The story I am about to share with you happened 20 years ago and looking back on it, I was wrong – handled it wrong. I was on the wrong side of history and honestly, I am embarrassed about it. Here’s what happened.
The company I worked for had an employee who was a cross-dresser – that’s the term we used back then to describe someone who dressed opposite of their forward presenting sex. Back then we weren’t educated enough to know the difference between a crossdresser, transgender, gay or transitioning. So, we had a crossdresser, he (I am using that pronoun today because that’s what we used then) would dress like a lady which made many people uncomfortable and some days he would dress like a man which made others uncomfortable – some even angry.
In addition to the physical presentation, sometimes he would use the women’s restroom and sometimes he would use the men’s restroom. Of course, we got complaints. The women felt unsafe and uneasy and the men felt unsafe, uneasy, and even threatened by him using the men’s restroom. It had to be addressed. So, after receiving so many complaints my manager asked me to come up with a solution. Thinking back on it I believe I was often asked to handle uncomfortable situations because I was/am a big black man and some people are intimidated by my own physical presentation.
So, I came up with a plan. I felt we needed to make him self-identify and then tell him that he could only use the bathroom that reflects that sexual identification. We had a small team of employees maybe 30-40 people, so I devised a plan to break the employees up into groups of 10 and have mandatory meetings. During the meetings, I would give them some generic information while also having every employee fill out a quick form, basically updating their own personal information: Name, Address, DOB, Sex, and Race. We told everyone that we needed this information for compliance purposes – but it was all a rouse.
Once all the meetings were completed, we immediately pulled his form and noted that he selected “male” as his sex. Shortly after that, I had a one-on-one meeting with him and ironically on this day he was wearing a woman’s dress and wig. I told him that we had been receiving complaints about him using the women’s restroom. (I don’t think I even mentioned the complaints from men). I reminded him that on the form he selected “male” and so from then on, he would have to use the men’s restroom only.
At the time, I was quite proud of myself – I remember thinking, “Gotcha!” and “Problem Solved”. He didn’t bat an eye – he didn’t say anything other than “Okay.”
I try hard not to look back on life with regret, but this is something that I regret…why? Because now I know better. But even back then I should have been more compassionate. Now, I understand more about the LGBTQ community. I now know that the “T” in LGBTQ can stand for transgender or transitioning and I know that is not the same thing. There are men who like to dress like women although they are not changing their gender identity. I know that there are men who dress as women because they ARE transitioning/changing their sexual identities. And the same goes for women.
I now know that this employee was probably still trying to figure out their sexual identity and possibly looking for acceptance and I failed to offer education to the other employees (including myself) or a safe place for him (I will now use them, they or their). I wonder what would have happened if I had had a more thoughtful conversation with them – what if I had tried to understand what they were dealing with?
Do you know some folks cross-dress at work because they can’t at home? Did you know if someone is having doubts or uncertainty about their sexual identity that they may actually not know which restroom to use? This person wasn’t using the women’s and men’s restroom to piss anyone off, maybe they were trying to use the restroom where they were accepted or the most comfortable within the office?
Today, I would handle it very differently. First, as the complaints came in, I would analyze them a lot harder, looking for red flags or anything that feels hateful, excessive, or intolerant. I would interview the folks who were complaining and try to get to the root cause of their fear. I would have meetings with management to try to gage and educate them on LGBTQIA and LGBTQQIAAP. I would argue that what we really needed were unisex bathrooms. I would tell that employee that I sympathize with them. I would like them to know I would do all I can to provide education and training to the other employees, but I would be honest and tell them that in the end we both may be overruled and pushed in one direction or another – but at least I would have done a much better job of trying to be an ally to and for them.