Every kid, at some point or another, finds out what it's like to be singled out by their peers. When I came out as transgender at age 19, the feeling became familiar.
A 17-year-old named Gavin Grimm knows this feeling, too. The transgender teen is a freshman at a high school in Gloucester County, Virginia — and he may help make inclusive bathrooms the law of the land.
Here's his backstory: The Washington Post reported that Nate Collins, the school's principal, initially allowed Gavin to use the restroom corresponding to his gender. He revoked the privilege after parents complained.
One of the high school's security guards said he believed "it was a responsibility [he] had before God" to prevent Grimm from using the bathroom of his choice. Some parents opined that he should be kept out of the boy's bathroom to prevent being raped.
After much public pressure, the school board adopted a policy that required students to use the bathroom corresponding to their assigned gender at birth, or use a single-stall restroom in the nurse's office.
That didn't sit well with Gavin.
"The alternative facility was a unisex bathroom," Gavin told NPR's "All Things Considered." "I'm not unisex. I'm a boy. And there's no need for that kind of ostracization."
Gavin filed a lawsuit that eventually made its way to the Supreme Court, who in 2017 will decide whether transgender students can use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity.
If the Supreme Court continues to rule as they have in the past, transgender people may be in luck.
In 2013, the judges overturned the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and Proposition 8, which progressed the LGBT+ rights movement. However, LGBT+ rights may suffer because of the passing of justice Antonin Scalia and the election of Donald Trump. The president-elect has vowed to appoint another conservative justice, which may swing the court.
A negative decision by the Supreme Court — one that continues singling out Gavin and other transgender people — would set back transgender rights more than if the highest court had never addressed the issue at all. A decision against Gavin's right to use the bathroom would establish the precedent that transgender people are legally the sex they were assigned at birth, something dangerous for all of us.
Cisgender people, those who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth, may wonder what the big deal is.
It's not just a matter of being forced to walk further to use the bathroom — it's a process of self-actualization that cisgender people often take for granted. Gender is one of the most basic and critical ways we explore and interact with the world. For as long as bathrooms are divided by gender, transgender people will fight to use the right one.
Bathroom use is private, but it is also one of the subtly public ways we perform our gender identity. I remember the first time I used a men's bathroom. Another transgender friend pulled me in there at the movie theater. It felt like a real milestone, one more important for my sense of self than anything I might post on Facebook.
That's why the Supreme Court hearing could be a huge step forward for transgender rights — or it could put our right to use the bathroom in peace in jeopardy.
Bathroom bills, which prevent transgender people from using the bathroom that matches their gender identity, have been a national issue since 2013.
That's when Arizona introduced SB 1045. Luckily, the bill's sponsor, John Kavanagh, withdrew it, which stopped its passage.
Unfortunately, that wasn't the end of the bathroom bill saga.
North Carolina passed the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act in March, which requires all North Carolinians to use the bathroom that corresponds with the gender printed on their birth certificates.
The Justice Department even threatened to withdraw federal funding from the state for violating federal civil rights laws.
"This action is about a great deal more than bathrooms," US attorney general Loretta Lynch said in a statement. "This is about the dignity and respect we accord our fellow citizens and the laws that we, as a people and as a country, have enacted to protect them — indeed, to protect all of us."
Thankfully, Grimm has the backing of the Obama administration.
Obama cited Title IX's policy on gender discrimination as the reason that transgender students should be allowed to use the bathroom of their choice.
In a May press release, Vanita Gupta, the head of the Justice Department's civil rights division, affirmed Obama's directive.
"Every child deserves to attend school in a safe, supportive environment that allows them to thrive and grow," she said. "And we know that teachers and administrators care deeply about all of their students and want them to succeed in school and life. Our guidance sends a clear message to transgender students across the country: here in America, you are safe, you are protected and you belong — just as you are. We look forward to working with school officials to make the promise of equal opportunity a reality for all of our children."
This guidance, given jointly by the Departments of Education and Justice, also said schools are obligated to respond to harassment of transgender students; treat students consistently with their gender identity; allow students to participate in sex-segregated activities in a way consistent with their gender identity; and protect students' privacy surrounding their transgender status.
Unfortunately, a federal judge in Texas blocked the White House's policy from going into effect.
In August of this year, judge Reed O'Connor of the US District Court for the Northern District of Texas, issued a nationwide injunction barring federal government agencies from taking action against school districts that don't follow the guidance.
O'Connor found that the federal government overstepped its authority.
He also ruled that Title IX is "not ambiguous" about allowing separate toilets, locker rooms, and showers based on sex assigned at birth. However, his decision is being contested, since according to some who disagree, like the American Civil Liberties Union, it oversteps his judicial power.
That's why Grimm's case might be the last hope for ensuring bathroom freedom for all transgender people.
His essay in The Washington Post summed up his stunningly simple hopes for the ruling: "...I hope the justices can see me and the rest of the transgender community for who we are — just people — and rule accordingly."
I hope so too.