Editor’s note: U.S. District Judge Taylor McNeel did not use gender-specific pronouns in an oral opinion stated in court Friday in the case of transgender teen L.B. v. Harrison County School District. A story published at sunherald.com contained incorrect information and has been updated.
A federal judge’s 11th-hour decision that barred a transgender teenager from wearing a dress to her high school graduation in Mississippi is reverberating nationwide as lawmakers in many states pass anti-trans legislation.
The Harrison County School District, based in Gulfport, allowed a student referred to as L.B. to dress as a girl for four years. The teen, who uses she/her pronouns, even wore gowns and heels to prom and spent a good amount of time planning her graduation outfit with her mother.
School Superintendent Mitchell King, however, insisted that L.B. dress as a boy for graduation because the school district honors sex assigned at birth, or the sex listed on a student’s birth certificate. L.B. has identified as female for at least the four years she has attended Harrison Central High School, according to her lawsuit.
With graduation set for May 20, King’s stance prompted L.B. and her family’s lawsuit against the Harrison County School District. The judge’s decision, handed down just before midnight on May 19, made national headlines.
L.B.’s lawyers cried after U.S. District Judge Taylor McNeel sided with the School District. McNeel ruled that the School District’s dress code for graduation did not violate L.B.’s First Amendment rights to freedom of expression, or her constitutional and legal right to equal protection.
L.B.’s attorneys at the American Civil Liberties Union are conferring with L.B. and her parents about their legal options, said Linda Morris, a staff attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project who is working on the case.
“The law is clear,” Morris said. “You can’t treat someone differently because of gender.”
The school district’s attorney, Wynn Clark, declined to comment Monday.
After the ruling, King said, “We followed the graduation policy of the Harrison County School District.”
McNeel’s decision comes at a time when many state legislators, including Mississippi’s, are passing anti-transgender bills, with civil-rights groups fighting back in the courts. In some past cases, courts have recognized that sex discrimination laws protect transgender people.
Transgender student misses graduation
McNeel spent more than an hour giving his oral opinion in a Mississippi Coast courtroom Friday night. The judge, who said he wanted to explain why “my hands are tied,” added that a federal court should not interfere with county school district policies.
He also said transgender law in the United States is in “the infant stages” and that he could find no case that would prevent a school district from having a dress code that differentiated between genders.
A written opinion from McNeel was not entered in the public court file available online.
L.B. missed her graduation on Saturday night. She did not want to wear pants and black dress shoes, as the district’s graduation dress code dictates for boys. She believed she was following the dress code by wearing a white dress and heels allowed for girls.
Her parents said in a legal filing that they had family traveling to town for the ceremony and for L.B. to miss graduation “would break her and her parents’ hearts.”
The same legal filing said King told the student’s mother in a phone call before graduation that L.B. “is still a boy” and that “he needs to wear pants, socks, and shoes like a boy.”
L.B. testified she wears dresses, makeup and women’s jewelry because that’s who she is. She said dressing as herself makes her feel “beautiful and strong.”
“I worked so hard to get to this moment,” she said, only to have her graduation walk stripped from her.
On Monday, L.B. was among over 100 transgender people of all ages who gathered in Washington, D.C., to participate in the first-ever Trans Youth Prom. L.B. spoke out at the event, as featured in a report by Good Morning America.
“Today, we are here, united, doing what’s right, and stronger than ever before,” she told the crowd. “Together, one by one, state by state, vote by vote, we can construct a better world. Transgender youth have always been here, and rest assured we are here to stay.”
Discrimination laws applied to transgender people
A Tennessee attorney who represents transgender clients said they had won protections from the courts. However, those cases have generally been in the realm of employment discrimination.
“Someone’s gender identity and someone’s perceived gender identity has been an area that the courts have protected for decades,” said Nashville attorney Tricia Herzfeld, who is working with attorneys from the Human Rights Campaign Fund to challenge a Tennessee school district’s policy that denies students use of bathrooms that match their gender identity.
The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that discrimination against a transgender employee is a form of sex discrimination prohibited under employment laws.
In a case that also involved equal protection rights for students, as does L.B.’s case, a federal appeals court ruled that a Gloucester County, Virginia, School Board discriminated against a transgender male student by denying him use of the boy’s bathroom.
The Supreme Court in 2021 denied the school board’s request for appeal.
The Itawamba County School District in Mississippi agreed to pay Constance McMillen $35,000, plus attorney’s fees and expenses, after she filed a discrimination lawsuit in 2010. McMillen sued the district after prom was canceled because she planned to wear a tuxedo and attend with her girlfriend.
The district also agreed to create an anti-discrimination policy based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
But transgender rights have recently come under attack in state legislators, where the ACLU tracked 490 anti-LGBTQ bills in 2023.
“I think the political climate has encouraged a lot of backlash against the transgender community,” Herzfeld told the Sun Herald. “When that happens, you’re going to see more lawsuits to protect their rights. I think you’re going to see more cases in this space in the coming years.”