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Major companies back transgender teen in Supreme Court case: a new trend?

patterns of thought

More than 50 companies have signed on to a Human Rights Council brief supporting 17-year-old transgender Gavin Grimm's pending case before the US Supreme Court, which is slated to settle a debate around gender identity and corresponding bathroom use.

Gavin Grimm stands on his front porch during an interview at his home in Gloucester, Va., in 2015. His case arguing that his school violated Title IX protections by barring him from using the boy's bathroom is headed to the US Supreme Court, and received the backing of more than 50 companies Thursday.
Steve Helber/AP/File
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More than 50 companies declared their support for a transgender high school student in a brief to the Supreme Court Thursday, arguing that the 17-year-old’s school should allow him to use the bathroom that corresponds to his gender identity.

Gavin Grimm, a transgender teenage boy, brought the suit against his school board in Gloucester County, Va., for refusing to let him use the boy’s bathroom at his school. Instead, school officials converted a janitor’s closet into a bathroom for him to use.

His suit argues that Title IX, which bars sex discrimination at schools receiving federal funding, also protects against discrimination surrounding gender identity. The case stands to solicit answers from the nation's highest court regarding the ongoing emotional debate that has spurred legislation and cases around the nation. Businesses giants such as Apple, Amazon, and Twitter as well as smaller brands such as Etsy and Postmates have signed a "friend of the court" brief as a testament to their desire "to build and maintain the diverse and inclusive workplaces that are essential to the success of their companies."

For years, companies marketing products without ties to political issues have largely hovered above the partisan fray, avoiding taking divisive stances that might isolate a segment of their customer base. But today, consumers increasingly see their dollars as an extension of their power in the voting booth. Social media campaigns have bolstered boycotts, allowing people around the country to expose a corporation’s actions and coordinate well-organized protests in nearly unprecedented ways. 

Standing up for diversity and building inclusive brands and workplaces has become as vital to some large companies as their products and advertising. It's not always easy to tell whether businesses are genuinely seeking to spur momentum for equality or are simply searching for ways to protect themselves from boycotts. But supporting LGBT rights can prove mutually beneficial to the companies and those whose causes they support, experts say.

“There’s enormous value in figuring out how to be seen and to act as a LGBT-friendly company,” Sylvia Ann Hewlett, chief executive at the Center for Talent Innovation, a think tank that studies diversity issues.

Dr. Hewlett's research has shown that those companies that espouse LGBT-friendly attitudes and policies are likely to have engaging, productive workplaces with high employee retention, especially as younger professionals seek companies with socially conscious values that match their own. This could apply to both those who fall under the LGBT umbrella as well as those who considered themselves allies of the community.    

Many of the companies signing on to the brief have long instated and upheld policies sheltering those in the LGBT community from workplace discrimination. 

“These companies are sending a powerful message to transgender children and their families that America’s leading businesses have their backs,” Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBTQ organization in the United States, said in a statement announcing the support of the 53 companies. “Across the country, corporate leaders are speaking out because they know attacking transgender youth isn't just shameful – it also puts the families of their employees and customers at risk.”

The support for this case mirrors a trend that took off in North Carolina last year. After the state passed a controversial “bathroom bill” requiring people to use public restroom facilities that correspond to the sex on their birth certificate, dozens of businesses and celebrities spoke out urging legislators to repeal it. More than 100 companies eventually signed on to a letter to then Gov. Pat McCrory expressing concerns with the bill. 

Similarly, corporations have taken stances on so-called religious freedom restoration laws, which allow businesses to discriminate against customers on the basis of religion, such as bakers who refuse to make cakes for gay weddings. Still, the trend is only several years old, as few companies took a stance against Proposition 8, the 2008 California ballot measure that sought to limit the rights afforded to same-sex couples. 

But LGBT advocates are hopeful that support from the business sector will continue. 

“I think this is the new normal,” says Todd Sears, founder and principal of Out Leadership, a strategic advising firm that cultivates partnerships between businesses and the LGBT community. “Under the Trump administration in particular, it’s not just that companies are speaking out, there’s actually a price to not speaking out.”

As politics, morality, and commerce collide – or coalesce – around these issues, conservatives have employed similar tactics to promote their values. As The New York Times reported this week, some evangelicals are turning to “biblically responsible” sources to grow their money, ensuring that companies that support causes conflicting with Christian teachings won’t reap the benefits of their investment.

“A company deciding to spend money and time to pursue a hard-line activist agenda that has nothing to do with their core business is a different issue, and is a waste of investor dollars,” Robert Netzly, the chief executive of the Inspire Investing, the company behind the movement, told the Times.

As for Gavin Grimm's case, the court doesn’t stand to be swayed by consumer dollars. For now, it’s not clear how the split eight-member court (or nine, should nominee Neil Gorsuch receive confirmation before the case comes before the chamber) will rule on the issue.

But his isn’t the only suit making its way through the courts. In Illinois, a judge recommended that a school deny parental request to bar transgender students from the bathroom of their gender identity, while federal judges in Milwaukee, Ohio, and Pennsylvania have ruled in favor of transgender student rights.

Meanwhile, North Carolina continues to grapple with the fallout of its law and faces a suit from the ACLU, while Texas and 12 other states challenged an Obama-era directive advising schools to allow students to use the bathroom of their gender identity. President Trump revoked that directive earlier this week.  

Should the Supreme Court rule in favor of the Virginia school board, states will receive authority to navigate the issue and craft laws however they choose. But that won’t necessarily close the debate. In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled that Boy Scouts of America could discriminate against gay scoutmasters. This past year, mounting pressure caused the organization to reverse its position. And last month it announced it would admit transgender scouts.

With companies standing to gain by voicing their support – or even pulling their business investments such as when the National Basketball Association's 2017 All-Star Game was moved out of North Carolina – they likely could continue to influence local and state policy going forward, says Mr. Sears of Out Leadership.

“I don’t think you can overestimate the impact that this can have on the cause broadly,” he says. “You could lose in the Supreme Court but win in the court of public opinion.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.