As a transgender high school student in Gloucester County, Virginia, Gavin Grimm sued the Gloucester Country School Board in 2015 for the right to use the boys’ bathrooms at his school. Representing Grimm, the ACLU argued that the school policy forcing him to use the girls’ bathrooms was a Title IX violation, as well as a violation of the equal protection clause of the US Constitution. The following has been adapted from Grimm’s keynote speech at the American Humanist Association’s 2018 annual conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, delivered on May 20, 2018. Two days later, on May 22, the US District Court of the Eastern District of Virginia ruled in Grimm’s favor, allowing the lawsuit to go forward. Now a freshman in college, Grimm’s story was included in the recently published collection, Nevertheless, We Persisted.
WHEN MY TWIN BROTHER and I were born, we were two bouncing baby boys, him with a clubbed foot, and me with an erroneous birth certificate, mistakenly designating me as a girl—a designation that would hang insidiously over me for the foreseeable future, dictating what I could and could not do, how I should dress, and who I could be. I think he got the better deal.
As I grew up in my Southern Baptist household with parents who unwittingly held just about every prejudice imaginable, I realized quickly that there were several aspects of the life that I was born into that I did not actually subscribe to.
For example, at the tender age of eight my parents told me I could no longer walk about four hundred feet to my friend’s house because he was a boy, but my brother could. I was hurt because this neighbor boy was my friend, and I was also struck by the unfairness of it. Alongside that feeling, there was something else. Something I didn’t know how to vocalize any other way than “I’m no different from my brother.”
They thought I was a budding feminist, demanding equal rights on the playground. (Which itself was a concept most people in my life thought fit to ridicule rather than celebrate.) My voice was drowned out by the noise of a culture not built to recognize a transgender child. To me, that term—transgender—meant something deeper than what my parents heard. It was my liberation, if only I could translate it into a language that would get them to understand.
But I couldn’t. And this happened again when I wanted to play football. Again when I didn’t want to play girls’ softball. Again when I had to wear a dress to my sister’s wedding. Again when I held a girl’s hand for the first time and couldn’t enjoy it because I felt like I was going to be sick due to the butterflies in my stomach and the anxiety of doing something that I had been taught was wrong.
These were things I couldn’t, or wasn’t, allowed to do. Not because I was a girl, but because people didn’t understand that I was a boy. And in a restrictive, religious environment, it would be many long, traumatic years before I gained the language that would complete me.
I remember so distinctly growing up in the church and asking questions that weren’t meant to be asked. I was left with angry Sunday school directors, an unsatisfied thirst for knowledge, and worse, a deep, pervasive terror of the creator. My Sunday school teachers would tell me that my questioning was sinful. Could God see the doubt in my heart? Surely he could, he was God. Could he then also see how I played as boys in my Pokémon games or when I played pretend in the woods? Could he also feel my fluttering heartbeat whenever I saw the female friend I had a crush on? The latter of these thoughts I dared not even fully form into questions. The fear was there, but my mind was not my own. It was not safe from the prying eyes of an all-knowing and all-of-me rejecting deity.
“I feel very strongly that the single biggest threat to LGBTQ youth and adults is religion. It’s time for the age of regressive sky deities to be over.”
Eventually I stopped asking. Eventually I stopped thinking. I accepted what my teachers and family and religious friends were saying and looked no further. And not wanting to be further rejected, not wanting to be more of an outsider than I was, I jumped in feet first.
Youth retreats, Christian concerts. Mission trips. Proselytizing. I became what I hated. I even got rid of my Pokémon toys.
But regardless of my commitment, regardless of how many times I “felt God,” it was like a club I could never quite get into. At the time I thought the bouncer was Satan. Now I know it was my drive for knowledge.
By this time, I would go right to the boys’ section of the clothing store while insisting that I wasn’t gay. Then later I’d get on the computer and look through whatever LGBTQ media I could get my hands on, until I had a shame-filled panic attack and deleted all the search history. During that time, my pervasive fear of everlasting hell and a lack of privacy from my god had translated far more into real-world consequences. I was ten years old and desperate to die. Along with that, I thought that I’d come home from school to find police cars in my yard, waiting to cart me away for the harmless, innocent little videos I’d seen on YouTube or short stories I’d read about LGBTQ life, especially stuff about being trans. Not because any of this content was explicit. It never was, but I had an irrational fear that any LGBTQ content would get me into trouble.
I was locked in a battle between wanting to stay at school, a place that caused me endless misery, so that I didn’t have to come home to police cars, and staying at home to avoid the torture of school and avoid the panic of searching for law enforcement vehicles on my way.
Around that time, I began looking more closely at the Bible. I read and researched it, looking for cherry-picked interpretations that could allow space for my identity as well as God. I realized that wasn’t possible. If I was to believe the Bible, it said that who I thought I was at the time, a girl who liked girls, was wrong. But why believe it when it contained countless contradictions and made claims both improbable and impossible? The word “atheist” came to me then, which was so taboo that it hadn’t even been spoken of growing up. It was the highest offense possible.
As I began to consume atheist content, that God-fear subsided. It stuck with me for some time after I had admitted to myself that God wasn’t real, but not in the way it had before. In fact, I still have the indoctrination of my upbringing hanging over me in some ways. But it was different, knowing that I wasn’t the only one with these questions. It helped. Although, in a small conservative town, I didn’t have anyone in my life to whom I could express these thoughts.
Losing my religion opened up the door for me to think more critically about who I was. Words like “lesbian” and “bisexual” and even “transgender” became part of my lexicon, not just words I’d reject as quickly as I could out of mortal terror. I was able to play around with identity in a way that my puritanical religious inner circle didn’t allow for. And one day, it clicked. I was a boy. I was just like my brother, in the respect of us both being boys at least. My foot was fine.
Finally, my feelings had a name and a place. Finally, the little boy playing in the dirt and mud and going through the woods barefoot to find frogs and snakes, the little boy who hated pink and glitter with every angry bone in his body but didn’t know why was acknowledged and freed.
I remember telling my mom I wasn’t going to church anymore. By then, I had chopped all my hair off. I had hopped from church to church, exhausting our options. Always complaining that I didn’t like the service or didn’t fit in. I got in the car that night after youth group and told her that I wanted to stop going.
“Well that’s the only place left! Where will you go? You have to go somewhere!” I remember the anger in her voice.
I said, “church…just isn’t my thing.”
She said, “what do you mean church isn’t your thing?”
I shrugged. She said nothing, but I could feel the cold terror that gripped her heart. She probably remembered my previous attempt to ditch church, when I said I wanted to start up a gay-straight alliance in my middle school. Only as an ally of course, because I had gay friends.
At some point between when I stopped going to church and my fifteenth birthday, I told my mother that I was a boy. By this time, though not perfect, my mother had made great strides in becoming a more accepting person. She would no longer say that gay people shouldn’t serve in the military, choosing now to stand up for me whenever someone—my father included—commented on my boyish looks or “lady-loving” ways.
Her response to my revelation was to hug me as I sobbed, telling me that she loved me and it was okay—but that I couldn’t tell anyone. Not my twin brother, not my aunts and uncles. My father, in particular, could not find out. And she insisted, when it came time for me to start using a “boy” name, that she be the one to choose it.
I resigned myself to pretending to be a girl for a little bit longer, though I had no idea when the gag order was going to expire. “These things take time,” my mother would say. But I was running out of time. I was miserable lying to people and being referred to as a girl. And what’s worse, my fifteenth birthday was fast approaching. I knew that if I had to be the “birthday girl” again, there wouldn’t be another birthday. My mother noticed my deteriorating disposition and interpreted it as disobedience. We fought a lot in the days leading up to the party, me begging to be myself, her begging for more time. I was near catatonic with grief and anxiety. The night before my birthday I went to bed recalling something my mother had said: “You’re determined to ruin this party for everyone.”
“This party.” My birthday party.
When I woke up the next morning and made my way downstairs, I felt a sadness so deep that it was hard to breathe. And then I walked over to the table with the birthday cake on it. A sheet cake from Walmart, as per our family’s tradition. Scrawled in icing was a stock message, wishing me and my brother a happy birthday. Except it didn’t wish me a happy birthday, because the cake was emblazoned with the name given to me at birth. The name that caused me so much pain. The name that never felt a part of who I was. The name that I can’t say and that makes me physically ill to hear.
I yelled. I cried. I asked my mother why she couldn’t have at least left the name off the cake. She told me I was selfish, asking for too much too soon. So I decided that this birthday party was not mine. I headed into my room and made the decision that I would come out when it was over. I also decided that I wouldn’t be having any more birthdays.
About twenty minutes later I heard a knock on my bedroom door. It was my father. Except to relay messages from my mother, or tell me to do a chore, we didn’t have the kind of relationship where we spoke to each other often, and never about anything personal. “Your mom says you’ve been having some trouble,” I remember him saying. I started to offer some icy response when it occurred to me that I could use this situation to my benefit. So I took a deep breath and a big risk, and I said “Yeah, well. Mom told me I can’t tell you why I’m upset.” So now, of course, it was Mom’s problem.
My father, by my mother’s account, went and found her crying in the flower garden in front of our house. He asked what it was that I couldn’t tell him, and she unleashed a torrent of every emotion she’d been bottling up for the months since my revelation. She told him who I was and finished her spiel by informing him that if he had any objections to who I was, then he was free to sign the divorce papers she had already printed out. After I waited for what seemed like hours, my father came back to my room, now with wider eyes and a paler face. He told me that while he didn’t understand what any of this really was yet, he loved me regardless.
That was great, but it still wasn’t my party. As far as I knew, everyone was still expecting a birthday girl. I had no idea that my mom was busy on the phone, calling our conservative relatives—most of whom were already in the car and on their way. She told them to throw out the feminine cards they had undoubtedly bought and if they didn’t like it, they could stay home. In that house, I was Gavin Grimm.
After my mother had done that, she called me down. I reluctantly crept out of my room, where I was given the good news. Then she brought me over to the cake to reveal that she had wiped off the wrong name, and, in expired green gel icing taken from the deepest, stickiest recesses of our cabinet, she had written “Gavin.”
Soon after, family began to arrive. They were all tight-lipped and uncomfortable, clearly not knowing how to navigate the new knowledge. They didn’t have the language. Some didn’t want to even try. Awkward small talk was the standard until my brother came bounding down the stairs. He greeted everyone, not reading the atmosphere even a little bit. At some point, he saw the cake and started telling my relatives how bizarre it was that our pet turtle’s name was on it. Because at the time, we had a box turtle no bigger than a silver dollar living in my brother’s bedroom, and that turtle’s name was Gavin. My mother swears she was unaware of this when she chose my own name, which was technically possible considering my brother called the turtle “Bubba.” (I still swear that I’m named after a turtle.)
“Unisex bathrooms are never a bad thing when they are installed. However, forcing people into those spaces to segregate them from the non-transgender population is categorically discriminatory.”
So, as my brother kept talking to my uncomfortable and now confused family about some turtle, a collective realization dawned on the rest of us. No one had told him. My mom nudged me and said that she’d taken care of the rest of the family, so I had to deal with my brother. I called him into another room and opted not to mince words. I told him quickly that the name on the cake was mine, not the turtle’s, and that I was a boy. “No you’re not,” he said, and then left the room. But he didn’t mention the turtle again that night.
That day I came very close to never seeing a birthday cake with my name on it. But my mother decided that it was more important for me to be affirmed than it was for her to avoid hard conversations, and her actions saved my life.
Gavin the turtle has since been released into the York River, but wherever he may be now, I hope he’s as happy as I am.
My mother has continued to have hard conversations to stand up for me. And when the school board decided to ban me from using the boys’ restrooms at school, she picked up the phone and called the ACLU. With their help, I sued my school.
My case worked its way up to the Supreme Court and was set to be argued in March 2017, but then my case was sent back to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to be reconsidered after the Trump administration rescinded the previous administration’s stance on protections for transgender students. We’re now back at the district court asking for damages and a declaration that the school board violated my rights under Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause.
It cannot be overstated what kind of violence religion inflicts upon the LGBTQ community. It cannot be ignored, or minimized with “our church isn’t like that.” Religion doesn’t have to take the form of guns and bombs in the hands of extremists to be violent. Religion is a killer, and often a silent one, sanctioned by a society that favors or ignores the abuse of institutional religion, under a government that routinely refuses to enforce the separation of church and state. I feel very strongly that the single biggest threat to LGBTQ youth and adults is religion. It’s time for the age of regressive sky deities to be over.
Question: A couple of months ago we went to a restaurant with friends of ours and their children. The daughter, age ten, has decided she is a boy. He had to go to the bathroom and his older brother (thirteen) went with him. I thought that was really sweet. How is your brother handling everything that’s happened to you?
Gavin Grimm: I’m going to be persnickety and say that in this case the child didn’t decide that he wanted to be a boy. He was most certainly always a boy and just decided to vocalize it at that time. That would be the correct language for that. My brother is very much a product of our small town. He struggles with finding the confidence to go against the flow, so he is very susceptible to a small-town mindset. Our relationship is better now, especially since there’s less pressure and less backlash because we’re out of school, but my brother is still a very different bird than myself.
Q: Our gay and lesbian community center has a gender-neutral bathroom. I’ve looked at that as a positive move forward in getting rid of contentious bathroom issues. With single-stall bathrooms that already exist, I don’t really see why we have to segregate who goes into which ones. How do you feel about that?
GG: I think unisex bathrooms should be a staple of every place that has bathrooms for public use. If there aren’t unisex bathrooms alongside the bathrooms for men and women, you’re creating a situation where a portion of the population will not feel safe. So I think that unisex bathrooms are never a bad thing when they are installed. However, forcing people into those spaces to segregate them from the non-transgender population is categorically discriminatory.
Q: Do you advocate for using gender-neutral third-person pronouns?
GG: People who do not identify as either male or female or perhaps identify not exclusively or strictly in these ways might use the gender-neutral pronouns they, them, and theirs, which is a concept many people struggle with. However, we’ve been using these pronouns singularly since we learned how to speak. For example, someone says to their friend, “Hey, I’m going to the doctor” and the friends replies, “Oh, what’s their name?” You don’t know if the doctor is a man or woman, so you default to a neutral pronoun. This is something we’ve all been doing, and while it can seem difficult at first to incorporate that into your lexicon for an individual, it’s really not that difficult. Myself, I prefer male pronouns because I have a binary or strictly male identity. But as far as people who use nonbinary pronouns that better honor them, I have no problem with that. I have no jurisdiction over what makes other people happy.
Q: I’m interested to hear what your plans are for the future. You’re an outstanding young man. What can we expect from you?
GG: I appreciate that. First and foremost I hope to continue to speak at events like this. Then in the fall I’m going to college and plan to become a middle school English teacher. Since I care so very deeply about children and the rights of children and their ability to be happy and safe in school, I feel it’s something that will be incredibly enriching.
Q: I’ve read that for trans teenagers especially, suicidal ideation is very high. But if one person who is an authority figure in their lives will use the name that they want, that reflects who they are—ideally it would be a parent, but maybe it’s a teacher or a coach—it goes down dramatically. As a future educator, do you think there’s a way this could be part of teacher training or somehow part of an education degree?
GG: I think very strongly that it should be, with zero exceptions, mandatory to have sensitivity training if you’re going to be working with young people. Young people are vulnerable and they present themselves in all kinds of different ways. That is beautiful and important, and they need to have that space to freely explore who they are.
From my perspective as a future teacher, gender and being trans and being gay are things that will be spoken about in my classroom. These are things that will never be taboo. These are things that will always be respected. I will always be open with my students about these topics regardless of fear of backlash from an angry parent.
I was recently contacted by a teacher I had in middle school. She was the only teacher to recognize that I had a queer identity at that time and would speak openly and honestly about it with me. It made a huge difference in my ability to graduate that year. She contacted me recently and said: Hey, I had a kid come out to me as a trans boy. What do I do?
I said, first and foremost, it’s not illegal to call him “he” or by the name he’s asked you to use. You can do that. Many of these kids come from a place of insecurity, of not knowing a lot about their identity and their feelings especially when they’re younger. So, I asked her to give him some options, say she could either continue using female pronouns with the name on the roster, use male pronouns with the preferred name, or avoid it altogether and try to not gender or name to avoid humiliating or outing the student.
She brought the suggestions to the child and he chose the second option. And his mood has improved. He’s doing better in school. He’s still having a lot of challenges, but that made a big difference. So I can’t stress enough that it’s not illegal to respect a child.