The Gavin Grimm case: Perspectives from OU
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Gavin Grimm is a high schooler from Virginia. Like other students, he needs to use the restroom during the day and change his clothes in the locker room.
Unlike many students, however, Grimm’s genitalia is reason for him to be denied access to the men’s room.
Grimm was born female, but identifies as male. In pursuit of the right to use the men’s restroom at his high school, he took the school board to court, winning the case in the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.
According to Grace Wojcik, director of Oakland University’s Gender and Sexuality Center, the court based its ruling on a “Dear Colleague” letter from President Barack Obama’s administration in 2016. This letter advised public schools on how to handle cases of discrimination against transgender students.
It advised courts to view cases of discrimination against transgender students as violations of Title IX.
Title IX is a law passed in the 1970s requiring all federally funded schools to treat all people equally, regardless of their sex. Wojcik said some people view it as the “sports law,” since it called for equal programs for men and women’s sports.
Grimm’s case was moved up to the Supreme Court with a pending court date. However, once President Donald Trump announced that Obama’s “Dear Colleague” letter from 2016 would be thrown out, the case was left to return to the 4th Circuit. The court is now tasked with ruling on basis of law other than the 2016 “Dear Colleague” letter.
Wojcik is worried that because Grimm will be graduating high school this April, he won’t have the legal grounds to sue, since he will no longer be a student.
It’s never about bathrooms
Charin Davenport is a transgender woman who has taught in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric at OU. She is currently fighting her own battle over discrimination in the work force.
“The other side of [the bathroom] argument is that you are what you are identified as at birth,” Davenport said. “I would never use the term ‘born male’ or ‘biological sex.’ Those are trigger words for the opposition.”
She said this argument is founded on the idea that people need to use the bathroom in accordance with their “biological sex.”
“What they’re talking about is my genitalia,” she said. “Imagine being Gavin Grimm, going all the way up to Supreme Court, and the whole debate they’re having is about his genitalia.”
“The absurdity of that is mind-boggling to me,” she added. “It’s a horrible way for adults to behave. Gavin Grimm is only 17.”
What does this mean for transgender students?
“In this climate, I don’t want to paint a false picture that we can just relax and everything will be OK,” Davenport said. “We have a new justice coming into the Supreme Court and could be the most conservative member there. We have a huge hurdle here.”
Davenport explained that the 2016 “Dear Colleague” letter being thrown out does not mean the entirety of Title IX is being tossed out.
“Trump issued new guidelines,” she said. “It changed the prior legal argument because it removed the guidelines that provided clarity . . . The new guidelines say that the Department of Education and the Office of Civil Rights would not pursue these cases on behalf of transgender students, and it’s up to the states to decide on how to apply Title IX to transgender students.”
Davenport said part of the problem is that the new Trump administration guidelines allow for states to decide how all aspects of Title IX should be applied, not just those pertaining to transgender students.
The problem extends further than the ability of a transgender person to use the restroom of their choice.
“No current state law in Michigan allows for protection against housing or employment discrimination for gay or trans people,” Wojcik said.
Wojcik added that 32 Michigan municipalities have their own guidances against discrimination of transgender people. However, these guidances may be torn down as well, since there is talk of legislation being passed to limit the civil rights municipalities guarantee.
The new legislation would mean that municipalities like cities or counties could not grant more protection than what the state allows.
What does this mean for OU?
Davenport explained that universities can continue to provide protection for their transgender students through their own nondiscrimination policies.
“[This] doesn’t wipe away the schools’ policy, and this is true for OU and K-12 schools across Michigan,” she said. “They can keep those protections.”
However, she noted some states have introduced laws to prevent any state or government organization or municipality from having its own nondiscrimination policy.
“What does this mean for OU?” Davenport asked. “I think OU students, like students everywhere, should be vigilant. Always be vigilant. Faculty and administration, on behalf of students, should be equally vigilant.”
Davenport said this is a teachable moment in American history for professors.
“I think professors and administrators can educate their students on why civil rights are important,” she said. “Once you get outside of the transgender community, there’s a lot of people who just don’t understand what’s going on, why it’s a big deal and why this is so important.”
Wojcik said OU students have the ability to reach out to the GSC for support. The GSC also offers SAFE on Campus training, and there is one scheduled for April 4 as part of Oakland’s Pride Week.
“OU still values trans students,” Wojcik said. “I really want to emphasize that. I know this news is really difficult.”
A list of upcoming GSC events can be found at www.oakland.edu/gsc.