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Virginia school's transgender bathroom ban is back in court

The hearing is the latest step in a yearslong legal battle that has come to embody the debate over transgender student rights.
Gavin Grimm
Gloucester County High School senior Gavin Grimm, a transgender student, speaks during a news conference in Richmond, Virginia, on March 6, 2017.Steve Helber / AP file

Gavin Grimm, a young man who has become a national face for transgender student rights, returns to a Virginia courtroom Tuesday to continue fighting against his former high school's transgender bathroom policy.

A federal judge in Norfolk will hear arguments over whether the Gloucester County School Board violated Grimm's rights when it banned him from using boys' bathrooms.

The hearing is the latest step in a yearslong legal battle that has come to embody the debate over transgender student rights, an issue that is far from settled in school systems across the nation. Grimm, now 20, filed his lawsuit in 2015.

U.S. District Court Judge Arenda Wright Allen is unlikely to rule from the bench Tuesday. But her eventual decision could have an impact on schools in Virginia and reverberate further if the case reaches a federal appeals court that also oversees Maryland, West Virginia and the Carolinas.

Grimm and the American Civil Liberties Union say the school board violated his rights under the U.S. Constitution's equal protection clause as well as under Title IX, the federal policy that protects against gender-based discrimination.

The school board said it is protecting students' privacy and has discriminated against no one.

School systems have fallen on either side of this debate, leaving a patchwork of policies across the country.

"Whether it's the best of times or the worst of times for transgender students really can depend on where you live and who your principal is," said Harper Jean Tobin, policy director for the National Center for Transgender Equality.

Tobin said Grimm's case will likely join the "steady drum beat" of recent court rulings that have favored transgender students in states including Maryland , Pennsylvania and Wisconsin .

But Gary McCaleb, senior counsel for the conservative Christian group Alliance Defending Freedom, said the overall issue is far from resolved.

McCaleb cited a federal discrimination complaint filed by ADF in June that says a Connecticut policy on transgender athletes is unfair because it allows transgender girls to consistently win track and field events. He also said a pending U.S. Supreme Court case involving a transgender woman who was fired by a Michigan funeral home could impact school bathroom policies.

McCaleb said that "no student's right to privacy should be contingent on other students' beliefs about their gender."

Grimm had come out to his parents as a boy during his freshman year at Gloucester High School, which is about 60 miles east of Richmond and near the Chesapeake Bay.

He was initially allowed to use the boys' restroom. But after some parents complained, students were required to use the restroom that corresponds with their biological gender or a private restroom.

Grimm sued in 2015. A federal judge sided with the school board. But the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Grimm's favor. It cited a directive issued by the administration of then President Barack Obama that said students can choose bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity.

Grimm drew international attention when the U.S. Supreme Court scheduled a hearing for his case. But it was canceled after the Trump Administration rescinded the Obama-era directive on bathrooms.

Grimm graduated in 2017 and moved to California, where he's worked as an activist and educator and studied at a community college. But his case has continued in the lower courts.

In February, the school board appeared to consider settling the case and proposed ending its bathroom policy. But many residents spoke out against the suggested change. The board did not take a vote on it.