Gavin Grimm Visit: Student-Run Success


From left to right: Kameron Clarke, Gavin Grimm, Oliver DiCaprio, Lauren Dessaure.

The previous Gavin Grimm story on The Wire:

19-year-old civil rights leader Gavin Grimm came to West Potomac on Friday, December 8th, to talk to students about his famous court case. With parental permission, juniors and seniors could opt in to hear Grimm speak about his experience as a transgender boy attempting to use the bathroom of his choice in his public school in Gloucester County, VA.

“He came in and first just told us the basic facts of his case: what it was, how it happened, like how at first everyone was fine with it, but then the school board brought up that they weren’t okay with it,” senior Jena Elshami said.

Grimm used the boys’ bathroom for seven weeks without incident until word traveled and the parents of the community were uncomfortable with the situation. The school organized a meeting to discuss Grimm, and Grimm went to self-advocate. When the decision was made that Grimm could either use the girls’ bathroom or the few one-stall bathrooms around the school, he and his family, with the support of the American Civil Liberties Union, sued the Gloucester County School Board.

“He just went through the judicial process: how it got to the Supreme Court, but the Obama Administration left and the Trump administration came in, and Title 9 switched to not protect transgender people under the anti-discrimination law, and how that got it pushed out of the Supreme Court and back down to the district court,” Elshami said. “He has to go through it again.”

Grimm’s talk tied in with the curriculum of government classes: the judicial process demonstrated by Grimm’s case is what many seniors are studying at the moment.

“It went with the curriculum,” Elshami said. “How the judicial process works, how long it actually takes–it started in 2012, which I think is crazy.”

After Grimm informed the audience on his background and the details of his case, the students of Combating Intolerance (CI) collected slips of paper with students’ questions on them. The CI students orchestrated Grimm’s visit with the help of their teacher Rob Kerr and the Latin teacher Robert Rigby.

“We filtered a lot of the questions,” senior CI student Lauren Dessaure said. “We would collect them and read over them so they weren’t just asking any question. Some of them were a little too personal so we didn’t ask those.”

Dessaure acknowledged that the questions were coming from a good, supportive place, but were too personal to be answered in such an environment. Elshami also felt that the attending students had a supportive attitude.

“Since it was opt-in, i feel like everyone in the room wanted to be there,” she said. “There were probably a few people who just wanted to get out of class, but I feel like the rest genuinely wanted to be there. [The questions] were all super nice… they were all very invested.”

The CI class faced opposition from the county administration when proposing the plan for Grimm to speak, so when he was finally able to come, these students felt particularly excited. Dessaure first saw Grimm as she was heading to Springbank to prepare for the first assembly.

“I was like ‘Oh my God, that’s him,’” she said. “It was just surreal because it was him, just walking. It was just crazy.”

Dessaure remembers when she first learned about Grimm in CI.

“[Mr. Kerr] was showing us the background and a piece of his documentary, because he’s in two documentaries now, and we were just like, ‘How can we get him to come to our school? We need to make this happen,’” she said.

Another senior CI student, Oliver DiCaprio, knew a little more about Grimm from the beginning.

“I heard about Gavin a while back, and saw some photos of him, and it’s just really weird seeing him in person because he’s just a teenager,” he said. “He’s just a couple years older than me, and that’s pretty wild.”

At first, DiCaprio doubted the practicality of the visit.

“When I first heard about the idea of getting Gavin to come here, I was like, ‘Isn’t he a big deal? I don’t think there’s any way we could get him to come,’” he said. “Now that it actually happened, it’s just really cool.”

Grimm will go anywhere to share his story.

“My mission is to spread my story and my message as far and wide as I possibly can, especially to youth audiences,” he said in a private interview with The Wire and the CI class. “I think it’s nice for trans youth to hear affirming narratives, and hopeful narratives, and narratives that might help them understand their peers a little better.”

Gavin views much of the media and stories surrounding transgender people and rights as discouraging.

“There’s so little representation and so much of it is negative or tales of grief and terror,” he said. “Not that these aren’t realistic trans experiences, but it’s just so much better as a young trans teen just stepping into their transition to hear positive examples of the trans experience.”

While Grimm primarily came to tell West Potomac about his experiences, he was also persuaded by his friend, Rigby.

“Robert reached out to me online when everything first started and was a wonderful online pal, advocate, and supporter,” Grimm said.

When Mr. Rigby heard about Grimm, he emailed him to offer the support of Fairfax County, and asked if he could get to know him. They met in person at the Arlington Gay and Lesbian Association dinner and, together, received an Equality Virginia award. The help of teachers was crucial in this process.

“Shoutout to Mr. Kerr because he really made this happen,” Dessaure said. “He just kept pushing and brought up a lot of good points. Ms. Millard came into our class a couple times and we strategized about different routes we could take to make the school board understand that this is a civil rights issue and not just a trans issue.”

As she relaxed after two sessions of Grimm’s talk, Dessaure revelled in the triumph.

“Today is just awesome because we actually pulled it off,” she said. “We’ve been planning this for the past two months. We’ve spent whole class periods just talking about the huge hiccups that we’ve had, with higher-ups not wanting this to happen, and it’s just awesome that it actually got to happen here.”

The success of the day rose above DiCaprio’s expectations.

“It’s crazy that there was so much stuff going on behind the scenes, but on the final day everything went really well,” he said. “I’m just really happy because part of me was expecting 20 people at the most to show up and no one to be interested enough to ask questions, but there were about 100 people and people were asking really interesting questions and paying attention.”

These students thought West Potomac might have been a good audience because it’s an accepting and tolerant school.

“At least here, people are already pretty accepting,” DiCaprio said. “People in this area are overall pretty respectful.”

Grimm got this impression after just a few hours.

“The people I’ve interacted with here have been very intelligent, very forward-thinking, very friendly and open, so I get a very relaxed, friendly, community vibe in this place,” he said. “In general, this school feels a lot less suffocating than the environment I was in.”

Even though Grimm’s school wasn’t as progressive as West Potomac, Elshami remembers him saying that the big problem was the parents.

“He said how before the school board brought up the issue, there wasn’t much anger or hate or discrimination towards him in the school,” she said. “But the after the school board meeting became publicized, he began to see more resentment.”

Despite this resentment, Grimm and the ACLU pushed his case to the Supreme Court, but it wasn’t able to be heard. Grimm intends to go to college in the fall, but his priority is finishing the case and pushing through to win.

“I love what he’s doing,” Dessaure said. “I envy his bravery and how he’s done all of this and he’s our age. He still had the courage to do all of it after all the backlash he’s faced, and how he still graduated, and all of this… it’s just awesome.”

DiCaprio especially connected with Grimm and his message.

“I was honestly really impressed with how he’s a really good public speaker,” he said. “I do some similar stuff sometimes, not on this level of course, but speaking in public, and I’m really impressed with how clearly he conveys things. I’m also a trans guy, so I relate to him on that level.”

Elshami was left feeling emotional after the assembly.

“I was happy but I was also really sad just that he has to go through this process and it can’t be cut and dry, like ‘yes it’s okay,’ and that there’s so much opposition,” she said.

Grimm has a message for those who oppose transgender rights.

“Me living as I am meant to live is not in any way, shape, or form harming or affecting you whatsoever at all,” he said. “So just let people be happy and get over yourself.”

So what can West Potomac gain from this experience?

“I think tolerance in general, we’re a pretty tolerant school, but having someone speak about the issues that we don’t see is cool,” Elshami said.

Elshami recognized the monumental nature of the visit, and thought West Potomac and its students could simply gain fame.

“Hopefully in the future it’ll be this momentous, historic court case, and we can be like ‘oh, we got to see him!’” she laughed. “I think if we had more speakers like that, it would be beneficial to everyone just because of the opportunities and the things we learn.”

Dessaure had simple instructions.

“Respect everyone for who they are,” she said. “You never know what someone’s going through, and even if you don’t understand their situation you should still try to understand it. Be kind.”

Grimm acknowledges that every trans experience is different and no advice will help everyone, but he preaches safety.

“The most broad advice I can give is to find community and safe places that you’re able to be yourself wherever you can, be that in a friend group at school or in a GSA or online,” he said. “Just try to find it where you can find it so you can be happy and healthy.”

DiCaprio knows how to help make transgender people feel comfortable.

“When you’re talking to a trans person, respect their space and identity and don’t ask them super personal questions, but it might be a good idea to ask for pronouns and make sure you know what they’re comfortable with being called,” he said. “That can really help.”

Elshami thinks ignorance is at the root of hatred.

“I definitely think that educating people is first and foremost, and having them meet a transgender person… I feel like everybody’s so distant that actually meeting someone helps humanize the subject,” she said. “I don’t see how you could hate someone who hasn’t done anything to you.”

No matter what it is, Dessaure doesn’t want to stop the dialogue.

“With anything civil-rights based, or talking about injustices at all, the more that people talk about it, it’ll become widely known,” she said. “Just don’t stop talking about it and keep it alive.”