Transgender student wins $75k in school bathroom discrimination suit

Transgender student wins $75k in school bathroom discrimination suit
In a first-of-its-kind ruling, a Maine court awarded the family of a transgender girl a $75,000 lawsuit settlement from the school district that had forced her to use a staff bathroom, instead of allowing her to use the same girls’ room as other students.

The Penobscot County Superior Court order, dated November 25, represents the conclusion of the court case that began in 2009 when the family of Nicole Maines ‒ then in fifth grade ‒ and the Maine Human Rights Commission sued the Orono School District. The order prohibits the district from "refusing access by transgender students to school restrooms that are consistent with their gender identity," the Associated Press reported. It specifies that the school district must pay $75,000 to the Boston-based Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) and Berman Simmons, a Portland law firm that also represented Maines, to cover legal expenses, related costs and a financial award.

Nicole was using the girls' bathroom in her elementary school until the grandfather of a fifth-grade boy complained to administrators, with the Christian Civic League of Maine backing him. The superintendent of schools then decided Nicole should use a staff bathroom, but her parents sued, saying that the requirement singled her out and amounted to discrimination.

In January, Maine's highest court ruled that school officials violated the Maine Human Rights Act, which bans discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, overturning the lower court's ruling that the district acted within its discretion. The case was remanded back to the superior court “for further proceedings consistent with the proceedings,” the ruling stated.

“This was really just a technical conclusion of the case,” GLAD spokeswoman Carisa Cunningham said Monday. “A significant portion of the monetary award will go to the Maines family.”

She declined to say exactly how much the organization would retain and how much would go to the family.

“I’m just glad it’s over,” Nicole Maines’ father, Wayne Maines, said late Monday afternoon of the more than seven-year legal battle. “We just want to move on. We just want to be normal.”

The lawsuit was the first in the country to challenge a transgender student’s access to the bathroom of the gender with which the child identified, according to Cunningham.

“We’re grateful that it was resolved favorably, not only for Nicole and her family but for all transgender students who are just seeking to get an education like every other student,” she said.

Nicole was born as Wyatt Maines, but at age 2 began identifying as female; an identical twin brother Jonas was “all boy,” the Boston Globe wrote in a 2011 feature on the pair.

Once, when Wyatt appeared in a sequin shirt and his mother’s heels, his father said: “You don’t want to wear that.’’

“Yes, I do,’’ Wyatt replied.

“Dad, you might as well face it," Mr. Maines recalled Jonas saying. “You have a son and a daughter.’’

When Wyatt was 4, he asked his mother: “When do I get to be a girl?’’ He told his father that he hated his penis and asked when he could be rid of it.

In fourth grade, Wyatt began growing his hair out and chose the name Nicole. Many classmates called him “NIkki.” The next year, the family went to court and had the name legally changed to Nicole, who had received a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, “the medical term for psychological distress resulting from having a gender identity different from the sex that one was assigned at birth,” the Maine Supreme Court ruling said.

By fifth grade, “he” was all “she.” She began using the girls’ bathroom at school. She said her classmates had no problem with the change; she was even invited to sleepovers. “They said, ‘It was about time!’ ’’ Nicole later recalled.

But one day a boy called her a “faggot.’’ On two separate occasions, he followed her into the girls’ bathroom, claiming that he too was entitled to use it. According to the state’s high court ruling, the boy was acting on instructions from his grandfather, who is his legal guardian and was strongly opposed to Nicole’s use of the girls’ bathroom.

“It was like a switch had been turned on, saying it is now OK to question Nicole’s choice to be transgender and it was OK to pursue behavior that was not OK before,’’ Wayne said in the 2011 feature. “Every day she was reminded that she was different, and the other kids picked up on it.’’

Nicole was assigned an adult to watch her at all times between classes, to protect her from bullying. At that point, Wayne and his wife Kelly Maines filed a complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission, which found that the student had been discriminated against when the school barred her from using the girls’ bathroom. The commission, along with the family, filed suit against the school district.

“I have always known I was a girl,’’ Nicole told the Globe when she was 14. “I think what I’m aiming for is to undergo surgery to get a physical female body that matches up to my image of myself.’’

The twins are now high school seniors and are visiting colleges, Mr. Maines said, according to the Bangor Daily News. He added that his daughter’s gender identity has not come up during any of the campus tours.

This case has raised the visibility of the issue of transgender students in schools and “the good ways that schools can address these issues and the bad ways that schools can address these issues,” Cunningham said Monday. “We hope this will be a legal building block on how to address these issues.”