Transgender bathroom fight: AG Shapiro adds Pa. as supporter of teen who sued his Florida school

The lawsuit, which could set nationwide precedent, has been going on for almost four years.

gender neutral bathroom
SYDNEY SCHAEFER / BILLY PENN
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Pennsylvania’s top attorney is backing a trans high school grad who sued his public school for forbidding him from using the boys’ bathroom.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who announced earlier this year that he’s running for governor, is among 23 attorneys general who filed an amicus brief supporting Florida resident Drew Adams last Friday.

“Mean spirited attacks by politicians against middle and high school students have no place in Pennsylvania,” said Molly Stieber, Shapiro’s spokesperson. “We will always fight against these attempts to deprive individuals of their constitutional rights.”

The lawsuit has been going on for almost four years. When Adams started his junior year at Nease High School in Ponte Vedra, he had publicly identified as a boy for at least two years. School leaders stopped him from using the boys’ bathroom.

Listed as male on his driver’s license and birth certificate, Adams has undergone gender-confirmation surgery. But the school insisted he had to use a single-stall bathroom located far away from his classes.

Adams sued during the summer of 2017, saying the decision violated his 14th Amendment and Title IX rights. He won his first case in front of a district court in 2018, but the school district appealed. Then, in July, a panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 in Adams’ favor. But the Northeast Florida school district appealed that decision too. The yearslong battle is set to continue in front of the full federal appeals court.

In signing onto the lawsuit, Pennsylvania has proclaimed itself a supporter of trans rights — alongside states like New York, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Washington.

Shapiro signed a similar amicus brief in 2019, supporting a trans teen named Gavin Grimm who was denied bathroom access in Virginia. The court ruled in Grimm’s favor last year.

How a similar case went in PA

Many of the states listed in the amicus brief already have laws that protect trans’ students right to use the bathroom that aligns with their gender. Pennsylvania does not.

That allowed a cisgender student in the Boyertown Area School District to bring a 2017 lawsuit. The suit targeted the policy in the district, which covers parts of Berks and Montgomery counties, that allows kids to use whichever bathroom or locker room corresponds with their gender. Lawyers argued sharing the bathroom with a trans student would violate cisgender students’ Title IX rights.

The Third Circuit court sided with the district — and in May 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a petition to hear the case again, “allowing Boyertown’s policies supporting transgender students to continue,” per the ACLU.

Lawsuits like these have been appearing with more and more frequency. There’s also been a flood of legislation that seeks to discriminate against trans people. More anti-trans bills were introduced in state legislatures across the country this year than any year prior — including at least one in Pennsylvania.

After the Boyertown case, The Pa. Human Relations Commission issued affirming guidance, saying it understands “sex” to include sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.

What rights do trans students have in Philly?

Meanwhile, the Philly school district has a comprehensive policy designed to protect trans students.

Known as Policy 252, it affirms their right to use bathrooms, wear uniforms, play on sports teams, and even change their names in the district’s system without notifying a parent.

However, it isn’t universally enforced. After the district excitedly announced every school would have a gender-neutral restroom this academic year, Billy Penn found several schools lack an easily accessible option.

Nationally, more than one-third of trans students avoid school bathrooms completely, either holding it in or limiting their fluid intake to do so, according to a 2013 study by LGBTQ advocacy nonprofit GLSEN.

“Going to the bathroom is a basic need,” Philly teacher June Freifelder told Billy Penn in October. “All students need to have their basic needs met. If you didn’t feel comfortable going to the bathroom, you would not make it through the day.”

 

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