Congratulations – And Thank You – To These Pioneering Transgender Student Graduates

06/16/2017 01:00 pm ET Updated Jun 17, 2017

Across the country this month, high school seniors are donning robes and cords, putting on graduation caps, and walking across stages to accept their diplomas and begin the next phase of their lives.

Read the story of Aidan DeStefano, celebrating graduation from his Pennsylvania high school with his mother, below.
Courtesy Melissa DeStefano
Read the story of Aidan DeStefano, celebrating graduation from his Pennsylvania high school with his mother, below.

In many ways, high schools have been a central battleground of the movement to secure LGBT non-discrimination protections this year, with transgender young people in many states seeing their dignity and very existence debated by adult decision-makers. School boards implemented discriminatory policies restricting equal treatment for transgender students. Elected officials came dangerously close to passing shameful legislation targeting transgender young people, from restroom restrictions to bills seeking to deny students the opportunity to engage in athletics. And most prominently, President Donald Trump and his administration rescinded life-saving guidance for public schools, sending a signal that the federal government no longer has transgender students' backs, even when it comes to something as basic as proper pronoun use and access to the restroom.

At the center of each of these fights have been courageous, young transgender people speaking out, sharing their stories, and inviting the public into their lives. It's not fair that these young people have had to fight for their right to simply exist in public spaces or share so openly their struggles when they should be focused on their education. But we are grateful and awed by their work, thankful for the parents, friends and family members who have stood by their side, and certain that they all have important experiences ahead of them.

As these students graduate, Freedom for All Americans – and the LGBT movement from coast to coast – thanks them for their leadership, for speaking out against injustice, and for paving the way toward a brighter future in which transgender students are not burdened by discrimination simply because of who they are. The lessons they have helped the American people learn have been invaluable, and their poise in the face of adversity has been truly commendable, signaling maturity well beyond their years.

Happy Graduation to every transgender student who has worked against discrimination – and thank you for leading the fight. Check out the stories of seven teenagers who took their cases to court this year, in partnership with the LGBT movement's indispensable legal organizations – and help us wish them congratulations on their graduations!

Gavin Grimm • Gloucester, Virginia

18-year-old Gavin Grimm has been a portrait of bravery for so much of his high school experience, leading a case all the way to the United States Supreme Court, in a case litigated by the American Civil Liberties Union.

© ACLU

For seven months following his transition Gavin was permitted by his school to use the boys’ restroom – until the Gloucester County School Board stepped in and reversed the policy, requiring him to use a separate restroom and stigmatizing him as 'other' at school. After securing a key victory at the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, the U.S. Supreme Court granted review of his case. When the Trump Administration rescinded guidance that formed a significant foundation of the 4th Circuit's decision, the case was remanded back to the lower court.

Before that happened, however, thousands of voices weighed in supporting Gavin Grimm and basic dignity for transgender students. Nearly 2,000 faith leaders, members of the U.S. Congress, dozens of educational administrators, law enforcement officers, and business leaders expressed their support for Gavin and other transgender students.

Throughout this year, Gavin has been applauded by Laverne Cox at the Grammys, celebrated as part of the TIME 100, and championed by dozens of influential publications. As his case continues in court, he will continue to fight and be supported by millions nationwide.

Judge Andre Davis of the 4th Circuit perhaps wrote about Gavin's legacy best when earlier this summer he thanked Gavin for his advocacy and contextualized his legal struggle in a legal opinion. He wrote:

“Our country has a long and ignominious history of discriminating against our most vulnerable and powerless. We have an equally long history, however, of brave individuals—Dred Scott, Fred Korematsu, Linda Brown, Mildred and Richard Loving, Edie Windsor, and Jim Obergefell, to name just a few—who refused to accept quietly the injustices that were perpetuated against them. It is unsurprising, of course, that the burden of confronting and remedying injustice falls on the shoulders of the oppressed. These individuals looked to the federal courts to vindicate their claims to human dignity, but as the names listed above make clear, the judiciary’s response has been decidedly mixed. Today, G.G. adds his name to the list of plaintiffs whose struggle for justice has been delayed and rebuffed; as Dr. King reminded us, however, ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ G.G.’s journey is delayed but not finished.”

Gavin's mother Dierdre, featured in the below video for the American Civil Liberties Union, penned a beautiful op-ed in The Washington Post about her son's graduation. Check it out here.

Ash Whitaker • Kenosha, Wisconsin

On Tuesday, May 30 Ash Whitaker, his mother, and his legal team at the National Center for Transgender Equality, got amazing news: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit issued a landmark decision in his legal case, becoming the first federal appellate court in history to find that discrimination based on gender identity violates Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (which prohibits discrimination based on sex) and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Courtesy Transgender Law Center

It was a huge day for transgender equality – but for Ash, he had to get back to work studying for finals. The senior, who last spring was permitted to run for Prom King, graduated four days later from high school.

Ash's story is remarkably similar to Gavin's. For many months, he used the boys’ restroom until the school board stepped in, restricting his access to a separate room, many minutes and hallways away from his classes. The 7th Circuit judges had no patience for the school district's justifications of why it was choosing to discriminate against Ash, with Chief Judge Dianne Wood saying during the hearing, "I don’t see who’s complaining, and where’s the evidence? During the 7 months, for example, that he used the boys’ room, who complained? Where’s the evidence in the record? Did you get affidavits from people? Did you get evidence in the record? Evidence. There’s a lot of evidence that this has been deeply harmful to Ashton Whitaker himself – that there’s been psychological harm, there’s been suicidal ideation, there’s the scholastic harm of wasting time from running to and from this one bathroom he can use instead of sitting in class."

When the 7th Circuit issued its ruling, Ash issued a statement. He said:

“I am thrilled that the Seventh Circuit recognized my right to be treated as the boy that I am at school. After facing daily humiliation at school last year from being threatened with discipline and being constantly monitored by school staff just to use the bathroom, the district court’s injunction in September allowed me to be a typical senior in high school and to focus on my classes, after-school activities, applying to college, and building lasting friendships. … As I look forward to college next year, I hope my case will help other transgender students in Kenosha and elsewhere to just be treated the same as everyone else without facing discrimination and harassment from school administrators.”

Juliet Evancho & Elissa Ridenour & A.S. • Gibsonia, Pennsylvania

Just days after President Trump rescinded guidance protecting transgender students, a federal judge ruled in a key legal case out of Pennsylvania. The ruling in the case, led by Lambda Legal, found that a school district's policy restricting restroom access for transgender students should be halted. A final decision is pending.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Juliet Evancho (pictured, left), Elissa Ridenour (pictured, right), and A.S., an anonymous transgender boy.

© Lambda Legal

“This is wonderful news and a tremendous relief that we can now use the bathroom without feeling isolated and humiliated,” Elissa said after the federal judge ruled in favor of her and her co-plaintiffs. “The past months have been incredibly stressful, and this was all so unnecessary. There was no problem before, and we are confident there will be no problem now.”

On June 2 Juliet, Elissa, and A.S. graduated from high school, and Lambda Legal congratulated them that day on Twitter.

Juliet's story has received particularly extensive press this year. Her sister is Jackie Evancho, a singer and star of America's Got Talent who performed at President Trump's inauguration in January. Following President Trump dropping the guidance protecting transgender students, Jackie requested a meeting with the president to help him understand the importance of protecting transgender students like her sister Juliet.

“I know God made me this way and guided me through this process,” Juliet wrote in a powerful piece for Teen Vogue. “He also gave me a large platform to share my story so that I can show others who have similar stories and struggles that there is light at the end of the tunnel. So I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to sacrifice who you are in order to be loved and accepted. On my 17th birthday my life finally began.”

Check out this video featuring Juliet and Elissa from Lambda Legal:

Aidan DeStefano • Boyertown, Pennsylvania

Earlier this year a heinous lawsuit was filed by opponents of LGBT equality, ridiculously arguing that non-transgender students are endangered or harmed when transgender students are protected from discrimination and treated with dignity at school. These arguments, which have been refuted time after time in court, are currently before a federal judge in Pennsylvania.

Courtesy ACLU of Pennsylvania & Aidan DeStefano

One courageous teenager at the school, Aidan DeStefano, is working with the ACLU to intervene in the case, rightfully arguing that a case that could impact transgender students should involve transgender students. His personal statement is beautiful.

The 18-year-old wrote, “This school year I started using the male facilities at BASH. That feels so good – I am finally “one of the guys”, something I have waited for my whole life. The other students are really supportive. In fact, I was elected to the homecoming court by my fellow students. And when I ran with the guys for senior night, it felt great to hear the cheers from my male teammates. … Being able to be my true self is more important than I can describe. I am on track to make the Honor Roll for the third marking period in a row, something I have never done before because I was too distracted and stressed.”

Student A • Palatine, Illinois

It’s important to remember that these transgender students are not asking to be involved in such vulnerable court cases. Rather, they are forced to defend themselves, with the help of LGBT movement attorneys, if they want any semblance of equality and dignity at school.

That’s what happened to an anonymous student in Illinois, and although her name is not public, her story certainly is.

At her school in Township High School District 211, Student A was forced to file a complaint with the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Office in 2013, leading to a 2015 settlement allowing her access to the girl’s locker room. Her story paved the way for other transgender students in the district – but a small group of parents continue to deny her dignity and respect, as tracked in this recent article from The New York Times.

“While our daughter will continue to remain anonymous for now,” the mother of Student A wrote in a statement to the ACLU of Illinois, said, ”She is well-represented by the thousands of transgender youth who are fighting for the right to live their true authentic selves.

Discrimination should never be the official policy of a school – but too often, we’re seeing school districts prioritize discrimination of transgender students, even at the cost of distracting these young people from their education. That must end.

Through the work of students across the country – and the thousands and thousands of Americans who support these students’ right to privacy, dignity, and respect we’re making tremendous progress each and every day.

Let’s continue working to increase understanding of transgender people so that the Class of 2018 – and the many classes that come after – are faced with less and less discrimination each year until no one treats them differently at all just because of who they are.

CONVERSATIONS