Gavin Grimm has an incredible command of law and public policy.
The transgender teenager has spent almost three years fighting his Virginia school board’s insistence that he use an “alternative” restroom rather than the boys’ facilities, so he’s conversant in Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause and other relevant aspects of constitutional law.
But if you ask him what he likes to do in his spare time, he gives you the same answer you’d hear from any 18-year-old: “I like to hang out with my friends a lot.”
Grimm likes to read, write, play Pokémon, and spoil his cat “absolutely rotten.” Some days, he tells me in a phone interview, a friend drives him home from school “and we’ll sit in my driveway and talk and laugh for half an hour before I even get out of the car.”
Frequently, though, his routine is interrupted by reminders that he has become a key figure in a human rights movement, whether he asked for that status or not.
“I pull a snake out of my mom’s garden and stuck it in my dad’s face and then I go to the Time gala,” he says. “It’s a really weird dichotomy.”
This year, Grimm’s long-running case—G.G. v. Gloucester County School Board—was headed to the Supreme Court for a final ruling. Oral arguments were scheduled for March. Laverne Cox urged Grammys viewers to Google the case.
But after the Trump administration rescinded the Department of Education’s guidance on transgender students, which had informed the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in Grimm’s favor, the Supreme Court sent the case back down the chain to the Fourth Circuit.
“It just resets the case to where it was two years ago,” American Civil Liberties Union staff attorney Joshua Block explains. “Basically a do-over without the interpretation of the Department of Education affecting the analysis.”
Now, the Fourth Circuit will have to more substantively address the ACLU’s argument that transgender students like Grimm should be considered protected under Title IX’s ban on sex discrimination—and by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which played a key role in the Supreme Court fight for same-sex marriage.
That means that Grimm will spend even more time arguing for his right to use the bathroom, even as he gets ready to graduate from high school next month.
“I’m prepared to stick it out for as long as I need to,” Grimm tells me. “It’s unfortunate that this couldn’t have been resolved much sooner but that’s just how it works out and again, we just have to roll with the punches.”
That’s the same logic-driven pragmatism that has informed Grimm’s entire fight thus far.
In 2014, when controversy first erupted around his use of the boys’ bathroom at his Virginia high school, a then-15-year-old Grimm addressed his school board, simply but powerfully making his case: “I am not the only transgender student in Gloucester County and I deserve the rights of every other human being. I am just a human. I am just a boy. Please consider my rights when you make your decision.” PLEASE EMBED: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=My0GYq_Wydw&feature=youtu.be
But the board voted 6-1 to bar Grimm from using the boys’ bathroom, sparking a legal battle that will last even after the young man graduates from high school. In a new brief to the Fourth Circuit, the ACLU explains that “as an alumnus with ties to the community, Gavin will remain subject to the Board’s policy whenever on school grounds as a guest at homecoming or prom and while attending alumni activities.
“Unfortunately, for the vast majority of civil rights litigation on behalf of students, the wheels of the court system turn too slowly for them to get relief before they graduate,” Block tells me.
I ask Grimm why he’s going to keep the case going, apart from his go-to “roll with the punches” answer. Why not go to a college with transgender-inclusive policies, forget about high school, and let the courts resolve the issue at their own characteristically glacial speed? What keeps him going?
“It’s not something I can just run away from, morally or practically,” he says. “This is something that my name is tied to, my face is tied to. It’s going to follow me. And I made that decision early on.”
Grimm had no idea when he addressed the school board that his case would become a key part of the battle for transgender equality. He still finds it surreal that his request to use the boys’ bathroom has been escalated to the nation’s highest judicial body. And when Orange is the New Black Star Laverne Cox did her Grammys shout-out about the Supreme Court case in February, the Grimm family couldn’t believe it—especially Deirdre, his mother.
“My first response was fear because the way I found out about it was my mom shrieking downstairs,” Grimm laughs. “I thought for sure something horrible had happened—the house was on fire, there was a spider in the room, something like that.”
That moment was pivotal. Up to that point, G.G. v. Gloucester County School Board was something that reporters and LGBT advocates were tracking with great interest but, that week in February, Cox brought it directly into millions of homes. Gavin Grimm was on his way to becoming a household name—or at least a popular Google search term.
“My case was still a little bit obscure,” Grimm says. “That brought it completely onto the mainstream stage. It really got people talking [and] it really got people thinking in a way they haven’t before.”
With that heightened media attention has come more responsibility, Grimm says. He has to talk to curious reporters like me almost constantly, speak at awards dinners, and put up with hateful comments on social media. In our interview, Grimm calls it “a vastly different terrain to navigate than [he] expected but it’s one that [he] signed on for.”
And even though his case has been remanded back to the Fourth Circuit for the time being, transgender student rights will almost certainly end up back before the Supreme Court before too long. Several other cases involving transgender students are currently pending, Block explains, and “unless they all come out the same way, one or more of them is going to—in all likelihood—end up at the Supreme Court.”
“This is an issue that’s going to come back for them sooner or later, and probably on the sooner side,” he hypothesizes.
In the meantime, Grimm is thinking about his future beyond the battle that has defined his high school experience. He is interested in studying genetics after graduation, although he won’t yet disclose where he’s applied for college. I ask him where he sees himself in ten years more generally and he takes a pause.
“Maybe I’ll be a husband, maybe a father,” he says. “It would be nice to have an established career path. I’ll probably have cats, maybe a dog. There’s just no telling. I see myself as happy.”
I ask Gavin how he feels about the fact that people will consider him to have been a “pioneer” or a “hero”—especially among his own generation, which shows vast support for LGBT rights. He is certainly aware that those descriptors have been applied to him, but he doesn’t embrace them.
“I try very hard not to discount what I’m doing but at the same time, when people assign monikers like that to me—’pioneer’ or ‘hero’—I’m still having a hard time getting used to that,” he tells me. “I don’t know that I ever will. And I don’t know that I necessarily agree. I just think that I was sort of doing what needed to be done.”
And most of the time, Grimm is—as he told the school board years ago—just a human being, just a boy. To his friends, he’s not an icon. He’s just Gavin. And teenagers being teenagers, Grimm tells me, they are always at the ready with an insult whenever he does “stupid stuff” like accidentally touch a hot iron.
“Oh yeah, you’re my hero!” they’ll tease him. And they laugh.