo

"Today’s ruling recognizes that transgender students must be treated the same as their peers, and that refusing to allow them to use restrooms that are consistent with their gender identity is against the law,” said Tara Borelli, senior attorney for Lambda Legal.

A federal appeals court on Tuesday ruled that a transgender high school student can proceed with his lawsuit against a Virginia school district, arguing that the school board’s decision to ban him from using the bathroom consistent with his gender identity violates federal civil rights law.

The decision came in the case of Gloucester County student Gavin Grimm, who challenged his school’s policy of separating transgender students from their peers in restrooms.

Grimm’s attorneys at the American Civil Liberties Union argued that the restroom policy, which effectively expels transgender students from communal restrooms and requires them to use “alternative … private” restroom facilities, is unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment and violates Title IX of the U.S. Education Amendments of 1972, a federal law prohibiting sex discrimination at schools that receive federal funding.

Grimm’s attorneys had asked a federal court for an injunction blocking the policy. A lower court had sided with the school board, ruling that its policy of mandating students use bathrooms consistent with their “biological sex” rather than their gender identity did not violate the ban on sex discrimination in Title IX, and that the privacy interests of other students outweighed potential harm to Grimm in using a different bathroom.

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The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit disagreed, ruling the lower court relied on the wrong legal standard in failing to issue the injunction. In coming to its conclusion the appeals court relied heavily on recent guidance issued by the U.S. Department of Education that states denying transgender students access to school bathrooms of their choice is a violation of Title IX.

“This case comes down to the simple principle that transgender students, like all students, should have the opportunity to go to school, get an education, and be treated fairly,” Kris Hayashi, the Transgender Law Center’s executive director, said in a statement following the decision. “Today’s ruling sets a legal precedent confirming what the federal government has made clear again and again: schools cannot ban students from using the restroom that matches the gender they live as every day.”

The Fourth Circuit is the highest appeals court to directly rule on the question of whether bathroom restrictions amount to unlawful sex discrimination. Such consideration comes at a time when state legislatures in the court’s jurisdiction, like North Carolina’s, have passed bathroom discrimination measures.

“Today’s ruling recognizes that transgender students must be treated the same as their peers, and that refusing to allow them to use restrooms that are consistent with their gender identity is against the law,” Tara Borelli, senior attorney for Lambda Legal, said in a statement. “Across the country, schools and school districts have proved the fear-mongering wrong: respectful and inclusive policies result in active and engaged students.”

The appeals court decision returns the case to the lower court for a new hearing, which is to include consideration of that Department of Education guidance.

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