January 31

Maine’s highest court: Transgender student’s rights were violated

Nicole Maines’ school was wrong to require the fifth-grader to use a unisex bathroom, justices rule in a historic gender-identity decision that could be a model for other states.

By Matt Byrne mbyrne@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

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Transgender student Nicole Maines, now 16, and her family on the day of a historic Maine supreme court ruling.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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Nicole Maines, with her father Wayne Maines, left, and brother Jonas, speaks to reporters outside court in June 2013 after arguments on the Maines’ lawsuit. “I just hope (the justices) understand how important it is for students to go to school, get an education, have fun ... and not have to worry about being bullied,” Nicole said at the time.

2013 File Photo/The Associated Press

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The school’s support staff recommended that when Nicole enter the fifth grade, she be allowed to use the communal girls’ bathroom, part of the psychologically important steps of living socially as a female. A faculty bathroom that was not gender-specific was identified as an alternative if her use of the communal bathroom became “an issue.”

Her use of the communal bathroom was uneventful until one boy, at the direction of his legal guardian – his grandfather – followed Nicole into the girls’ bathroom twice, arguing that he, too, was entitled to use it. In the ensuing controversy, the school administration reversed its course, barring Nicole from using the communal girls’ bathroom.

A SUCCESS FOR IDEALS OF EQUALITY

Thursday’s ruling included a strongly worded concurring opinion by Chief Justice Leigh Saufley, who lauded the work of the school system, which was “working in uncharted territory and undertook a rational and compassionate approach to the challenges presented to it.”

She called on the Legislature to correct a contradiction in the language of the Human Rights Act, which includes “sex” as a protected class. In light of Thursday’s ruling, it appears logical that a restaurant, for instance, could not bar a man from using a women’s bathroom.

A similar point was made in the lone dissent, by Justice Andrew Mead, who agreed with the opinion of the court but wrote that societal custom of gender-segregated bathrooms is on “collision course” with the Human Rights Act. Mead called on the Legislature to amend the 1983 cleanliness statute so its language would no longer be in conflict with the law protecting transgender people.

Attorneys for the Maines family said the case is a step forward in affirming long-held ideals of equality.

“We think it was very important in this case that the court emphasize the principle that we have in law, that the discomfort of other people cannot trump the law,” said Ben Klein, a senior attorney with Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, which helped argue the case.

Klein said the school’s staff was extraordinarily sensitive in planning for Nicole’s education, and he placed blame for the debacle on administrators who reversed that decision.

“All of those teachers and guidance counselors understood that the only way a transgender girl could go to school (was) if she was treated as a girl,” Klein said. “It was the school administrators who came in when one student tried to disrupt Nicole’s use of the girls’ restroom.”

Superintendent Joanne Harriman, who was not leading the district when the issue arose, deferred comment to the school attorney, Melissa Hewey of the Portland firm Drummond Woodsum. Calls to the school board chairman, Wayne Scott, were not returned.

Hewey said she was surprised by the ruling, but it brings clarity to the emerging issue of transgender students in public schools.

“At the core of that decision is a recognition that tolerance is important,” Hewey said.

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

mbyrne@pressherald.com

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