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Florida student wins transgender rights case in federal appellate court

Drew Adams spent years fighting the St. John’s County School Board so that transgender students would be able to use restrooms that match their gender identity.

Transgender students must be allowed equal access to restrooms that match their gender identity, a federal appellate court ruled Friday.

It is a battle that Drew Adams says he spent his high school career fighting against the St. John’s County School Board. When he started his freshman year at Nease High School in Ponte Vedra in 2015, he identified as a boy and used the boys’ bathroom. An anonymous tipster alerted school officials and he was told he could only use gender-neutral restrooms.

In 2017, Adams sued the school board in the Middle District of Florida in Jacksonville with help from Lambda Legal, a nonprofit LGBTQ legal organization.

Adams’ case was the country’s first trial involving a transgender student’s equal access to restrooms. He won in 2018, and again on Friday.

“I am very happy to see justice prevail, after spending almost my entire high school career fighting for equal treatment,” said Adams, now a 19-year-old student at the University of Central Florida, in a statement posted Friday on lambdalegal.org.

“High school is hard enough without having your school separate you from your peers and mark you as inferior. I hope this decision helps save other transgender students from having to go through that painful and humiliating experience.”

Related: Misgendered and mistreated in jail: A Pinellas transgender woman shares her story

In that 2018 decision, U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan wrote that “the evidence is that Drew Adams poses no threat to the privacy or safety of any of his fellow students. ... When it comes to his use of the bathroom, the law requires that he be treated like any other boy.”

The school board appealed in 2019. In December, Adams and his mother Erica Kasper attended oral arguments at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

On Friday, the 11th Circuit issued a 2-1 decision in Adams’ favor written by U.S. Circuit Judge Beverly Martin. She cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s June Bostock vs. Clayton County decision, which found that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees from being discriminated against because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

“A public school may not punish its students for gender nonconformity,” Martin wrote. “Neither may a public school harm transgender students by establishing arbitrary, separate rules for their restroom use.

“The evidence at trial confirms that Mr. Adams suffered both these indignities.”

Lambda Legal attorney Tara Borelli said in a statement that the organization is glad to see the courts affirm “the inherent dignity and worth of transgender students.”

“The court sent a clear message that schools must treat transgender students with the same dignity and respect as any other student,” she said. “The trial court was correct when it ruled that the law requires that Drew Adams be treated like every other boy and be allowed to use the boys’ restroom.”

In her statement, Adams’ mother recalled what her son had to endure as a teenager.

“It was so painful to watch our son suffer discrimination at the hands of his school, when the only thing he should have to worry about is getting a good education,” Kasper said. “I hope all schools across the country are paying attention to what we went through and to this decision.”

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