Deirdre Grimm wanted her son Gavin to have a carefree high school experience.
Instead, she has spent years listening to people argue about Gavin’s genitalia and obsess over his bathroom use.
At a December 2014 school board meeting in Gloucester County, Virginia, Deirdre first heard someone call her then 15-year-old transgender son a “freak.” After the public comment period ended, the board voted 6-1 to exile Gavin to an “alternative” bathroom instead of allowing him to continue using the boys’ restroom as he had been doing.
Now, after a lengthy court battle with the school board—and a favorable 2016 decision from the 4th Circuit that the board then appealed—Deirdre will accompany a 17-year-old Gavin to the Supreme Court of the United States for oral arguments on March 28.
“He’s supposed to be thinking about senior skip day,” she told The Daily Beast. “That’s not what he’s thinking about. He’s thinking, ‘I’m going to the Supreme Court so they can discuss my genitals and bathroom use some more.’”
It is a surreal position for a mother to be in, which makes Deirdre’s grace under fire even more otherworldly. The hostility directed at her son used to get under her skin. (“I would hear these nasty comments and it would make me mad and I would want to lash back out at these people,” Deirdre said.)
But now, she’s trying to follow Gavin’s advice: Ignore the blatant opponents of transgender equality and “set a positive example and educate in a positive way” for everyone else instead.
“A lot of people are just trying to poke the bear, so to speak—the mama bear,” she said. “They’re trying to get you react in a negative way so they can say, ‘Aha! See!’ and point the finger at you.”
Taking the high road is a strategy that Deirdre says she learned from Gavin who, at that fateful December 2014 school board meeting, countered his adult critics with a heartfelt plea that could go down in the history books: “I’m just a human. I’m just a boy. Please consider my rights when you make your decision.”
But while Deirdre is reluctant to take too much credit in Gavin’s fight, it’s clear that she’s had an indelible influence on her son. A longtime nurse and a proud Christian, she believes that God gave her Gavin to “open [her] heart” and help her educate others.
“When Gavin came out, I didn’t even know what transgender was,” she told The Daily Beast of her early grappling with Gavin’s identity. “I had to really educate myself and so for three days and nights, I don’t even think I slept.”
That reading led Deirdre to discover the alarmingly high suicide rate among transgender youth which, she said, was “all [she] really needed to know as a parent to give him the support that he needed.” Early scientific research in this area—published in the journal Pediatrics—suggests that parental support can help transgender youth avoid depression and reach better mental health outcomes. Gavin’s case certainly provides anecdotal support for that conclusion.
“Two years watching his evolution into his authentic self has also helped me to be supportive because the child that he was in the beginning [compared] to the child he is now is the difference of night and day,” Deirdre told The Daily Beast. “Living authentically, he’s just flourished.”
Most notably, Gavin has become an eloquent public speaker at a young age. His promise in that field was on full display at the 2014 school board meeting—and, in fact, Deirdre says that the “intense pride” she felt watching her son “standing up against all these odds and doing it in such a mature way” was so powerful that it “overshadowed the negativity” from the other parents.
“[That] made me determined,” she told The Daily Beast. “I think that’s when I became determined to sit him down and say, ‘Where do we go from here? Because this is not right.’”
The school’s insistence on an “alternative” restroom for Gavin was, to Deirdre, a clear example of “separate not equal” treatment. So the Grimm family—and the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented Gavin—kept fighting the school board’s decision all the way to the nation’s highest judicial body.
It also comes at an uncertain moment for transgender rights under the new Trump administration. Last Friday, the Department of Justice, under new Attorney General Jeff Sessions, indicated that it would not defend the Obama administration’s 2016 guidance on transgender students in another court case—despite the White House’s claim that President Trump is “supportive of LGBTQ rights.” As The New York Times reported, the Justice Department was scheduled to argue against an August 2016 injunction on that guidance this week but has now withdrawn its challenge.
If the Supreme Court rules decisively in Gavin’s favor, it could settle both cases at once in the first year of the Trump administration, no less—and that’s exactly the outcome that Deirdre is praying for.
“This has kind of ruined [Gavin’s] high school experience,” she told The Daily Beast. “Our hope is that we’ll win at the Supreme Court level and no other child that comes behind him will ever have to deal with this again.”
With so much riding on Gavin Grimm’s court case, there will be more attention on his family than ever before. In fact, on Sunday night, Orange is the New Black star Laverne Cox urged Grammys viewers to “google ‘Gavin Grimm’” and familiarize themselves with the upcoming case. Deirdre, watching at home alone, started “squealing” when she heard the unexpected shout-out.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “All my phones started ringing. My Facebook started going ding, ding, ding!”
And for Deirdre, that level of national attention to her son’s unique situation is a sign that transgender rights will prevail in the long run, no matter what happens at the Supreme Court.
“If we win or we lose, we already have people talking about it,” she said. “It’s more of a household word than we ever have before. I really think we’ve already won no matter what happens with the case.”
While the Grimm family waits for oral arguments, Gavin is still required by the school board to use the “alternative” restroom at his Virginia high school. That presents challenges for him at school events like football games, said Deirdre, who picked him up one day to discover that he had been holding it in for much of the competition, debating whether or not he should ask a friend for a ride to a nearby store.
For many transgender people, this restroom avoidance can cause larger problems. The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey found that 32 percent of respondents consciously ate and drank less in the last year to avoid using the bathroom and 8 percent developed a urinary tract or kidney infection because they self-regulated their bathroom use too strictly.
“I don’t have to think about where I go to the bathroom,” said Deirdre. “The fact that [Gavin] can’t even go to a school function—it really impacted me as to how this has affected his high school.”
The currently eight-justice Supreme Court could rule in favor of the Gloucester County school board’s arrangement of separate bathrooms for transgender students. Or it could declare that arrangement discriminatory and rule that transgender students are protected under Title IX, as the Obama administration maintained. And if the Supreme Court still has eight justices at the time, a 4-4 ruling would uphold the Fourth Circuit’s decision in Grimm’s favor.
The outcome of the court case might be uncertain but Deirdre’s love for her son has never been on surer footing.
“Our relationship has gotten better,” she told The Daily Beast. “We’ve gotten closer because of this. All of the wonderful things about him have gotten even more wonderful.”
And to anyone in the court of public opinion who still believes the myth that transgender protections pose a safety concern for non-transgender people, Deirdre has one final, patient plea: “We have laws in place to protect people from crimes being committed in bathrooms. Transgender people are not monsters. They just go to the bathroom to go the bathroom—and they always have.”