Supreme Court to tackle transgender bathroom rules

The US Supreme Court unexpectedly announced Friday it will take up a case on transgender bathroom rights for the first time next year.

Steve Helber/AP/File
In this Monday Aug. 22, 2016 file photo, transgender high school student Gavin Grimm poses in front of his home in Gloucester, Va. The Supreme Court will take up transgender rights for the first time in the case of a Virginia school board that wants to prevent Grimm, a transgender teenager from using the boys' bathroom at his high school, Friday, Oct. 28, 2016.

The Supreme Court decided on Friday it will take up a case on transgender bathroom rules next year, marking its first venture into the increasingly controversial area of transgender rights.

The case deals with a 17-year-old transgender student, Gavin Grimm, who identifies as male and sued in 2015 when he was denied use of the boys’ bathrooms at his school in Virginia. He won the case then, but the battle started anew when the Gloucester County School Board appealed the ruling.

“If you told me two years ago that the Supreme Court was going to have to approve whether I could use the school restroom, I would have thought you were joking,” Mr. Grimm wrote in a Washington Post op-ed after the Supreme Court’s announcement. “I hope the justices of the Supreme Court can see me and the rest of the transgender community for who we are — just people — and rule accordingly.”

It will be the first time the court has ruled directly on transgender rights just a year after handing down the decision to legalize same-sex marriage. Many liberal activists see transgender rights as the next step in fighting for equality in treatment for LGBT individuals. For the court to take up the case so soon after ruling for same-sex marriage is seen by some as a reflection how quickly this issue has become a societal controversy, as slews of lawsuits and rules in various states have moved in defiance of Obama administration guidelines for schools.

“This is one of the most important days in the history of the transgender movement,” Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said in a statement as reported by The Washington Post. “Whatever the court rules . . . may ensure that transgender people are accepted and included as equal members of our society, or it may relegate them to outsiders for decades to come.”

The Virginia county school board chairman Troy Anderson said the board’s policy “carefully balances the interests of all students and parents,” according to Reuters. Some conservative groups are supportive of keeping local control over this issue.

"In light of the right to bodily privacy, federal law should not be twisted to require that a male be given access to the girls' facilities, or a female to the boys' facilities," Gary McCaleb, a lawyer with the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal group, told Reuters.

Grimm first came out as transgender in 2014 when he was a freshman in high school, according to his Washington Post op-ed. At first, he was able to use the men’s restrooms for two months. But when a group of parents and community members heard about the case, they complained, and the school administrators convened public meetings to “discuss my genitals and restroom usage in front of reporters and television cameras.”

Since then, the school board passed a policy stating that students with “gender identity issues” must use either the nurse’s office restrooms or “unisex” single-stall restrooms.

For transgender individuals, they want the right to be able to use bathrooms in line with their gender identity rather than their birth gender.

“I feel the humiliation every time I need to use the restroom and every minute I try to “hold it” in the hopes of avoiding the long walk to the nurse’s office,” Grimm wrote. “I did not choose to announce to the news media that I am transgender. My school board made that decision for me. But now that I am visible, I want to use my position to help the country see transgender people like me as real people just living our lives.”

But it’s a thorny time for the case to be taken up. While the next US president may get a new justice approved to replace Justice Antonin Scalia before the case gets heard next year, a 4-4 tie in the court will allow Grimm to continue using the men’s bathroom - but set no national precedent. And that would be a setback for activists - on both sides - who want a clearer answer.

"In agreeing to hear the case, the justices set aside their recent caution in adding cases to their docket while the court is reduced to eight members," as The New York Times reports.

Whatever the Supreme Court decides in the Grimm case, it will likely influence the outcome of other pending legal battles. North Carolina, for example, has been involved with lawsuits with the federal government over its bathroom bill that allegedly discriminates against transgender individuals.

A US Department of Education directive last May warns schools they will lose federal money if they implement such discriminatory policies. But Education Department guidelines were blocked by a federal judge in Texas and opposed by 13 states. Some parents, as previously reported by The Christian Science Monitor, are worried about "sexual predators" who may take advantage of the law while others worry about "emotional duress" for their transgender children.

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