Yet another court has ruled that trans students have the right to access bathrooms which correspond with their lived gender identity.
On Monday, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals issued an impassioned written opinion in Doe v. Boyertown—in which six students at the Boyertown Area School District in southeastern Pennsylvania argued that sharing locker rooms and restroom facilities with their trans classmates constituted “sexual harassment” and violated their 14th Amendment right to privacy.
In a unanimous ruling denying a preliminary injunction against a district-wide policy allowing trans high schoolers to use the bathroom which feels most appropriate, the Third Circuit claimed cisgender students don’t “have a constitutional right not to share restrooms or locker rooms with transgender students.”
“The presence of transgender students in these spaces does not offend the constitutional right of privacy any more than the presence of cisgender students in those spaces,” Judge Theodore McKee with the Philadelphia-based court wrote.
Justices said forcing trans students to use separate facilities from their peers would “very publicly brand [them] with a scarlet ‘T.’”
In the complaint on behalf of six Boyertown students, lead plaintiff Joel Doe—whose real name is left anonymous in court filings—claimed that the district’s trans-affirming policy had a “severe and negative impact” on his academic performance and mental health. Doe alleged that being forced to share bathrooms and locker rooms with trans students further caused him “embarrassment and humiliation.”
The student added that he avoided using facilities on campus in fear of seeing trans people in the restroom, but the court wasn’t convinced what Doe experienced constituted actual harm. The three-judge panel claimed that critics “real objection” to the Boyertown policy concerns “the presence of transgender students,” rather than “any ‘environment’ their presence creates.”
“Indeed, the allegations here include an assertion that a cisgender student was harassed merely by a transgender student washing that student’s own hands in a bathroom or changing in a locker room,” judges said. “That is not the type of conduct that supports a Title IX hostile environment claim.”
The Third District noted that students who objected to the policy already had the option to use single-stall restroom on campus, which were installed in advance of the 2016-17 academic year (i.e., when it went into effect).
For this reason, the bench sided with an earlier ruling from the U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania upholding the policy.
“The District Court was… correct in deciding that denying the injunction would not irreparably harm the appellants,” the appeals court claimed. “For the reasons set forth above and in the well-reasoned District Court opinion, we will affirm the District Court’s denial of the requested preliminary injunction.”
Doe v. Boyertown was initially decided on May 24 following an unusual decision by the 3rd District to announce its findings immediately—because the trans students at the center of the case were set to graduate just days later.
The court, however, held off on issuing its legal reasoning until now.
Aidan DiStefano, a student at Boyertown Senior High, heralded the Third Circuit’s continued effort in upholding his basic dignity.
“Transgender students just want what everyone else wants, to be accepted for who we are,” he said in a statement released after the initial ruling. “Reversing the practices that have allowed me and other trans kids to thrive at school would have been devastating. I’m glad other transgender students will know the experience of being treated like any other student.”
But the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the right-wing law firm which represented the complainants in the suit, signaled it may seek to challenge the ruling.
“The Supreme Court has already spoken: The real differences between men and women mean that privacy must be protected where it really counts, and that certainly includes high school locker rooms and restrooms,” said ADF Legal Counsel Christiana Holcomb in a press release.
“This decision is out of step with longstanding legal protection for privacy,” she added. “We will continue advocating for these young students.”
The Third District is just the latest court to rule in favor of trans student protections following similar verdicts in the Sixth and Seventh Circuits, the latter of which found that conservative arguments about bathroom privacy relied on “sheer conjecture and abstraction.”
Meanwhile, Virginia high school student Gavin Grimm finally won his case against Gloucester High School in May after years of fighting for his right to be treated equally to his male peers.
The trans student graduated, though, before the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia could side in his favor.