Gavin Grimm on Becoming a Trans Activist: 'It Was a Little Scary at First'

Teenager has taken on the mission to advocate for trans people's right to exist in public spaces

Gavin Grimm is now focused on not just trans rights, but pushing people from becoming politically apathetic in general. Credit: Sacha Lecca for Rolling Stone

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For many 18-year-olds, a trip to New York City would be a nerve-wrecking event, but Gavin Grimm seems to take it in stride. "I've been like a million times at this point," he says from the back of the car driving him into Manhattan, rushing to get him to the many events he's here to participate in: Pride and the Logo Awards and the Village Voice awards and the Harvey Milk School Graduation. A million might be an exaggeration, he admits, but it's a lot. "It was five, six, seven times last time we thought about it, which was back in December. Anyway…"

Grimm never set out to be a transgender activist, but he's growing into it well, anyway. At 15, not too long after Grimm changed his name to Gavin and began taking testosterone therapy, he decided to use the boy's bathroom at school in Virginia. He'd been using men's rooms for a few months – at restaurant and stores, as he told the Washington Post – and he'd even gotten permission from his principal to be there. But the conservative community reacted with an anger and bile that Grimm wasn't expecting. 

With the help of the ACLU, he filed a federal civil rights lawsuit – and suddenly he was in the spotlight. Though they lost the initial case, they appealed to the fourth-circuit Court of Appeals, and were slated to take their case to the Supreme Court. After the Trump Administration rolled back federal protections for transgender students, the Supreme Court refused to hear it, and it was kicked back down to a lower court. But even though he might not be visiting Washington, D.C. in that capacity very soon, he's coming into his own as an advocate.

Going from a normal kid to a national figure, however, has not been easy. "It was a little scary at first," says Grimm. "I felt very much under a microscope, like a log of my privacy has been gone." He worried, too, about his safety as a public trans figure. "There's crazy, hateful people out there, and being physically trans is dangerous sometimes – a lot of the time, in fact," he says. "I had my various concerns. Thankfully nothing has ever happened."

With the exposure came introductions to other leading activists – which brought both comfort and guidance. "One of the people I met who really sticks out in my mind is Laverne Cox," he says. "She was so articulate and so kind, and she definitely broadened the way I talked about things. One of the things she said that's been very influential to me is her statement about how it's not about bathrooms, it's about the trans people's right to exist in public spaces. I think that's something that needs to be reiterated, for sure."

Grimm is now focused on not just trans rights, but pushing people from becoming politically apathetic in general. "I think people need to get more involved and more politically aware," he says. "Understand issues on a level that's not superficial. Form opinions based on research and not headlines – you know, get your hands in it a little bot more and do what you can to advocate or exercise your political rights."

Though Grimm was "disappointed and frustrated" by the Supreme Court's recent decision on his case – and believes the rise of Trump bas brought on a "dangerous and regressive" era for LGBT rights in a larger sense – he seems optimistic about the future for trans people in America. "On the one hand I shouldn't have to be talking about this. No one should have to be talking about this," he says of his case. "It wasn't very long ago that this case wouldn't have made it anywhere. But there's enough acceptance in the world now to where we can have a conversation about it and so I think that's a very positive thing no matter the outcome. So I think that's something that I need not discount."