The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has affirmed a preliminary injunction requiring a Wisconsin high school to permit a transgendered male student to use the boys’ bathrooms. (Link to the landmark opinion in Whitaker v. Kenosha Unified School District here.) In affirming the preliminary injunction, the Court ruled that the student – Ash Whitaker – could state a claim for sex discrimination based on his transgender status under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The decision has wide-ranging implications outside the context of education, particularly for employment law, as the Court described the close relationship between Title IX and Title VII (of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibiting employment discrimination), and largely relied on case law developed under Title VII to reach its conclusion. The ruling is also significant because it comes on the heels of the Trump Administration’s cruel decision in February 2017 to rescind President Obama’s administrative guidance stating that schools should permit students to use bathrooms consistent with their gender identity.
Ash, a high school senior who has just graduated, first came out as a transgender male to his family in eighth grade and began to publicly transition shortly thereafter, a process that included hormone replacement therapy and a legal name change. Ash and his mother repeatedly requested permission for him to use the boys’ bathroom while at school. The school repeatedly denied the requests, telling Ash he could only use the girls’ bathrooms or a staff-only gender-neutral bathroom located far from his classes. Ash did not want to undermine his transition by using the girls’ bathroom, and did not want to draw further attention to himself as the only student with access to the staff-only bathroom (not to mention the fact that using the staff-only bathroom made it impossible to get to class on time).
Ash alternated between restricting his water intake, resulting in adverse health effects, and sneaking into the boys’ bathroom. Ash and his mother continued to ask the school for relief, without results. The school demanded medical documentation, which Ash provided, but, ultimately, the school stated that it could not honor the request unless Ash completed a surgical transition, notwithstanding that the procedure is prohibited for minors. At one point, the school instructed its security guards to monitor Ash’s bathroom use, and he was removed from class for failing to comply with the school’s unwritten and inconsistent policies. Throughout this course of events, Ash’s symptoms of depression worsened, leading to suicidal ideation.
Ash filed suit the summer before his senior year, and obtained a preliminary injunction from the district court which required the school to allow Ash to use the boys’ bathroom and prevented the school from further monitoring his bathroom use. The school then appealed the preliminary injunction to the Seventh Circuit.
The Court (in a unanimous decision authored by Judge Anne Claire Williams) first determined that Ash had made a showing of irreparable harm and that no adequate remedy at law existed, casting aside the school’s argument that monetary relief could make him whole, stating: “We cannot say that this potential harm – his suicide – can be compensated by monetary damages.” The Court then addressed the likelihood of success on the merits in the underlying lawsuit and the balance of harms.
As to Ash’s Title IX claim, the Court looked to the development of sex-discrimination based on sex-stereotyping under Title VII, starting with the Supreme Court’s 1989 Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins decision, in which an employer was found to have discriminated against a female employee because she was perceived as too masculine. The Seventh Circuit also looked to its own en banc decision earlier this year, which established that Title VII also prohibits sexual orientation discrimination based on a sex-stereotyping theory. The argument is straight forward: if discrimination based on an individual’s lack of conformity to established gender norms is sex discrimination, then it follows that discrimination based on lack of conformity to one’s gender assigned at birth also qualifies. The Court noted that both the 11th and 6th Circuits had previously applied Price Waterhouse to determine that transgender discrimination qualifies as sex discrimination.
With respect to the Equal Protection Clause, the Court explained that, because transgender discrimination is sex discrimination, heightened scrutiny rather than rational basis review applies. Sex-based stereotypes are an insufficient basis to meet this heightened scrutiny, and thus the Court found a likelihood of success as to the 14th Amendment claim as well. The Court did not decide whether discrimination based upon transgender status is per se entitled to heightened scrutiny across the board.
Finally, in considering the balance of harms, the Court eviscerated the school district’s privacy arguments as entirely speculative. The Court also pointed to the fact that Ash had used the boys’ restroom for a six-month period without any student complaints (it was a teacher who eventually reported Ash) as evidence that the privacy argument was based on conjecture alone. The argument that transgender individuals’ presence in public bathrooms not matching their birth gender poses a heightened risk to the safety and privacy of other bathroom users has been advanced by opponents of transgender rights as an unsubstantiated scare tactic. As stated by the Court: “Common sense tells us that the communal restroom is a place where individuals act in a discreet manner to protect privacy and those who have true privacy concerns are able to use a stall.”
Although not the first appellate-court decision to recognize this theory of transgender discrimination as sex discrimination, Whitaker is a significant step in the fight to expand school, workplace, and other civil rights protections for transgender individuals and the LGBTQ community generally. School administrators and employers must not stigmatize transgender individuals based on speculation about the harms to other students and employees. The fact that the decision followed the Trump Administration’s rescinding of the Obama Administration’s bathroom guidance – and declined to consider or mention it – shows that despite the current Administration’s bigoted attempts to roll back the clock on LGBTQ rights, the critical statutory and constitutional framework for protecting those rights already exists. Protections will continue to become more robust through subsequent judicial decisions like this one.
Supreme Court review of transgender bathroom access appears inevitable, whether through this case, Gavin Grimm’s case in the Fourth Circuit, or another. Once again, all eyes will turn to Anthony Kennedy, who will have another opportunity to cement his unique legacy with respect to LGBTQ rights.