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

The rights of a transgender girl from Orono were violated when school administrators made her use a staff bathroom at her elementary school instead of the girls’ restroom, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled Thursday.

click image to enlarge

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 ruling is the first in which a state supreme court has affirmed a transgender person’s right to equal access to restrooms in places of public accommodation.

Lawyers representing Nicole Maines, who is now 16, said the decision could lay a foundation for other states’ courts that are facing questions about the emerging rights of people who identify as the opposite of their birth gender.

“I’m extremely proud of our state and our leaders, of what they did,” said Wayne Maines. His daughter was attending the Asa Adams School in Orono in 2007 when the guardian of another student objected to her use of a communal girls’ bathroom. Administrators intervened, telling Nicole to use a separate, unisex faculty bathroom.

In brief, emotional remarks Thursday, Wayne Maines spoke of the importance of educating the public about transgender issues, and said the legal process worked for his daughter.

“It sends the message that you can believe in the system,” he said.

The court’s 5-1 ruling is the first interpretation of a 2005 amendment to the Maine Human Rights Act that added language protecting transgender people in schools.

“Decisions about how to address students’ legitimate gender identity issues are not to be taken lightly,” the court wrote in its majority opinion. “Where, as here, 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, denying access to the appropriate bathroom constitutes sexual orientation discrimination.”

The decision overturns a lower court’s ruling that sided with the school district. Arguing before the supreme court, attorneys for the district said a 1983 law requiring schools to offer sanitary bathrooms segregated by sex created a pre-emptive exception to the Maine Human Rights Act.

But in its ruling, the court said it would be illogical to interpret a statute designed to require clean toilets as inconsistent with a law passed 22 years later, meant to ensure equal access to public facilities regardless of sexual orientation or gender identification, among other protected classes.

The two portions of the law may co-exist, the court wrote, without the purpose of either provision trampling the purpose of the other.

SCHOOL HAD PLANNED FOR GENDER ISSUES

Although the case stems from an incident that occurred when she was in fourth grade, Nicole Maines – born Wyatt Maines – had identified as a girl since as early as age 2.

School officials became aware of her gender identification when she was in the third grade, when students and teachers began referring to Nicole as “she.”

Nicole was using the girls’ bathroom, which in the lower grades accommodated only one person at a time. By the fourth grade, Nicole was dressing and appearing exclusively as a girl, the court wrote.

In 2007, when Nicole was in the fourth grade, her family and school counselors, teachers, doctors and others formed a plan for how her gender status would be handled in future grades. Teachers and students were encouraged to stop using the name Wyatt and call her Nicole.

She was later diagnosed with gender dysphoria, a recently formed medical diagnosis that describes the psychological distress experienced by people whose gender identification is contrary to the gender they had at birth.

Nicole has undergone extensive treatment to address the psychological and medical effects. The groundbreaking regimen includes hormone therapy to stop puberty before it begins, making gender reassignment surgery easier in the future.

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