Gavin Grimm, From Teen Activist to Trans Icon (ep. 64)

September 19, 2019
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In 2014, Gavin Grimm was a high school sophomore in Gloucester County, Virginia. He had recently come out as transgender to school administrators who were initially supportive. However, following protests from members of the community, the school board reversed course and banned him from using the boy's restroom. That kicked off a high-profile legal battle over the rights of transgender students that continues to this day. Now 20 years old, Gavin is a college student, an ACLU client, and a leader in the fight for trans youth.

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[00:00:04] From the ACLU, This is At Liberty. I'm Emerson Sykes, a staff attorney here at the ACLU and your host. In 2014, Gavin Grimm was a high school sophomore in Gloucester County, Virginia. He had recently come out as transgender to school administrators who initially indicated they'd respect his gender identity, but following protests from members of the community, the school board reversed course and banned him from using the boy's restroom. That kicked off a high profile legal battle over the rights of transgender students that continues to this day.

With us today is Gavin Grimm himself. Now 20 years old, Gavin is a college student, an ACLU client, a sought after speaker and writer and an inspiring leader in the fight for trans youth. Gavin, thanks very much for joining us today. Welcome to the podcast.

[00:00:58] Thanks for having me. Happy to be here.

[00:01:00] Gavin, your case has been going on for more than four years now. You initially lost in the District Court and then won on appeal. It almost went up to the Supreme Court until the Trump administration intervened at the last minute, and I know the case is ongoing to this day. Can you just briefly summarize what it is that you're asking the court to decide here?

[00:01:21] Yes.

So we were in court July 23rd before the District Court and our arguments that day, we had a couple of things that we brought with us. First and foremost, I have a high school transcript that formerly designated me as female. We had been asking the school for a very long time to change that document to reflect my legal information, which is that I'm a man.

All of my legal documents describe me as a male, as a man, and despite producing these documents to the high school when I still attended the school, they absolutely refused to issue me a transcript that designated me as male, only offering one that designated me as female.

[00:01:59] And so that was part of our ask in court, was that I got to have a transcript that was was correct. On top of that, of course, we are seeking to validate that the experience of being banned from the boys restroom on the basis of being a transgender boy was discrimination and was wrong. So that's kind of what we're talking about now. And recently, as a result of our day in court on July 23rd, I was in fact issued that male transcript.

[00:02:23] That's fantastic news, and it's interesting to hear about how what started with or was initially billed as “all about access to the restroom” has all sorts of other implications on your education.

[00:02:35] Absolutely. I mean the transcript issue was one that extremely pervasive in terms of my planning my future. I have to submit that document to any sort of university-type college that I go to. If I'm submitting a transcript that designates me as female, I have to have an explanation for that. And it forces me to out myself, which can put me in the path of harm in--in you know, in the world we live in.

[00:02:59] Well, you are graduated now. So the basic question of whether or not you as an individual can access the boys restroom is no longer really a live issue, right? But the policy is still in place, and you might also be entitled to damages for the violations of your constitutional rights. Is that correct?

[00:03:16] Yes. We're seeking nominal damages. That's what we've sought so far. And yeah. you're right that it won't affect me specifically as I have graduated, but it's more about at this point challenging the policy itself and the discrimination I faced while I was there.

[00:03:35] Well, can you tell us how this policy came into existence? Because, I understand that when you first came out to some members of the administration in your school, they were initially very supportive, but then after some public outcry, they changed course. And so an you tell us how this policy came into being in the first place back in 2014?

[00:03:54] Absolutely. So in the summer before my sophomore year of high school, of course, I transitioned. I shared with my parents and my family and my friends who I was, and so I prepared to go back to school as Gavin. And we met with the principal, with the people in the school, that would be the principal, vice principal, the nurses, you know, the guidance counselors, at that point, we had not met with anyone on the school board or spoken to anyone on the school board. And we basically told them, you know, “Hey, this is who he is.”

I'm saying “we” in terms of myself and my mom. She was really who supported me through everything. And we kind of went as a team and said “This is me. I am Gavin, I am a boy. What are you going to do to support us?” And initially the reception was positive. Our principal seemed to want to make a solution that would that would honor me and keep me safe.

And he really let me lead the charge on what he was willing to consider. Really everything I asked for he advanced. And to be clear, I did not initially ask to use the boys’ bathroom. That request came a few months into the school year when I realized that not using the boys bathroom was needlessly stigmatizing because initially I had just been too afraid. But I realized as I progressed through my school year that I had nothing to fear, and I was being needlessly stigmatized and put into positions that were quite embarrassing because I didn't really have an explanation as to why I was going all the way across the school to the nurse's office to use those bathrooms.

And so I re-approached my principal and I said, “Hey, I'm a boy. Like any other boy, I'd like to use the boys’ bathrooms. This is needlessly stigmatizing. I'm tired of taking so much time out of my education every day to go all the way to the front of the school.” And he agreed with me. Initially, I think he had to ask a few people. I don't really know what was involved in that process, but it took him a few days to get back and he told me at that point that we should go ahead and do that. And it was at that point, about -- I think it was a period of [00:05:49] seven weeks later, after I had been using the boys bathroom regularly and without any incident of any kind -- my family became aware that the matter of my using the bathroom was going to be a subject of public discussion for the next school board meeting.

[00:06:04] It was not specifically me, my my name on the docket, but it was the discussion of bathroom usage by transgender students, and the topic of introducing a policy. And we were not notified that this meeting was going to take place. We were not warned in any way. We found out on Facebook and despite it not naming me by name, of course the community already knew who it was, it's a small Southern town. And so that school board meeting occurred, that public meeting where members of my community attended and people who have worked alongside my parents, grown up, you know, alongside siblings of mine, [00:6:39], called me a freak and spoke out against me and against transgender people at large.

And I also spoke on my own behalf, and so did my mother and a few of my friends. And at that point, the policy that was proposed was going to effectively ban trans students from the restrooms of their gender and only allow them to use restrooms associated with their sex assigned at birth or the nurse's office or the single unisex restrooms that they'd constructed [00:7:05] after all this had started going on. And so, at the second meeting, after the vote was postponed, they voted to institute that discriminatory policy which sort of began my journey with with the ACLU.

[00:07:17] Well, I've seen the video, I and lots and lots and lots of other people have seen the video of your testimony, and it's quite powerful and moving and it's just overwhelming how young you are in the video and how brave and strong you are standing up to this roomful of adults who are calling you all sorts of incredibly insensitive and-- and really cruel things. And I--I wonder if you can just take us back into what gave you that that bravery in that moment to stand up for yourself in front of a town that was that was intent on giving you scorn.

[00:07:50] Well, I have to say that unfortunately, in that moment it felt less like bravery and more like desperation. [00:08:03] I want to be very clear that no 15-year-old should ever, ever be in a position where they feel they have to defend their basic human right. It just should never have happened. I look back on it now, looking back at that child as a 20 year old now, you know, I--I'm horrified, quite frankly, I’m horrified that the actions of the school board pushed me in a position where I felt like if I wasn't going to defend myself, no one else was. And that's a shame. It really is a shame that that a child was put into that position.

I will say that my choice to to advocate for myself, which is not necessarily what everyone would have chosen even in that situation, it did feel like desperation-- it did feel like I had no other choice. At the time I thought, you know, “No one is going to stand up for me. Absolutely no one is going to protect me right now. I am the only one who is going to say anything about this. I am the only one who's going to be speaking out in my own interest in this town.”

And that proved to be mostly correct. I mean only-- for the most part, only the people we brought with us in our own vehicles both those nights really that was the only support we got. At the second meeting there was a couple of positive remarks that came from people, other than our our own family and friend circles. But really we were quite a small team. And as soon as I heard about the meeting my snap reaction was, “Well, I'm going I'm speaking because they're not going to talk about me and my rights without me having a say in it too.”

But, I you know, even as a young child, I used to stay up after my bedtime to watch The Daily Show back with Craig Ferguson and all, you know-- I've liked politics for a long time, and--I've been interested in the civic process and my civic rights and duties and--and honestly when this happened, it felt very much like a civic duty: it was my duty as a good citizen to stand up against injustice in my community. Even though it was about me, it was partially fueled by a sense of patriotism because I figured that the way to make the world a better place is by standing up for what you believe in.

And the other thing that kind of informed that decision-making process was my history of traumatic bullying in public schools. I had to leave school in third grade. I was bullied out of school in third grade, and so my history with public school is very much a story of peers being unkind and adults doing nothing to protect me. And so unfortunately, as a child, I kind of came away with this lesson that adults were not going to protect me, that no one was going to protect me. I had to do that work myself, if I was to be protected. And that's another unfortunate mindset that I came to this situation with, but it absolutely informed my decision making process. So, I had already been failed by an educational system that--that you know, if you're a trans kid, or you're different in any way, you know, bullying is such a crisis in our-- in our country. And I--I came from the back of that into a situation where now it wasn't just the children, it was - the adults in my community were now participating in this bullying. And so I tackled it, I suppose, the same way that I had to handle bullying which was alone and to speak for myself.

Well, it’s extremely powerful. [00:11:01] You talked about the duty of the school was to honor you as a person and to protect you, and they've repeatedly failed and refused to do both. But then you went on over the next several years, to speak in front of much larger rooms, in front of many more people about the importance of trans youth rights. [00:11:22] And I'm wondering how your role has evolved over time as a lead plaintiff in the landmark case and now, a leader in sort of the trans rights movement.

[00:11:32] Well, you know, I think part of that evolution has come with my own mindset evolving over time. Again when I was 15, 16, and really what I wanted to be thinking about and doing was playing, the next video game that came out or what have you, I felt again that sense of duty, that that sense of civic responsibility. And so, there was never a point where I was lamenting my involvement; I always felt privileged to have the ability to participate in the civic process and protect my civil liberties because that's not something that everybody gets to do. Much more often, the case is that someone's rights are violated, and there is no one to step in.

I had a unique privilege in being someone with enough familial support, enough mobility, to be able to accept help from the ACLU and that's just not something that everybody is able to do, and so it was never something I was sour about or bitter about, but initially, there was a sense of anger of, you know, “I shouldn't have to be doing this. I want it to be over. I want to go back to being a normal kid in high school. I don't want to talk about my bathroom stuff.”

But as I got older and as I spent, you know, a longer period of time in this sort of world, I really started to appreciate and recognize the platform that I had and recognize the responsibility that I had to utilize that platform in a way that would yield the greatest good for other transgender people. Because at that point, it was becoming clear that this fight was not about me, and it was not just about the bathrooms either, it was about dignity for the trans community and for trans views across our nation. So that's the point at which it evolved to be something that I was really excited about, really grateful for, and really looking to utilize in the way that it would produce the greatest amount of good.

[00:13:06] Well, and your your bravery and your civic responsibility have been recognized and inspiring not only to other trans youth and to other activists of all ages, but the Fourth Circuit in their 2017 decision, compared you to landmark plaintiffs like Dred Scott, Fred Korematsu, Linda Brown and even Jim Obergefell. Their decision was so powerful I just wanted to read a quick passage. They said, “Today, hatred, intolerance, and discrimination persist and are sometimes even promoted. But by challenging unjust policies, rooted in invidious discrimination, G.G. (Gavin Grimm) takes his place among other modern human rights leaders who strive to ensure that one day, equality will prevail, and that the core dignity of every one of our brothers and sisters is respected by lawmakers and others who wield power over their lives.”

You know, it's not every judicial opinion calls on such lofty ideals or praises the plaintiff in such glowing terms. I wonder what it meant to you to have a federal court describe your case in your activism in this way.

[00:14:22] I was a little surprised when I read those words. I was very moved. It meant so much because it's really easy to look at this in a superficial way, and many people do, and you know, “All this fuss about a bathroom” and, you know, “Why can't you be satisfied with with these, pacifiers that they created such as the unisex single user restrooms.”

[00:14:47] People dismiss it often as frivolous, as an unnecessary fight, which is not necessarily hard because, of course, the opinion of others does not affect the way I feel about my work in my life and what I've been doing. But it, you know, this fight is--is such a huge part of my life, it's such a massive part of my life, and so to have it so frequently misunderstood and to have so much emotions invested in it, to have Fourth Circuit judges, no less, of course, again, as someone who loves loves politics, who loves civics, who loves that kind of thing, [00:15:20] it was like stars in my eyes. it was so validating to hear the opinions such important people, you know, validate that this was not just frivolous bathroom tiffs. It was a legitimate and worthy and important fight for equality for people. And that was just really affirming and really awesome.

[00:15:39] It was beautiful to read. I can only imagine how it was for you, and, you know, as I said you've inspired all kinds of activists in the trans movement and other causes as well. But, of course, you've also mentioned that not all of the reaction has been positive.I can only imagine the kinds of criticisms you might receive. [00:15:57] So how have you been able to handle criticisms, both from folks that you grew up with but then also now from strangers who you've never met?

[00:16:05] You know criticism is -- if I am doing something wrong and I need my behavior checked, then it's something that I feel like is positive. When it can help me recognize flaws that I have, errors that I'm making, from an outside source. Sometimes these things are positive. When it comes to the sort of Internet hatefulness and trolling and -- and it’s not even criticism; it's insults to my appearance, insults to transgender people at large. Um-- it's not even it's not even really criticism of any kind, [00:16:43] but regardless of the form that that criticism or hatefulness or what have you takes, it really could not affect me any less than it does. Itjust doesn't bother me in the slightest.

Not once has an internet comment made me rethink [00:16:59] you know, being myself or standing up for my rights. It seems like a waste of time on part of the individual who's spending the time to take that action, you know. But I also know that I'm sure of what I'm doing and who I am, and there's just no amount of internet comments that's ever going to shake that in any way shape or form, it's just not possible.

But I will say that some people take that stuff to heart, and I'm not saying that that's a negative thing or a bad character aspect or anything like that. You know, some people really are affected by those sorts of things. It's really a shame that the culture is such that some people are made to feel uncomfortable because I know that some people get much more harassment than I do and if it became very personal or more or more severe, perhaps my reaction would be different. I feel like I've been lucky so far.

[00:17:47] Well, we can only hope that the fact that the trolls aren't getting to you would would inspire them to stop, but I'm afraid that's not exactly how that works.


It's impressive that your skin has become thick enough that that the internet trolls can't get to you, but it hasn't just been random internet trolls, right? As you mentioned, it was people who, you know, grew up in the same town and had children who were friends with your siblings and that kind of thing. I imagine that it's a bit of a different proposition when it's people who know you and should know better in some sense.

[00:18:18] Yes it's different. [00:18:19] And it's you have to navigate it differently for sure. I went to public school so my skin is pretty thick, I think. But when it is in your own communities, families, friends circles, what have you, it can be difficult. I will say, luckily, none of my friends-- and all of my friends stuck by me, all of my good friends. In fact, I have the same crew of “ride or die” awesome, awesome people with me, right now, by my side that I had in high school. I have awesome friends. Some family members -- we lost them along the way. We, some people that were more in the style of acquaintances, lost some of them and it--it can hurt but ultimately, personally, I feel like every time I lose someone in my life for reasons including me being myself, I feel like that's a positive loss because that person was not bringing positive things to my life, if they weren't willing to accept me as who I was. And so yes, there was some loss and there was some more personal unkindness or criticism or what have you, but I consider it a net positive that those people are out of my life now.

[00:19:23] Well, maybe taking it from the micro and the personal back to the macro and the national conversation that's emerged around trans rights, in large part due to activism like yours,
I'm wondering how over the four plus years that you've been litigating your case and have been following this movement on a national level, how do you think things have changed? It seems as though, from my perspective, the conversation around trans rights has changed quite quickly, but I'm wondering from your perspective, if you're seeing a change in the national dialogue since your case began four years ago.

[00:19:54] Yeah, I mean, I have a few ways that I'm thinking about. First and foremost I guess, well you know, our courts look very different now. The people that are in them and the decisions that we might anticipate them making have changed. Some of the guidelines that protected trans people have changed or disappeared. But also, as a broader conversation about the broad cultural shift that that I've seen, I've certainly seen it come more broadly into a general lexicon. You know, the word “transgender,” when I was coming out, when I was transitioning, the most common response I would get was that people had no idea what that meant, and I feel like that that's not the case now. People do tend to know what it means or at least have some idea.

And really the starkest example that I can think of that really gives me so much hope and joy is that when I transitioned at 14 -- I came out when I was 14 -- and to have been able to do the things that I wanted to do for my personal health and safety and happiness in my transition, which for me was among other things, hormone replacement therapy and things like that, and to change my legal information to say male, and to say my name, Gavin, for me to have been able to do that by the time I was 18, was considered rare and special, and I was like, I was pretty young and it was kind of cutting edge.

And now, I go into classrooms and I talk to kids who have transitioned in elementary school, who will never, ever if they don't want to, have to go through a puberty that doesn't feel like it's theirs; who will never, you know, have those worries and into adulthood, [00:21:29] and so the fact that me having transitioned at 14 felt young only five years ago and now we have a generation of kids who never have to experience the trauma of living a childhood outside of the gender that they are, [00:21:43] I think that it speaks volumes to how society is changing around our perception of gender. We're seeing a lot of negativity, but I think we're also seeing that being trans is not a bad thing and that allowing people to be who they are is the way that we support them to be their best selves and their happiest and healthiest selves, including in their expressions of gender.

[00:22:02] So I will say that there's a lot to be upset about, and a lot to be angry about, and a lot to fight about, but there's a lot to be hopeful about too that I've personally seen in the national conversation about trans people and rights.

[00:22:16] Well, that's a very hopeful message and I think you've pointed to the fact that, you know, the youth that were around you were mostly very supportive; it was only the sort of older generation and the adults and the administrators who raised concerns about you using the bathroom or any other number of ways that you were trying to have your personhood recognized.

So, I'm curious, what is on the horizon for you? I know your case is still ongoing, but I'm wondering what's on the horizon in terms of next steps in your activism and personally.

[00:22:46] Well, I intend to use my platform for as long as it is around. [00:22:53] I'm sure that it, you know, has an expiration date. The tide of news, you know, eventually it will wash out, and that's totally fine. I'm not bitter about that process in the slightest, [00:23:04] but while I have that platform still, I intend to use it for education, for advancing the dignity of trans people, for, I mean really---and even when I don't have that platform, being a living example of what trans people looks like I feel like is something I'm always going to work into my daily life, you know. It's just--being trans is such a big part of who I am. Even though it's such a small part overall of me, of the big picture of me. It's something I'm really -- really proud of, to be a part of a community that's just so awesome and vibrant and powerful, and so, even once that platform maybe recedes to the extent that it will, I just don't anticipate ever not, you know, being open about who I am as a learning tool, so that people can see trans people in their community being authentic, being open, living their lives happily.

I'm trying to get through school right now. I want to be a middle school English teacher. I want to start at middle school anyway. I might, you know, move around later, but teaching is absolutely what I want to do, and that's what I've been studying for, so I expect to be, you know, the trans teacher on campus, too, because that's something I hope to be able to be very open about with my students.

[00:24:20] I just want to be able to model trans people living life for other, you know, trans young people. You know, I didn't get those models as a kid. I didn't ever see trans adults in my life, you know, doing anything. If they were trans adults in my life, I certainly didn't know about it. We live in a world where that's different now, and I hope that for the rest of my life I can represent this awesome community as one small part of it.

[00:24:43] Well, I'm jealous in advance of all of the students that get to have you as a teacher.

[00:24:49] But Gavin, I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with us, and more importantly, thank you, for all that you've taught us up til now in all of your strength in fighting for your rights and for the rights of all trans people.

So thank you very much, Gavin Grimm.

[00:25:00] Thank you. I appreciate that.

OUTRO v. 4
Thanks very much for listening. A quick heads up. This October, the Supreme Court will be hearing some cases that could have a huge impact on trans rights, and At Liberty will be following along with some special episodes. Also, if you enjoy At Liberty, please be sure to rate us. The more ratings we have, the easier it is for people to find the show. We really appreciate the feedback.

‘Til next week, peace.

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