Transgender student Nicole Maines, center, with her father, Wayne Maines, left, and brother Jonas, speaks to reporters in Bangor, Maine on June 12, 2013.Robert F. Bukaty/AP
School officials violated state anti-discrimination law when they would not allow a transgender fifth-grader to use the girls' bathroom, according to a ruling this week by the highest court in Maine. The decision is believed to be the first of its kind.
The family of Nicole Maines and the Maine Human Rights Commission sued in 2009 after school officials required her to use a staff restroom following a complaint from the grandfather of a male student about Maines's use of the girls' restroom.
"This is a momentous decision that marks a huge breakthrough for transgender young people," said Jennifer Levi, director of the Boston-based Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders' Transgender Rights Project after the Maine Supreme Judicial Court's ruling on Thursday.
The court concluded (PDF) that the Orono school district's actions violated the Maine Human Rights Act, which bans discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, overturning a lower court's ruling that the district acted within its discretion.
The ruling is the first time a state high court concluded that a transgender person should use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify, according to GLAD. Federal courts haven't taken up the issue.
Students at the southern Maine high school Nicole now attends stood up and cheered when news of the ruling was announced, said her father, Wayne Maines.
School administrators across the country are grappling with the issue of transgender students' rights.
For example, Colorado officials said last year that a suburban Colorado Springs school district discriminated against a 6-year-old transgender girl by preventing her from using the girls' bathroom.
In California, there's an effort afoot to try to repeal a law that allows public school students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their expressed genders.
In the Maine case, Nicole Maines was using the girls' bathroom at her elementary school after school officials and her parents agreed it would be best for her social development. The grandfather of a fifth-grade boy complained to administrators, and the Orono school district determined that she should use a staff bathroom.
Her parents said that amounted to discrimination; in a letter to the school, her mother wrote that being relegated to the staff bathroom gave Nicole feelings of "depression, lack of self-worth, and as she put it, freak-ness," according to court documents.
Nicole, now 16 years old, is a biological male who identified as a girl beginning at age 2. She said after arguments before the high court last summer that she hoped the justices understood the importance of going to school, getting an education and making friends without having to be "bullied" by other students or school administrators.
Nicole's father said all he had ever wanted was for his daughter to be treated just like her classmates. He said he was overcome with emotion when he learned of the decision.
"It sends a message to my kids that you can believe in the system and that it can work," Wayne Maines said. "I'm just going to hug my kids and enjoy the moment, and do some healing."
Melissa Hewey, lawyer for the school district, said the ruling provided clarity not just to Orono, but to schools around the state.
"The court has now clarified what has been a difficult issue and is more and more common in schools, and the Orono School Department is going to do what it needs to do to comply with the law," she told The Associated Press.
In the 5-1 ruling, the court had to reconcile two separate state laws, one requiring separate bathrooms based on gender and the other prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.
In this case, in which the child had a formal diagnosis of gender dysphoria, "it has been clearly established that a student's psychological well-being and educational success depend upon being permitted to use the communal bathroom consistent with her gender identity," Justice Warren Silver wrote.
The Supreme Judicial Court pointed out that its ruling was based on the circumstances of the case in which there was ample documentation of the student's gender identity. "Our opinion must not be read to require schools to permit students casual access to any bathroom of their choice," he wrote.
"You have to allow students access to all facilities and school programs. It's been the law, and it's just taken a while for us to get schools and courts to understand," Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, told Al Jazeera.
In recent years, more and more transgender students are coming out, which has helped to inform the education and the medical community about how to best accommodate them, Keisling said.
However, she added, "There won't be any kind of special accommodations needed as soon as people get past their own prejudices."
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press