By the time Drew Adams’ case is decided, he will likely be headed to college. But that’s hardly the point. The transgender 18-year-old has been using the boys’ restroom at Allen Nease High School all year.
It’s what his case could mean for students nationally that has advocates zeroed in on the Ponte Vedra, Florida, lawsuit.
Adams won a federal decision that granted him access to the boys’ restroom at his school last July. This February, Lambda Legal, which has been fighting his case, urged the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals to deny the St. John’s County School Board request to overturn that win.
But in opposing Adams, the district may have given transgender advocates a watershed opportunity: Adams’ case will now either secure transgender protections in three southern states or push the issue all the way to the Supreme Court.
“This has the possibility to create a precedent that would protect the rights of transgender students and transgender people more generally under the federal civil rights law,” Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, senior attorney at Lambda Legal who is fighting Adams’ case, tells NewNowNext. “In the deep South, we’re talking about Georgia, Alabama, and Florida.”
The Supreme Court previously punted on the issue of transgender student protections. In 2017, the court declined to hear the case of Virginia trans student Gavin Grimm. Grimm won his case back in federal court, but his school district has continued to debate its policy on transgender students and bathrooms.
Just 20 states and Washington D.C. have protections on the books that cover transgender people. Last year, Ash Whitaker a trans student in Wisconsin, won his case in the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Indiana and Illinois. Neither Indiana nor Wisconsin had trans protections previously.
Now, Adams’ case is poised to do the same in Georgia, Alabama, and Florida. If he loses, Lambda Legal could appeal the case to the Supreme Court, setting the stage for a historic battle over trans rights nationally.
Adams story begins in 2014 when he started to identify as a boy. His mom, Erica Kasper, knew he was trans before he did, he explains to NewNowNext.
“There are a lot of instances in my childhood that I look back on now and think, Huh, maybe I should have realized sooner than I did,” says Adams. “But I told my mom after a week of scouring the internet… it was nerve-wracking as any coming-out experience would be, but I had probably the best experience I had ever heard of.”
Adams’ family supported him, and it was not until 2015 when someone anonymously reported Adams at school for using the boys’ bathroom that he faced discrimination.
School counselors told Adams he had to use gender-neutral bathrooms. According to court documents, the school had just three gender-neutral restrooms, each a 15 to 20-minute walk from Adams’ classes. Adams was forced to choose between missing class and forgoing using the bathroom, he claims. He worried that using a separate bathroom would out him as transgender to staff and students.
“It’s been an added level of stress on top of the normal high school stuff,” Kasper tells NewNowNext.
Unable to make headway with school administrators, Kasper filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights under the Obama Administration. But the investigation dragged on for months and fell to the Trump administration, which has been notoriously hostile to transgender people. In February 2017, just as Adams’ case was on the brink of a resolution, the Trump administration rolled back Obama-era guidance protecting transgender students.
Kasper and Adams turned to Lambda Legal. Adams’ federal suit was the first-ever transgender bathroom case to go trial.
In a detailed decision, U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Corrigan ruled that the issue boiled to down to one thing: Adams was a boy who legally had a right to use the boys’ restroom. He ordered the district to pay $1,000 to Adams in damages and to allow him access to the boys’ restroom.
After the ruling, the year was uneventful for Adams. “It’s not that different from ordinary high school,” he says. “Most days the case does not actually affect me except for being able to use the correct bathroom now. I’m mostly just a normal kid trying to survive high school.”
But the St. John County School Board appealed his win.
District Superintendent Tim Forson did not respond to a request to comment. But according to the Florida Times Union, Adams’ principal had testified that she did not consider him to be a boy.
The very public fight over Adams’ restroom access has taken place against a backdrop of unprecedented anti-transgender violence in neighboring Jacksonville. Three transgender women were murdered in the city in 2018, as well as a gender non-conforming gay man. A fifth transgender woman survived a shooting. Two other transgender people were murdered in Florida last year. All of the victims have been people of color.
Kasper says the murders, coupled with the Pulse Nightclub Shooting in Orlando in 2016, has added to her anxieties for Adams as he navigates Florida as an out trans person. Still, she says, the family never considered moving. “We’re not going to change hearts and minds if we don’t stay to do it.”
LGBTQ advocates have long argued that Title IX, the federal civil rights law that protects students from discrimination based on sex, applies to transgender students. The Obama-era guidance on transgender students hinged on that interpretation.
But as a handful of schools across the country deny transgender students access to affirming bathrooms, LGBTQ legal organizations have hastened to cement clear-cut interpretations in the courts.
Eliza Byard, executive director of LGBTQ education advocacy organization GLSEN, says schools are increasingly doing right by their transgender students without fanfare.
“I think it is deeply upsetting that we face a situation where the court, and indeed the Supreme Court of the United States might tell 2% of the U.S. student population that they have no rights and dignity,” Byard says to NewNowNext.
In 2017, Adams testified before the Jacksonville city council in favor of city’s Human Rights Ordinance that secured LGBTQ non-discrimination protections.
Those protections, however, only cover Jacksonville and not its suburbs where Adams lives and attends school. While Adams’ fight started with a personal need, the issue is bigger than just him, he says.
“I definitely want to help as many people as I can,” says Adams, who will graduate in May. “I want to change as many hearts as minds as I can. I think that storytelling and putting a human face and a human story to a politicized issue like transgender rights is the only way to do that.”