Story highlights

A federal appeals court reverses a district court's decision to dismiss Gavin Grimm's Title IX claim

Grimm, a 16-year-old transgender student, said his school prevented him from using the boys' bathroom

The appellate court's decision sets a precedent for students who might challenge North Carolina's law

CNN  — 

A Virginia transgender teen won a battle against his school board for the right to use the boys’ bathroom, a potential game changer in the national debate over Title IX and gender identity.

A federal appeals court ruled in favor of 16-year-old Gavin Grimm, reversing a lower district court’s decision. Grimm claimed the Gloucester County School Board violated Title IX, a law banning sex discrimination in schools, when the board prevented him from using boys’ restrooms.

“The ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit marks the first time a federal appeals court has determined that Title IX protects the rights of transgender students to use sex-segregated facilities that are consistent with their gender identity,” the American Civil Liberties Union said.

Incidentally, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals also covers North Carolina. That means Grimm’s victory sets a precedent for students who might challenge North Carolina’s new law prohibiting transgender people from using public restrooms for the gender they identify with.

“This opinion is binding in all the states in the 4th Circuit,” constitutional lawyer Page Pate said. Those states include Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

While the country’s other federal appeals courts aren’t obligated to follow this court’s ruling, they’re supposed to consider it when deciding similar cases, said Pate, who was not directly involved in Grimm’s case.

North Carolina governor sued over transgender law

Student: Not an ‘alien’

Grimm, a junior at Gloucester High School, was diagnosed with gender dysphoria; he was biologically born a female but identifies as male.

The teen had hormone replacement therapy at the end of his freshman year but has not had sex reassignment surgery, court documents state.

In 2014, Gloucester school officials allowed Grimm to use the boys’ bathrooms for seven weeks. But after some parents complained, Gloucester County School Board prevented Grimm from continuing to use the boys’ restrooms.

Grimm told CNN he feels vindicated by the appellate court’s decision.

“I’m feeling pretty good about how everything’s happened,” he said Wednesday.

Grimm said qualms about transgender students using certain bathrooms come from misinformation and unfounded fears.

“We’re people. We’re not like this weird alien … we’re just sort of people that are trying to live their life and be themselves.”

The Gloucester County School Board has not returned CNN’s request for comment.

Ambiguous law

In its ruling, the appeals court didn’t explicitly say the school board violated Title IX.

That’s because the appellate court’s primary concern was how the district judge made his decision. According to the court, the district judge appeared to use his personal opinion, rather than relying on the federal government’s interpretation of Title IX, Pate said.

Much of the debate about Title IX and transgender students focuses on the fact that the law doesn’t explicitly mention biological sex vs. gender identity.

“There is ambiguity,” Pate said. “We look to the federal government’s interpretation of that law.”

In his written opinion on Grimm’s case, Judge Henry F. Floyd cited an interpretation by the Office for Civil Rights last year: “When a school elects to separate or treat students differently on the basis of sex … a school generally must treat transgender students consistent with their gender identity.”

So could Tuesday’s ruling pave the way for an amendment to include “gender identity” in Title IX?

“The 4th Circuit (Court) basically invited Congress to do that,” Pate said.

What happens next

Grimm’s case will go back down to the district court for reconsideration, Pate said. Two things could happen:

1) The judge could change his mind and say Grimm’s Title IX rights were violated and that the teen should be able to use the boys’ bathrooms.

2) The judge could maintain his original decision to dismiss the Title IX claim. But if that happens, Pate said, Grimm could take his case back up to the 4th Circuit appeals court – and would likely win, since the court has already ruled in his favor.

Most significantly, the appeals court ruling could set a precedent for other transgender students who believe their Title IX rights are violated.

“I think it’s huge, but I don’t think it’s a surprise,” Pate said of the decision. “I thought when I first read the North Carolina law … if they tried to enforce it, they’d have serious problems.”

CNN’s AnneClaire Stapleton contributed to this report.