Landmark case could have far-reaching implications for transgender rights

Meggan Sommerville
Posted at 12:19 PM, Sep 09, 2021

CHICAGO — An 11-year fight to keep a trans woman from using a work bathroom came to an end in recent weeks. The court ultimately upheld a lower court ruling that Hobby Lobby must allow a woman who is transgender use the women's restroom.

The Illinois’ 2nd District Appellate Court could have far-reaching implications nationally. Lawsuits against bathroom bans are becoming the frontline for the fight for trans rights.

For Meggan Sommerville, being transgender and hiding her true self had become about life and death.

“I was kicked out of the house. I was homeless,” she said. “And when I was homeless, it really did come down one night to transition or die.”

But the day after she legally changed her name, Hobby Lobby--a company she worked at for more than 12 years--denied her access to the craft store’s women’s restroom.

“I didn't know what to do. I seriously just did not know what to do,” said Sommerville.

She filed a lawsuit after being written up several times for using the women’s bathroom.

After a decade-long legal battle, last month, Illinois’ 2nd District Appellate Court--comprised of a panel of three conservative judges--upheld a lower court decision that ruled Hobby Lobby violated state law in that denial.

“It's really one of the first cases in the country to address transgender rights in the way that the court did,” said attorney Jacob Meister, who represented Sommerville in the case.

The Illinois decision he contends has major implications, because it’s the first time discrimination has been recognized as part of gender identity separately from sex discrimination.

“It's really the first court in the country to have decided so decisively this issue. It's an issue that's been skirted by the U.S. Supreme Court,” said Meister.

While a 2020 Supreme Court ruling did establish that discrimination based on sex includes sexual orientation and gender identity, it did not tackle whether that included access to sex-segregated facilities.

Kara Ingelhart a staff attorney with Lambda Legal says the Sommerville ruling in state court does establish that.

“It affirms that decision and goes a step further to show that not only can she not be discriminated against on the basis of being hired or being retained in her position, but also for access to all the sex-specific spaces at work,” said Ingelhart.

A similar circumstance, this time a Title IX issue--which prohibits sex discrimination in education-- ended with a school board in Virginia agreeing to pay the ACLU $1.3 million in legal costs for representing Gavin Grimm, a transgender student who sued over the board’s transgender bathroom ban back in 2015.

“Gavin Grimm won his case both under Title IX protections for students for sex-based discrimination, for access to restroom facilities, but also under the equal protection clause,” said Ingelhart.

Inglehart says cases like these could set the stage for legal battles over transgender bans in locker rooms and sports.

Nine states, including Florida, Tennessee and Montana, currently have laws banning transgender youth from playing school sports.

“I think there's a lot more to come in these matters,” said Ingelhart

“We had state cases that ended up snowballing to the point where we had a decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, which has remained the law. I think transgender rights are moving in that same direction,” said Meister.

Sommerville calls her case a "hellish emotional rollercoaster" and one she would not wish on anyone. But the fight, she says, was worth it.

“What this will mean for the trans community nationwide and worldwide can't be put into words. We will see the ripple effect for years to come.”