Meet the Gloucester County teen who might change the lives of transgender youth around the country
I’m going 50 miles per hour down a barely paved road, looking for the house of Gavin Grimm. My cell service has all but cut out and I’m hoping the last of my GPS will get me to Grimm’s corner of Gloucester County, about an hour west of Richmond.
Luckily, I find his house. I knock on the door and Grimm (top image) opens, round-faced and excited. He’s been the center of a lot of attention lately – the New York Times, CNN and MTV have all reached out to the 16-year-old in the last few weeks as he made headlines locally and now nationally for his fight against his local school board.
Grimm is a transgender man. He knew he was different since about the age of six. Born and raised in Gloucester County, it wasn’t easy, nor did he really have the language to express who he was until he was much older.
First he thought he was a tomboy, though he wasn’t really sure he was a lesbian as others might have guessed.
“I felt a lot of pressure to figure out who I was and I didn’t know being trans was an option,” Grimm said. “I had to put a name to it.”
Fortunately for Grimm, he had an “open-minded” circle of friends for support. As he aged, he found support where he could. Though he hadn’t started transitioning, he was noticeably less-feminine than the girls in his class, but it didn’t lead to any issues.
At home, his parents raised him with faith. Sadly, his confusion over his gender created a kind of barrier for him and this lead to him struggling to admit who he was.
“By fear of the Christian god, I didn’t want to explore any aspect of homosexuality,” he said. “It took my journey of discovering myself, that I had nothing to fear about wondering who I was.”
It was about this time he started to learn more about the term “transgender” and how it applied to him.
“It had clicked a few times, but I refused to accept the reality,” Grimm said.
It was about this time his mother, Deidra Grimm, couldn’t take it anymore. She cornered young Gavin in his room and demanded he admit to her that he was a lesbian.
“I couldn’t understand it,” Deidra said, now looking back on the incident with a bit of embarrassment.
Gavin agreed with her to get out of the situation – what teenager wants to talk about sex with their mom? And what teenager wants to try and explain what transgender is? And in his defense, Gavin couldn’t really even explain what he was going through at the time.
“Yea, whatever mom, you’re right, can we stop talking now,” he remembered saying, just to get out of the awkward situation.
“I’ve always known Gavin was different, his whole life, and I always considered him my eccentric, artsy child,” Deidra said. “I kept thinking he was gay, and I wanted him to talk to me about it…”
It didn’t take long for things to come to a head. A few days prior to his 14th birthday, Gavin finally told his mom that he was in fact a boy in a girl’s body, and that the pain he was feeling was unbearable.
“I knew nothing about transgender,” Deidra said. “I started my education that day. I didn’t sleep a wink three nights in a row just looking things up on the internet.”
Things finally became clear, but there was a birthday party to be thrown. Relived to have told his mom, there was still the need to inform the rest of the Grimm clan.
“I can laugh about it now,” said Gavin. “I woke up and didn’t want to get out of bed and I go downstairs and the cake has the wrong name.”
The cake had been ordered before he told his mom about his gender identity.
Deidra breaks down and tells Gavin’s father. The party is happening either way, and she’s not going to let a bit of gender dysphoria ruin that.
“So I walked in, swiped the old name off the cake, wrote the new name on the cake, called my brother and said ‘this is what’s going on, if you don’t like it, you don’t have to come,” she said. “You don’t have to condone it or like it, but you have to be nice in my house.’”
Gavin and Deidra can laugh about it now (with a few tears in the mix) but that dramatic show of support would be just the first in a long series of steps the Grimms would have to take in the coming years.
But the change since embracing Gavin for who he is has made all the difference.
“He used to hide in his room,” Deidra said. “And now he’s the life of the party.”
So the Grimms get Gavin’s ducks in order – they change his name, they meet with the administration at Gloucester High School and let them know what’s going on. Gavin himself asked for an alternative restroom, a decision he’s since regretted.
“It’s Gloucester, I didn’t know if I was gonna get beat up in the back of school or if no one was gonna say anything,” Gavin said. “As it turns out, I had no reasonable claim to fear for my safety.”
He started school entirely under his new male identity and it was the happiest the teenager had ever been.
“It was glorious, they just knew me as Gavin, they didn’t have whispered conversations… it wasn’t a problem,” he said.
Before long, he even stopped going to the nurse’s bathroom and using the boys room like a normal high school kid. This want to blend in, to not be known as “the trans kid” made him happiest.
“As a parent, I was checking in,” said Deidra who would call the school and ask how things were going. “You worry about that – and there were no issues.”
But by November of that year, all of that peace would be shattered.
One night Deidra received a Facebook message from a friend who stumbled upon a new resolution being proposed by the Gloucester County School board, one which would require all students to use the restroom aligning with their birth gender, not their gender identity.
“I was a little disappointed the principal didn’t tell me,” said Deidra who then only had a day to prep a defense for her child. She spent all night printing out information and making seven booklets for the seven school board members.
Then the pair went to the school board meeting and it went just about as bad as you could imagine.
“I’m not sure, to this day, I’ve suffered a greater injustice,” Gavin said as he sat through the meeting listening to local parents list reasons why he shouldn’t be allowed to use the boys room. “By grown adults, I was called a freak, a shim, a dog…”
After this humiliating display, Gavin’s feelings around the bathroom hit a tipping point. He said he regretted asking to use the nurse’s’ room because it had become the one factor which forced him to out himself in front of his peers.
“It’s so painful for me to walk into the nurse’s’ room because of an aspect of myself, a medical condition, that I wish I never had,” he said. “It was humiliating and upsetting.”
From there the local media picked up the story. Gavin’s face was front and center of a national debate affecting transgender students around the country, if not the world.
The National ACLU office reached out and began working with the Richmond area office to get in contact with the Grimms.
“When we saw what was going on, we were anxious to do what we could,” said Rebecca Glennburg, part of Grimm’s ACLU legal team.
They first tried to let the school board know the new policy was illegal, specifically in violation of Title IX, a federal school policy which protects students along gender lines.
Even the Federal Department of Justice got involved, writing statements and letters supporting Grimm in his fight.
“Under Title IX, discrimination based on a person’s gender identity, a person’s transgender status, or a person’s nonconformity to sex stereotypes constitutes discrimination based on sex,” read a statement from the DOJ. “There is a public interest in ensuring that all students, including transgender students, have the opportunity to learn in an environment free of sex discrimination.”
The school board ignored the statement and kept the policy in place.
The ACLU filed a discrimination complaint citing the statement from the DOJ. But the policy stayed in place.
Finally, in June of this year, The ACLU filed a lawsuit against the school board.
“The school board’s policy is deeply stigmatizing and needlessly cruel,” said Joshua Block, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and HIV Project, when the lawsuit was announced.
“Any student – transgender or not – should be free to use single-stall restrooms if they want extra privacy,” he said. “Instead of protecting the privacy of all students, the school board has chosen to single out transgender students as unfit to use the same restrooms as everyone else.”
The school board asked a judge to dismiss Gavin’s suit. The hearing for that dismissal, and the first time Gavin had to go before a judge over this issue, happened in late July. While his case wasn’t dismissed, and he is awaiting another trial date in the next few months, the judge’s reaction to the case was a reminder just how behind the times the legal system is when handling such sensitive issues.
Federal Judge Robert Doumar, 85, a Norfolk native and a life-long Republican with several failed bids for office under his belt, sat behind the bench spitting out phrases that made every journalist in the room turn their heads in dismay.
At one point, Doumar asked the ACLU if being transgender was in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) does it make Gavin mentally unsound (It doesn’t, in fact the term for transgender was changed from “gender identity disorder” to “gender dysphoria” to stop that kind of confusion).
Doumar also ranted about marijuana laws, the authority of the Department of Justice and how he was “rather upset with where we’re going in the United States.”
It was embarrassing for me in the courtroom, and I couldn’t even imagine how Gavin felt to have to sit through it all. The ACLU told Gavin not to talk about his reactions to the hearing, but watching Deidra’s tears as she sat behind her son explained it all.
“I know my child isn’t making a choice,” she said after the hearing. “I’ve watched him live it and I’ve lived it with him. People don’t understand what it’s like to worry about your kid… when they go to bed crying. If they’re going to wake up dead… My son, regardless if he’s trans, is a joy in my life… For 16 years I’ve been lucky to be his mom.”
This concern for the rest of the trans youth around the country is what has kept Gavin and Deidra in the fight. While studies specifically on trans youth and suicide rates are considered inadequate for most modern statisticians, those studies that do exist tell a dark story.
One study suggested as much as 18 percent of trans kids have attempted suicide, significantly higher than the 8.5 percent associated with other high school kids. But forcing a child to be set apart from the general population at school by forcing them into a separate but equal restroom is humiliation enough for Gavin to want to fight.
“I might as well do what I can with it while I can,” said Gavin. “[To] help as many people as I can. Give it a bit more merit.”
There isn’t a confirmed court date for Gavin yet, but the cat’s out of the bag when it comes to the boy who just wanted to live his life as a normal kid.
“I miss that. I miss that a lot,” he said of the days before the first school board meeting, before the ACLU lawyers called him, and before he was forced to talk about his genitals in a room full of strange adults.
“I’m in the public now; it’s this sign on my back.”
I jokingly asked him how he’d respond if his case makes it to the Supreme Court, or if there ends up being a law passed that protects trans kids from these kinds of policies and it bares his name.
“I’ve dreamt of a life of stealth,” he said humbly. “But things happen and you get out of life what you put into it. And if I’m never able to go stealth again, I will just have to make peace with it.”
Deidra said she’s proud of her son, something a lot of trans teens don’t get the benefit of. She’s similarly been dragged into the spotlight because of the school board’s policy.
“This is just life,” she said. “Life doesn’t always give you children with everyday problems or children with no problems. Actually, life never gives you that. I’ve got five kids and they all have had issues in their life. Gavin no different. We love him. All you have to be is part of this family to know he hasn’t chosen this.”
It’s going to be a while before Gavin gets his second day in court, and it will be even longer until Gavin is able to use the boy’s bathroom. And that’s all Gavin really wants to do.
“I didn’t understand the scope of this… it’s still surreal to me now,” he said as we wrapped up our interview. “I have people contacting me saying this has implications that are far reaching and I didn’t recognize that. I did not, in any sense imagine or understand the reach or impact of this… Time will tell what happens with this and how far it can reach.”
It also compares the fight for civil rights with a very public murder and that should probably be a bit alarming to folks…November 3, 2016
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