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SCOTUS Deals Setback to Trans Rights, But Trans Teen & Activist Gavin Grimm Vows to Push Forward

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In a setback for the transgender rights movement, the U.S. Supreme Court has announced it is sending a landmark transgender case back to a lower court. The suit was brought by Virginia transgender high school student Gavin Grimm, who sued his local school district over its policy forcing him to use a separate, single-stall restroom that no other student was required to use. In a one-sentence order, the Supreme Court vacated an appeals court decision that had ruled in Grimm’s favor. The ruling comes less than two weeks after President Trump rescinded President Obama’s directive telling public schools to let transgender students use the bathrooms matching their gender identity. For more, we speak with Gavin Grimm and ACLU attorney Chase Strangio.

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JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In a setback for the transgender rights movement, the U.S. Supreme Court has announced it is sending a landmark transgender case back to a lower court, just weeks before oral arguments were scheduled. The suit was brought by a transgender high school student from Virginia named Gavin Grimm, who sued his local school district over its policy forcing him to use a separate, single-stall restroom that no other student was required to use. In a one-sentence order, the Supreme Court vacated an appeals court decision that had ruled in Grimm’s favor, while sending the case back to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

AMY GOODMAN: The ruling comes less than two weeks after President Trump rescinded key protections for transgender students in public schools. The move reverses President Obama’s landmark decision to order public schools to let transgender students use the bathrooms matching their gender identity.

In a moment, we’ll be joined by Gavin Grimm himself, but first I want to turn to part of a short video produced by the ACLU. It includes an interview with Gavin and his mother, as well as archival footage from a 2015 meeting of the Gloucester County School Board in Virginia. It begins with Gavin speaking out at the meeting.

GAVIN GRIMM: I prepared a speech today, but I think in light of the comments I’ve heard, it’s—it’s better for me to speak without this paper. I cannot use the women’s room, quite frankly, because I’m not a girl.

Two years ago when I spoke to the school board, I remember being very afraid, but I also remember having a purpose and goal, which was just to be able to be myself.

DEIRDRE GRIMM: I didn’t even know what transgender was when this all started. One of the first things I read was that almost 50 percent of these kids try to commit suicide. As a parent, that’s all you really need to know to support your child. No child ever should be treated like my child has been.

PARENT 1: My son has boy parts. He does not want to be in the bathroom with people with girl parts.

PARENT 2: It doesn’t matter what you feel on the inside. It matters what’s on the outside.

PARENT 3: A young man can come up and say, "I’m a girl. I need to use the ladies’ rooms now."

DEIRDRE GRIMM: It’s been really difficult, really difficult, because as a mom, you’re terrified for your kid’s safety. It’s also been wonderful, because my kid’s so awesome.

GAVIN GRIMM: This could be your child. This could be your child, your sister, your brother, your niece, your nephew. I am not the only transgender student in Gloucester County, and I deserve the rights of every other human being. I am just a human. I am just a boy. Please consider my rights when you make your decision. Thank you very much.

SCHOOL BOARD MEMBER: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: That was transgender high school student Gavin Grimm speaking in 2015 before the Gloucester County School Board in Virginia.

To talk more about Monday’s Supreme Court decision, we are joined by Gavin Grimm from a studio in Richmond, Virginia. Also with us here in New York, Chase Strangio, staff attorney at the ACLU.

Chase, let’s start with you just on what exactly the Supreme Court ruled.

CHASE STRANGIO: Yeah, so, thank you for having me. Yesterday, the Supreme Court sent back Gavin’s win to the lower court, asking the court to re-evaluate the decision in light of the change in position from the Trump administration. The Fourth Circuit, the lower court, had relied almost exclusively on the Obama administration’s interpretation of Title IX. And so, yesterday, the court’s decision was to take away Gavin’s win, send it back to the lower court to reconsider the issue of the legality of the Gloucester County School Board’s policy in light of that change.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So there’s been no actual hearing on the merits of the issue of whether Title IX is being violated by the school district.

CHASE STRANGIO: Yeah, that’s right, and that’s really important. So, nothing about yesterday’s decision from the Supreme Court or the decision of the Trump administration to rescind the Obama administration’s guidance changes the substantive protections of Title IX and the Constitution. We think it’s really important for young people and school districts to know that the law still protects them. This delays resolution at the high court, but the lower courts are continuing to rule that laws and policies like the Gloucester County School Board’s violate the constitutional and statutory rights of trans students.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Gavin Grimm, it’s great to have you on right now. Can you respond to what the Supreme Court decided?

GAVIN GRIMM: Well, it’s definitely disappointing. It will draw the process out a lot longer, which will leave a lot of kids in limbo. But we are as determined as ever to push forward. And if it takes 10 years, I’ll stick with it.

AMY GOODMAN: For those who do not know about your case, tell us your story, Gavin.

GAVIN GRIMM: Well, about two years ago, in the summer before my sophomore year of high school, I transitioned, and I approached my school and told them that this was what was going on, and I wanted to be respected as a boy. And initially, I didn’t use—ask to use the boys’ room, because I was afraid of the peer reaction. But then my peers received me very well, so I asked for permission. And for a period of seven weeks, I used the boys’ room with zero incident whatsoever, none, verbal or physical, at all. And then a member of the community complained, and a school board meeting was held, without our knowledge. We weren’t told by anyone. We found out by chance the night before. And then, at that meeting, the decision was postponed to a meeting the next month. And ultimately, it was decided that I was to use either a unisex, separate option or the women’s room at my school.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And then you decided to challenge that?

GAVIN GRIMM: Yes. And then, with the help of the ACLU, I decided to challenge that, and we’ve moved forward through the court system. And previously, we had arrived at the doorstep of the Supreme Court, but now it’s been kicked back down to a lower court.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, now you’ve become a national figure, in many ways, in terms of this case. Why do you think it’s so important to wage this battle to the end?

GAVIN GRIMM: Well, transgender kids are an especially vulnerable population, being that in high school it’s already difficult to get along. And especially if you don’t fit some kind of mold, you’re targeted to a greater degree than even normal. And then, when you are in an environment where you’re not being affirmed, and when you’re being separated and kept apart from your peers, not only does that send a very negative message to you, but it sends a very negative message to your peers and kind of conveys a precedent for how they’ll treat you. So I think it’s very important that we talk about rights of bathroom usage for trans youth, especially because if you can’t use a bathroom, you can’t participate in public life. And that’s really what’s at the center of this.

AMY GOODMAN: So talk more about that, why this is more than a case about where you go to the bathroom.

GAVIN GRIMM: Well, if you could imagine how your life would be if you didn’t have a bathroom accessible to you outside of the home, it would be quite stressful. You’d have to plan your trips very carefully around how long you’d be out. You’d probably restrict your food and drink intake. And then going to work, going to school, they’re very, very difficult things. And without availability to a restroom, this is your reality.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what was your response last month when you heard the Trump administration was revoking the Obama administration’s position on this issue?

GAVIN GRIMM: It was very disappointing, certainly very frustrating. But that didn’t dishearten me at all. I was just as determined as ever to push forward, as were, I think, everybody who’s been working so hard on this case. But certainly it was not ideal, and it sent a very, very negative message to the trans youth of our nation.

AMY GOODMAN: How have your classmates, your teachers, family, friends, people you don’t know—just run the gamut for us, how people have responded to you, Gavin?

GAVIN GRIMM: Classmates, I’ve gotten a lot of support. Teachers, I’ve gotten a lot of support. Family, I’ve gotten a lot of support. Friends, of course, a lot of support. And then, people I don’t know, I’m approached almost every time I go out by at least one person who congratulates me and says how supportive they are of me. And this is in my community and outside of it. Even as far as North Carolina, I’ve been spotted and thanked and congratulated, whereas I’ve never once had a public confrontation that was negative.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Gavin, you’re a senior; you’ll be graduating in the spring. Where do you hope to go to study? And what do you hope to do after college?

GAVIN GRIMM: Well, I’m definitely pursuing higher education. And after college, I sort of—right now what I’m thinking as a career stretch goal is I’d like to be a geneticist. And one day, it would be nice to have my own practice.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you say to other young transgender people—first of all, I mean, the Supreme Court, I think there might have been a mixed message that they ruled against you. That hasn’t been the case at this point. There hasn’t been a ruling. What do you say to others to give them hope?

GAVIN GRIMM: I would say that the fight is not over. This doesn’t mean we’re at the end of the road. It’s a detour, and that’s all it is. We have faced many detours in this process. It’s certainly been a fairly circuitous process. But it’s not over. There’s people still fighting very, very hard every day, every moment of every day, for the rights of trans youth in this nation. And just don’t be discouraged. This might take a while, but it will be resolved. And eventually, regardless of the ultimate outcome of this case, equality will absolutely prevail. I believe that with every bone in my body.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Chase, I wanted to ask you: The importance of having a transgender youth who so eloquently can speak about the issues involved in his case, and the importance of his case nationwide?

CHASE STRANGIO: Yeah, I mean, you know, as I was saying yesterday many times, when I was growing up, as a young trans person, I had no idea it was possible to sort of have a future as a trans adult. And now we have trans young people like Gavin leading our movements. They’re out there in the state legislatures. They’re bringing their cases to court. They are transforming our consciousness and our political systems, and they’re absolutely going to be the people leading us into victory and justice on this issue in the end.

AMY GOODMAN: And what is your message, Gavin Grimm, to the Trump administration and to President Trump himself?

GAVIN GRIMM: You know, I don’t think that it’s necessary to speak to the detractors. I think I want to promote a very positive message of support to other trans youth, and definitely positivity. So, I guess I’ll go back to the message to trans youth everywhere, and that is: Don’t be disheartened. Keep your chin up. These things take time, but we are working toward equality every day.

AMY GOODMAN: And your comments to young people to follow their path? You know, we asked you about just in the last few years, but when you were growing up, how you made your way, how you came to understand who you were and how you wanted to express that?

GAVIN GRIMM: Yeah, I mean, growing up, it was difficult. I didn’t have a lot of outlets. One of the things I found great solace in was Pokémon. It’s a role-playing game, and you can choose to be a boy or a girl. Similarly, other role-playing games were refuges for me, online spaces where I could express myself as a boy, and then just a masculine identity that I carried with me throughout childhood that allowed me, in some degree, to be comfortable and do things I enjoy doing and dress the way I enjoy dressing. But it wasn’t easy. I was still forced to behave and essentially be raised as a girl.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, when did that change? And what message do you have to parents for trans kids?

GAVIN GRIMM: Well, it especially started changing around puberty. My anxiety grew. My dysphoria, which is the feeling that your sexual characteristics, primary or secondary, don’t match your brain, that grew. So there was a lot of extra stress and distress during that period of time, and so I really started expressing myself more firmly as a masculine individual. And then, once I learned what transgender meant, I pretty quickly established that that was who I was. And then I came out when I was 14. And I would say to other trans youth, of course, be careful. It might not be safe for everybody to come out where they are. Some people might be at risk of violence or being cast out by their families. But there is a future for you in which you can live as who you are. There’s—

AMY GOODMAN: We will have to leave it there, Gavin. I want to thank you, Gavin Grimm and Chase Strangio, for joining us. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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