Q Virginia's Exclusive Interview with Gavin Grimm

One of TIME Magazine's 100 Most Influential People of 2017

by Justin Ayars, JD

On a balmy Veterans Day afternoon, I drove up to the Hyatt Regency Crystal City Hotel, valeted my car and walked into the lobby as strong gusts of wind blew my shiny gray suit jacket and bright yellow tie every which way. As I entered the lobby, I got ahold of my wayward tie, buttoned my suit jacket and was greeted by TJ Flavell. Standing alone smartly dressed amongst a sea of porters and people in t-shirts checking into their rooms, TJ greeted me with a smile and a warm handshake. He thanked me for coming to the historic occasion that was about to commence in the grand ballroom downstairs.

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Earlier that day, President Obama visited Arlington Cemetery to honor America’s veterans where he noted that our military is the “single-most diverse institution in our country -- soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and coastguardsmen who represent every corner of our country, every shade of humanity, immigrant and native-born, Christian, Muslim, Jew, and nonbeliever alike, all forged into common service.” Although only a stone’s throw from Arlington Cemetery, the occasion being marked that evening at the Hyatt Regency Crystal City Hotel was not related to one of our nation’s most sacred holidays; rather, it was the 35th Anniversary celebration of the Arlington Gay & Lesbian Alliance (AGLA) and the organization’s annual Equality Awards Dinner. TJ Flavell, the President of AGLA, invited me to attend the event on behalf of Unite Virginia, the event’s official media sponsor.

After TJ directed me downstairs, I reviewed my notes about this year’s Equality Award recipients and prepared to interview them as well as some of the event’s guest speakers. Normally, AGLA presents Equality Awards to an individual and an organization that have demonstrated a record of improving LGBTQ equality. This year, AGLA decided to add another Equality Award to honor a family. In addition to the Equality Awards, AGLA invited several special guest speakers to commemorate the organization’s 35th year of operations in northern Virginia, including Virginia Senator Adam Ebbin and Amanda Simpson, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (Operational Energy).

Before starting my interviews, I grabbed a drink and popped into the bathroom labeled “men” to make a pit stop and ensure that my hair was just right. As I silently bemoaned my appearance in the mirror under offensively bright fluorescent lighting, I heard the bathroom door open and saw a drag queen walk in. We smiled at each other, said hello, and I proceed to wash my hands. As I exited the bathroom, I noticed a trans man walking towards the door. I held the door open and he thanked me as he walked in. As I sauntered over to the “green room” where my interviewees were waiting, I smiled and thought to myself what a shame it is that the rest of the country can’t make the “bathroom issue” a nonissue.

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This year marked the first time AGLA gave out a Family Equality Award, which went to the Grimm family. Gavin Grimm, a transgender high school student in Virginia, and his family have been thrust into the national spotlight over the past two years ever since they became part of a legal battle that has put them in the center of a national debate about transgender rights.

During his sophomore year—after receiving hormone therapy treatments and using public bathrooms that corresponded to his gender identify for some time—Gavin began using the boys’ bathroom at Gloucester High School. The school’s principal had no problem with this and for several months Gavin went about his life as a normal high school student. However, in December of 2014, the county’s school board issued a policy that required students to use bathrooms that correspond to their biological sex and mandated that transgender students use a single-stall restroom. In 2015, Grimm sued the school board saying that the new policy was discriminatory and violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Title IX of the U.S. Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination by schools. Notably, the Departments of Education and Justice have held that sex discrimination includes discrimination based on gender identity. Although a U.S. District Court dismissed Grimm’s suit, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit sided with him this past April. Upset with the decision, the school board appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which just this fall agreed to hear the case in 2017. Now a senior, Gavin has become the face of a national conversation and legal battle about transgender rights.

With tears welling up in her eyes, Gavin’s mother, Deirdre, told me that she is very proud of her son. “I’m proud of everything that he’s accomplished. This isn't where we thought we'd be two years ago.” When asked about AGLA’s family Equality Award, Deirdre blushed. “I’m very honored because it seems like it's unnecessary. Gavin is an incredible kid and being his mom is an honor enough. I try to stay in the background. This stuff makes me very nervous.” At that moment, it was Gavin who was in the background, standing behind his mother, just as she had stood behind him during these trying years. Deirdre noted that the hardest part of her family’s incredible journey these past two years “has been watching some of the suffering he’s had to go through because we live in a small town and people aren't as open minded there. It’s hard to watch his whole high school experience be ruined.” She paused and turned to face Gavin. Returning her focus to me, her face beamed and she said, “He’s made the best out of a bad situation. That's how Gavin does things.” When I asked Deirdre what she wants for her son after he graduates from high school and their court battle comes to a close, she didn’t miss a beat. “I would like Gavin to be the President of the United States. I think he’d make a great one!” With that, Gavin gave me a noticeable eye-roll, shook his head as if saying “no way in hell will that happen,” hugged his mom, stepped forward and we began to chat.

interviewTaylor Pace