“Because We Can”: How Society Justifies Transgender Discrimination

I recently read about Alissah Brooks, a transgender woman from Atlanta, Georgia, and her recent run-in with a bouncer who denied her entry to a club on the basis of her gender identity. For those who haven’t yet read this story, after attending a GLAAD event in Atlanta, Brooks and a few friends stopped at Don Pollo Bar & Grill. Brooks was denied entry to the bar after a bouncer asked to see her ID. Her friends then explained Brooks’ transgender status to an employee of the club, saying they believed Brooks was denied entry on account of her status as a trans woman. The employee’s response?  “What’s wrong with that? We can do that — we have the right to be selective. We can do that. We’re a private property.”

Actually, they can’t. This would appear to violate a city ordinance put in place to protect LGBT individuals.

I wish I could say this was the first time something like this has happened to a transgender woman, but that would be a lie. In fact, it was only a few months ago that one of my friends and I were denied entry to a bar in Chicago. On July 19th, after going to a concert on Chicago’s north side, my friend and I decided to end the night by stopping at a bar for a drink. As most bars were jam-packed, we kept walking until we found one with a little more breathing room. That’s when we stumbled upon Big City Tap, a bar that lives up to its nickname of “Big Shitty Tap.”

We approached the door. The bouncer eyed us suspiciously. He held up his hand as if to say, “IDs, please,” and we went ahead, giving him our drivers licenses. He looks at mine, then up at my face; back down at the card, up at my face. He hands me my license, waving me into the nearly-empty bar. My friend, wearing a cute dress that went down to her knees, covered her shoulders, and showed minimal cleavage, handed her license to the bouncer. Immediately, he calls for me to come back out of the bar. I heard the tail end of the conversation between my friend and the bouncer. “Wait, what?” she asked, confused by the situation. “Dress code. That’s all I’m saying,” he replied, waving us away.

We walked away from the bar, not necessarily in the mood to get into an argument over the right to purchase an overpriced beer and sit in a bar blasting shitty music. Still, though, it stung. I felt like a freak; I felt subhuman. There was no way to interpret “dress code” as anything other than another way of saying, “stay out, tr*nnies.” After all, it wasn’t until the bouncer saw that my friend’s drivers license didn’t match his own initial read of her gender that he shooed us away. Had this legitimately been about some sort of dress code, why did he look at the license in the first place? The people who were in the bar? Girls in low-cut shirts that bared their midriffs, guys in t-shirts and jeans, a man in cargo shorts with flip flops, a girl in a short skirt who wasn’t wearing shoes at this point in the evening. Clearly, there was no dress code in place.

We made our way to a different bar, had a drink, and called it a night. Still, I couldn’t stop thinking about what happened at Big City Tap. It seemed as though, from an attire-based point of view, anyone could enter the bar so long as the sex listed on their drivers license matched their outward gender presentation.

In what other circumstance would it be okay to discriminate against someone like this? To deny someone access to public accommodations? “No blacks allowed.” “Men only.” “Must have blue eyes and blond hair to enter.” “Must be taller than 6’ to drink here.” “No disabled welcome.” In each of these situations, there’d be a thunderous outcry against the business. This isn’t to say that there aren’t places that do discriminate against people on the basis of race, sex, appearance, and so on; but rather that it’s seen as less culturally acceptable. For transgender people, this kind of treatment is almost expected.

One of my greatest fears is that I’ll find myself in the hospital for some reason, and just left to die. Or that I’ll be in a car crash and upon realizing I’m transgender, being left on the side of the road by paramedics. You might think I’m being paranoid, but these fears are more rational than one would think.

In 2010, Erin Vaught, a transgender woman, checked into a Muncie, Indiana Emergency Room after she started coughing up blood. In spite of her ID, which listed her as female, she was entered into the hospital system as a male (this part has actually already happened to me). She was then sent to an exam room where she was referred to as a “he-she,” “transvestite,” and an “it” by hospital staff. There she waited for two hours without treatment until a doctor showed up, only to tell her that they would not be treating her on account of her “condition.” She was then sent home.

To be clear, by “condition,” these doctors were not referring to whatever it was that led to her coughing up blood. Rather, they were stating that they would not treat her on account of her transgender status. Even though the two issues were entirely separate, the doctor refused her service on account of her gender identity.

Along with examples of discrimination against transgender people in employment, housing, and public accommodations, it’s become the norm to expect the worst and hope for the best. It’s not right, though. It’s not right at all. We shouldn’t have to.

This is why I cringe anytime I hear someone say that adding legal protections for transgender individuals is giving us a “special right” or a “special treatment.” There’s nothing special about wanting to be treated with dignity and respect, whether it’s stopping at a bar for a drink or seeking medical treatment.

So, before anyone jumps in and says “why don’t you just go to a different bar?” I want to make one thing clear: this isn’t about the bar. This isn’t about a single event. This is about the world piling on us until we can’t take it anymore.

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8 comments

  1. jodi

    To be fair very few people who are not in the trans community are even aware that transvestite is now considered a derogatory term.

  2. Anonymous

    Keep pushing back whenever and wherever you can. It’s the call of the oppressed and the marginalized. Things will change. Just keep faith and keep pressing…

  3. “why don’t you just go to a different bar?”
    Would this be an acceptable solution had you been denied entry because of race, religion, political party? Yes, some of those are protected, some are not, but every one of them would raise such a ruckus the business would have to apologize.

  4. Good post and good blog. Filing a complaint is a good idea if you are up to it.
    –Leo

  5. But what you get with anti-discrimination laws is places that are FORCED to accept everyone … even if they dont want to … which will lead to shitty service or hostile environments once inside. Its best to just boycott the places and make it public how shitty they are… If I owned a club, I would like to be able to deny entry to anyone I wanted, What happens if a group of people where wanting to come in that were a bunch of neo-nazis … pretty sure I want to be able to deny them entry… so on and so forth… I like the idea of private property rights and being able to curtail my business to whomever I see fit openly… when you force people to appear good it isnt making them good … it does however make them spiteful.

    on the medical thing … thats a completely different story … these people take oaths and commitments to heal people and need to be held to those standards at all costs…

  6. Babalola

    I will admit, I’ve not heard of Against Me! Though because I’ve never heard of the band, I have no idea how bad it is that I haven’t heard of the band. But very happy for Ms. Grace. I cergnid at a couple of sentences in the article ( plans to begin living as a woman, etc.), but overall I thought it was pretty respectful. Was also glad to see President Obama jump on the bandwagon. First sitting President to openly support same-sex marriage, right? Quite a historic moment. Will be interesting to see what comes of that. I don’t even want to think about North Carolina right now, though. And I think Colorado tabled a bill that would have granted civil unions. Doesn’t near the travesty of the NC amendment, but still sad.

  7. Anuradha

    I come across more and more trans folks who csnoider their gender journeys as profoundly spiritual. Some explore that spirituality on their own, some do in communities of faith, and many a combination of the two. I’m a transman and Episcopal priest and agree with Trish that the Episcopal Church is/seeks to be increasingly welcoming to LGBTQ folks, though it is by no means perfect. See some of the summer 09 posts at blog.transepiscopal.com for reports of our work at the chuch’s General Convention this summer, which passed several trans positive resolutions.My heart goes out to folks who are struggling with being trans and Roman Catholic– it’s a very tough row to hoe. And Joanne, thanks for that incredibly helpful summary of where things officially stand on the trans front in the RC church.

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