Sign with a symbol of a woman, a man, and one person that is split.

First Person

“Civility” Does Not Lead to Equality

Discrimination is being kicked out of a restaurant for being transgender. Not for enabling policies that discriminate against being transgender.

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The word “civility” comes from the Latin civilis, meaning “relating to citizens.” Its early use, when it meant “politeness,” dates from the 16th century, and was focused not on getting along with others but to denote good citizenship, that quality of approaching matters of the public square in good faith. Disagreement is fine when all have fidelity to the law. But what happens when those in positions of authority usurp the law?

You might have heard a story recently about a press secretary with a national platform who was kicked out of a D.C. restaurant by management who told her to leave, and it set off a nationwide debate over the details of what happened.

That was me. I’m a transgender woman who is part of an amazing communications team at the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ organization.

This happened on Friday, June 22. I was with a group of girlfriends at Cuba Libre restaurant, helping to launch a bachelorette weekend, when I was stopped at the door of the bathroom by a male attendant, who asked to see my I.D. I asked why. He said “female” had to be on there in order to use the women’s restroom. I knew that’s false based on D.C. law. I refused to show my ID and proceeded to go in, anyway. He followed me in there a few moments later, searching, doing everything short of opening the stall doors. He eventually left. I finished up, washed my hands, and opened the door to find the male attendant and the manager standing there. Now they were both demanding to see my I.D. Again, I refused. I told him he was wrong, asked him to cite his imaginary law, and after several uncomfortable moments, with dozens of onlookers staring at the commotion, I walked outside to gather myself.

I brought up the actual law on my phone—which showed I was perfectly within my rights—walked back in and attempted to share it with the manager. He said it was incorrect and moments later, after I continued to challenge him, threatened to phone the police. I said “please do so,” and he ordered me to leave the restaurant. I demanded he follow through on his original threat, and before I knew it, a bouncer had roughly grabbed me and pushed me out the front door. I’m not one to call the cops, but I didn’t know what else to do. With numerous strangers leaving the restaurant in solidarity with me, after having witnessed the incident, I called the D.C. Police. They responded quickly, were professional and LGBTQ-affirming, and most importantly: They told me I was exactly right about the law.

Since the story went public, it has been featured on cable networks, local news stations, and national newspapers across the country—even international outlets as far away as India.

As humiliating and painful as it felt, my incident that night was resolved as peacefully as I could have hoped because responding police officers who were professional and compassionate, and, not least of all the city non-discrimination regulations under the D.C. Human Rights Act, which recognize gender identity as a protected characteristic.

But what would have happened to me if this occurred when I ventured outside the limits of the District of Columbia, say, to a town in Virginia, for instance? There, a restaurant owner could legally ask me to leave due to my gender identity, which is not a protected characteristic under federal, state, or city law.

My gender identity is an immutable characteristic, meaning it’s at the core of who I am. I was born this way, and I have grown to love myself and be proud of who I am, including the fact that I am a transgender woman. For 30 years, I struggled with coming to terms with this part of myself—through an impoverished childhood, through my service in the military, through college and career. I did not choose to be transgender any more than I chose my own height. The ache of having a body that is incongruent with your brain and your soul is torture. I have made the best of it, and so, when I began last weekend to participate in my first bachelorette celebration, with girlfriends whom I love and who love me, I never expected to have my heart shattered on Friday night in arguably the most LGBTQ-affirming city in the country.

And yet, we have a White House that is attempting to allow a license to discriminate against LGBTQ people in health-care spaces. We have a White House that is attempting to ban transgender persons in the military. We have a White House that allows the Department of Education to turn away transgender students who have civil rights complaints. We have a White House that literally ordered migrant children to be snatched from their parents and stuffed into oversize dog kennels at the U.S.-Mexico border.

We have a White House led, in part, by Mike Pence, who signed a bill during his time as governor of Indiana giving businesses a license to discriminate against LGBTQ people, a reality known to millions of LGBTQ people in towns and cities throughout the country that don’t have non-discrimination laws protecting sexuality and gender identity.

The only difference here between myself and them is that I happen to be lucky enough to live in a city that protects LGBTQ people, and of having the kind of privilege—white, financial, able-bodied, etc.—that shields me from the exacerbation of anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

But why should anyone have to be lucky or privileged to be treated as a human being? It reminds me of the old Russian fable “The Little Red Hen,” an allegory on laziness and not helping those around you. Others worked over decades so that I and other LGBTQ people could enjoy these protections in the District of Columbia. It is the old-school “civility”—the focus on good citizenship—that has advanced us this far. What is this new version of “civility” that attempts to undo all that?

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