A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that public schools must allow transgender students to use the bathrooms that match their gender identity, the first such decision of its kind.
The ruling is a victory for a Virginia high school student, Gavin Grimm, who was born female but identifies as male, has undergone hormone therapy, and has legally changed his name.
School officials were supportive and allowed him to use the boys' restrooms, but the school board later barred the school from making that accommodation.
On Tuesday, by a 2-1 vote, a panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond reversed a lower court decision that had been in favor of the school board.
"Tuesday's ruling says quite clearly that forcing transgender students to use the wrong restroom, one that doesn't accord with their gender identity, is sex discrimination," said the ACLU's James Esseks.
The decision is binding on the five states of the Fourth Circuit -- Maryland, North and South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia.
The court based its decision on a regulation issued by the Department of Education a year ago, interpreting the requirements of a federal law known as Title IX, which prohibits schools that receive federal funds from engaging in sex discrimination.
"A school generally must treat transgender students consistent with their gender identity," the federal regulation said. The appeals court ruled Tuesday that the rule is a reasonable interpretation of Title IX.
The school board, in Gloucester, a rural part of Virginia on the Chesapeake Bay, said Grimm could use a unisex bathroom, but he said it only worsened his anguish of being transgender. Barred from using the boys' restroom, he avoided using the restrooms at the school entirely and developed urinary tract infections, according to court documents.
The school board forced the high school to stop accommodating him after angry parents spoke out at two community meetings. One person called him a "freak," and several repeatedly referred to him as a girl or young lady.
Policies requiring schools to permit transgender students to use the bathrooms that conform to their gender identity have been enacted in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and Washington.
But some states are taking a contrary position. North Carolina's legislature passed a law, signed by the governor last month, requiring transgender people to use the bathroom that correspondents to the sex they were born with. A similar measure was vetoed by South Dakota's governor.
Tuesday's decision presumably blunts part of the force of the North Carolina law by prohibiting enforcement of the bathroom restriction in public schools.
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory told reporters he had received word of the ruling in the Virginia case and is assessing how his state should respond.
"It's the federal government, very similar to the Charlotte government, forcing something...brand new standards that we've never seen before," he said on Tuesday. "However, as governor I will uphold my oath of office and respect these court rulings and make sure these court rulings are abided to."