Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Most Important Thing

Kelly, Nicole, Jonas and Wayne Maines, with GLAD attorneys Jennifer Levi and
Ben Klein, outside the Maine Law Court after oral argument June 12, 2013
“I hope [the justices] understand how important it is for students to be able to go to school and get an education, have fun, make friends and not have to worry about being bullied by students or the administration and to be accepted for who they are. That’s the most important thing.” - Nicole Maines
Not long into yesterday’s Maine Supreme Court arguments in our case Doe v. Clenchy, our client Nicole Maines leaned in a little closer to her mother, bringing her head to rest on Kelly Maines’ shoulder. 

It’s good to have a supportive and loving parent around when things get tough, and listening to a cadre of lawyers and judges debating the difficult, discriminatory experiences of your life and your rights as a transgender girl can make for a tough day for a 15-year-old. Her dad Wayne and her twin brother Jonas were also by her side at the arguments.

The family has stuck together and supported each other through the stress of more than four years of legal proceedings and media attention related to the discrimination Nicole experienced as a 5th grader at her Orono middle school, where administrators rescinded her access to the girls’ restroom after a male classmate followed her into the facility to make trouble. Nicole was forced to use a staff bathroom and separated from the other girls, in violation of Maine’s trans-inclusive non-discrimination law. The reversal forced Wayne and Kelly to withdraw their children from the Orono school system and move to another part of the state so they could attend school quietly and safely.
As Jennifer Levi, the director of our Transgender Rights Project who argued on Nicole’s behalf yesterday, explained in her opening remarks, “it’s undisputed that [Nicole] was a typical girl at the school, that the school agreed that her essential educational needs required her access to the girls’ restroom, that she did have such access throughout the third and fourth grades and beginning in the 5th grade year and that the school changed course only after another student misbehaved.” 

The justices asked plenty of questions, most of them demonstrating a solid understanding of what it means to be transgender while also making it clear that they are wrestling with how to apply the law. Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley, for instance, noted that the school was working in “unchartered territory” in trying to address Nicole’s needs as a transgender student. But in questioning counsel for the other side about how the school handled Nicole’s situation she also noted, “this wasn’t a sexual identity presented on whim. Everyone in this case understands [Nicole] to be a girl. The school treated her as a girl, her parents treated her as a girl; for all intents and purposes she is a female. Under those circumstances, isn’t her sex recognizable as female for purposes of bathroom assignment?”

As an LGBT advocate, that understanding of the reality of Nicole’s life was heartening to hear in a courtroom.  Clearly, this case, on which Jennifer and fellow GLAD attorney Ben Klein have worked so diligently for so long, has done much to educate the court and the public about why transgender people like Nicole need and deserve the full protection of the law.

Of course, we could not have done this work without the courage and grace of Nicole and her family and their willingness to share their story, despite stressful circumstances.

When the arguments ended, a handful of reporters stood outside the courthouse in a drizzling rain, waiting for Nicole and her family to make a statement and answer a few questions. As Nicole approached the door to go outside and meet them, she suddenly stopped, feeling overwhelmed with an attack of nerves. I told her she absolutely didn’t need to speak if she didn’t feel up to it. She responded that she just needed a moment, and shivered a little, then took a deep breath. Then the girl who earlier had sought the comfort of her mother’s shoulder spoke eloquently and simply about what it meant to have her day in court.

“I wouldn’t wish my experience on another trans person,” she said, with her father by her side. “I am happy the court was able to hear my case today.”

“I hope they understand how important it is for students to be able to go to school and get an education, have fun, make friends and not have to worry about being bullied by students or the administration and to be accepted for who they are,” Nicole added. “That’s the most important thing.”

Now, once again, we wait. The Maine Supreme Court does not have a timeline within which it issues decisions. We’ll let you know when the justices issue their ruling.

Read some great coverage of the arguments from the Bangor Daily News and the Associated Press.


Jeff Archambo said...

I'am sorry if I sound less than compassionate here, By are you kidding me? 5'th graders and transgender issues? As a 52 year old Gay man it has taken me the better part 40 years to figure out my comfort level with society and that changes daily with as social issues have matured and changed as well, However why the hell are we putting the pressures of Transgender issues on children and expecting other children to accept what most adults spend a Lifetime trying to deal with. Both straight and Gay? Is there no time to just be a kid anymore? I blame the parents in these cases. It's tough enough as you become an adolescent dealing with sexuality but give me a break 4'th and 5'th graders? I am sorry but this is WAY to early for a child to be looking to come out!

GLAD said...

Thanks for your comment Jeff. As you know, coming out as LGBT -- no matter our age -- is a very personal decision. And thanks to the many social, cultural and legal advances the LGBT movement has made over the past several decades, young people are coming out at younger ages because it is safer to do so and there are more educational and support resources available to them and their families. More and more, children and young people are coming out with the support of their families, their communities, and their medical care providers. We think this is a positive development that actually does allow kids to just be kids – but healthy, happy kids, rather than kids who are struggling to be something they’re not. I strongly encourage you to read this story that the Boston Globe did on our client Nicole: What it shows is that coming out, even for a kid, is a complicated process that her parents didn’t take lightly, nor did they push her into it. I think their story is typical of many families with LGBT children and it has done a lot to educate people who share your concerns. We’re happy to share other resources with you if you’d like to know more.

Anonymous said...

I think children should be allowed to express their gender identity as soon as they are aware of it, and not forced or even encouraged to spend their childhoods feeling as though they are living a lie. Ten years seems like an eternity to a child. I hope some day children will be considered gender-identity- and sexual-orientation-neutral until they express themselves, and won't even have to go through a coming out.

Schools should make students aware as a matter of course that if they are uncomfortable or confused about something at school, including the way another child appears, they may talk about it with an adult at school. Any student who bullies another student should be handled as would any bully. A school that forces a victim of bullying to make a personal, public accommodation is enabling and participating in bullying.