Back to News & Commentary

A New Hero for Transgender Rights

Rachel Healy,
Director of Public Education and Communications,
ACLU of Maine
Share This Page
February 3, 2014

The girl, known in court documents as Susan Doe but now known to the world as Nicole Maines, was the subject of a court case over the rights of transgender students to use the correct bathroom for their gender. And last week she won. On January 30, 2014 the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled that Nicole’s school violated the Maine Human Rights Act (MHRA) when it required her to use the staff bathroom rather than the bathroom used by all other female students.

By the fifth grade, Nicole had already identified as a girl for several years and was widely accepted as a girl by her peers and teachers. She had a diagnosis of gender dysphoria and school administrators recognized how important it was for her to live socially as a girl. In fact, she had used the girls’ bathroom without incident throughout third and fourth grade.

However, when Nicole reached the fifth grade, a male student – on the direction of his grandfather and guardian – twice followed her into the bathroom claiming that he, too, had a right to use the girls’ bathroom. After that, Nicole was required by the school to use the single-stall, unisex staff bathroom. She was the only student in the school required to use the staff bathroom.

Recognizing the unfairness of treating Nicole differently than the other girls because of the bad actions of another student, her parents and the Maine Human Rights Commission filed a lawsuit against the school department in 2008. The suit claimed unlawful discrimination in education and unlawful discrimination in a place of public accommodation on the basis of gender identity and expression, in violation of the MHRA. The ACLU of Maine and the national ACLU LGBT Project filed an amicus brief in the case, arguing for the importance of protecting transgender people from discrimination, especially in situations where there is public controversy.

In 2012, the Maine Superior Court sided with RSU 26, granting the defendants’ motion for summary judgment. But Thursday, the Supreme Judicial Court overturned that ruling 5 to 1.

While the MHRA has prohibited discrimination based on gender identity and expression in public accommodations, educational opportunities, employment, housing and other areas since 2005, this is the first case that has required the Court to interpret those protections.

According to the majority decision, “Decisions about how to address students’ legitimate gender identity issues are not to be taken lightly. Where, as here, it has been clearly established that a student’s psychological well-being and educational success depend upon being permitted to use the communal bathroom consistent with her gender identity, denying access to the appropriate bathroom constitutes sexual orientation discrimination in violation of the MHRA.”

This is an important victory for the Maine Human Rights Act, and for the dignity of all transgender people in Maine.

Learn more about transgender rights and other civil liberty issues: Sign up for breaking news alerts, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.