May 4, 2016
Transgender Virginia Teen: “All I’m Doing Is Fighting To Go Back To Normal”
Last year, Gavin Grimm, a 17-year-old who attends Gloucester High School in Gloucester County, Virginia, sued his school board over a policy that banned him and other transgender students from using the bathrooms of the gender they identify with. In mid-April, Gavin received some good news: the 4th-Circuit Appeals Court ruled in his favor, agreeing with his attorney’s assertion that the ban violated students’ rights under Title IX. Kojo spoke with his attorney on Monday about the court case and its local and national implications, especially on places like North Carolina, which passed it’s notorious “bathroom bill” a little more than a month ago.
I spoke with Gavin after the show about the experience of being “outed publicly” by his school board, and how he has become a reluctant advocate for transgender rights.
In Fall of 2015, your district’s school board held meetings where they took public comment and ultimately voted to approve a policy that banned transgender students from using bathrooms of the gender they identify with. What happened at those meetings?
The first meeting was not quite as volatile as the second meeting. Essentially, they discussed openly and in public the genitals of a 15-year-old. People would go up to the podium, and after every particularly barbed statement they’d get some claps from the majority of the people attending. I was called a freak at one point by a grown adult. Lots and lots of references to religion, despite us having separation of church and state in this country. Lots of people suggested that I would be harmed in the bathroom and suggested that they were worried for my safety. They suggested that the opposite may happen, that a boy would go into the girls’ restroom and harass girls. Just a lot of fear mongering and misinformation and arguments that would not stand up to scrutiny.
The experience was totally humiliating and dehumanizing—those are the words I use because really there’s no way to describe how that felt. To have members of your community discuss you in a public forum as if you weren’t there or you’re a carnival attraction or a poor misguided child or in some cases some villain out for society. That treatment is something I can’t describe accurately, how painful that was.
The night after we returned to school after that meeting it was an absolute walk of shame.
What kind of support system did you have to help you get through that experience?
The support system that I have is primarily my friends and family who treat me as a normal kid. I’ve never specifically had an LGBT support system. I personally don’t like to talk about the issue. I don’t like being trans; I’d much rather not be trans. I don’t like to think about it when I can avoid it. The best support is when people don’t talk about it, when we have that normalcy in our interactions and I’m just Gavin.
Why did you decide to take the step of moving forward with the court case?
For a couple of reasons. The start of it is not nearly as altruistic as I’d have liked it to be at the time. A big part of it was stubbornness. I started it and I am just not the kind of person who backs down in the face of adversity. But primarily I knew there was a violation of my rights. I also just don’t let myself be wronged, regardless of the discomfort it would cause me. I always am the type of person to pursue fairness. I couldn’t just take the loss and be humiliated and ostracized for the rest of my school career. Initially the drive was just my rights are being violated and no, I’m not going to be quiet.
How did it feel for your transgender identity to become public knowledge?
It was mortifying, it was absolutely humiliating. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being transgender of course, but it’s certainly a challenge. It’s a medical condition I was born with and I don’t have pride in that just like I don’t have pride in my hair color or height. I was born with them. Of course I accept and love myself. I’m just not the kind of person who’s comfortable with that being a term associated with how people view me, I’d much rather just be a normal guy, the kid in math class. My being transgender –people don’t know unless they know about my genitals and that’s something they don’t need to know [because] it’s my business. I was forcibly outed, and I would have been just because of the school board meetings, regardless of [whether I did] the court case.
How did your school community respond during your transition and to your decision to sue the School Board?
At the beginning of my sophomore year, I had a teacher who would repeatedly misgender me, which was the most awful thing. I was on hormones at the time. I didn’t chew her out. I would say to her, could you please stop. The insecurity-inducing part was she’d never known me as anything else [but male]. My thought process was, what about me was so feminine that she’d continue to make this mistake over and over?
In one case I had a teacher tell his entire classroom what my former name was. I contacted him and said this is absolutely unacceptable. I had a good relationship with that teacher in class and he didn’t seem to be the bigoted type. I told him this is not anything that you need to be telling anybody. And quite frankly you’ve done a lot of harm.
The information above all information that I don’t want getting out there is my birth name –more than anything else.
I don’t know how it has not come back to bite me yet but nobody has used it against me. But it seems that by and large, people don’t know what it is. I can’t even say that name, it’s just so triggering for me. The amount of anxiety attached to it is horrible. Being misgendered is very similar; it sends me into a fit. Of course I understand that these things happen but it mentally takes me to a place that is very, very, very negative. If you’ve seen me react to being misgendered, it’s even worse if I hear my birth name. I’ve got such negative connotations with those two things.
In response to the court case, I’ve actually received a lot of positivity, people saying, hey I go to your high school, I’m really proud of you and that’s awesome, I’m sorry you’re going through this. With regards to the larger LGBT community, I’ve gotten supportive messages on Facebook from people from Canada to Australia. I have received some hateful messages and some interesting ones. Actually I got one just yesterday, which is probably my favorite because it struck me as so funny. It tickled me. It said, “You are a f–ing homo a–hole.” This 50-something person came to a kid’s inbox and called me a homosexual, as if that was an insult to begin with. Roughly once a week I check the inbox and there are anywhere from two to 60 new messages. Out of those 60, maybe five are negative. The ratio of negative to positive is really good. And then the negative ones are usually funny. You laugh instead of get offended.
What will it mean to you to be able to use the boys’ restrooms at school?
It will mean that I can breathe a little bit. Going into this at first, I thought it’ll be awesome to use the bathroom, it’ll be so great and cathartic. But over time I’ve realized there’s nothing fun about using the restroom. It’s just going back to normal.
All I’m doing is fighting to go back to normal.
I was using the boy’s restroom without incident. It was never a problem. People haven’t known, they haven’t cared. I haven’t been assaulted or committed any bathroom assaults. It’ll just be a nice return to normalcy.
Do you plan to continue to be an advocate for transgender rights once the court case is over?
I go back and forth about that a lot. Part of me thinks as soon as this is over I’ll crawl back into the shadow and live a normal life, and the other part of me is coming to terms with the idea that what I’ve done is important. People will say to me, it’s so great, you’re so brave. I don’t identify with that very strongly. I feel like they’re talking about someone else. I feel like there wasn’t a whole lot of choice here. Probably for the foreseeable future there will be people who will want me to attend LGBT events, and I don’t know that I’ll be able to refuse. I’ve been given this platform to help people that very few get. Far be it for me to refuse the platform. If my future takes me down a path of advocacy, I’ll just have to get used to that.