Kicked Out of the Bathroom? You do have rights!

Imagine being a woman at at a local bar. You’re just  hanging out with friends and having a nondescript-chill evening.  You slip off to the women’s bathroom, only to be followed in by the establishments’ security guard and told to leave. You are told that you are in violation of the establishment’s policy. The security guard follows up by offering to stand outside of the men’s room while you use the facilities.

You, as would any other reasonable person, feel horrified, humiliated, and dehumanized.

This is exactly what happened on May 15th to a local trans woman, Stephanie P., who was hanging out with friends at a local bar in the south side called the Tiki Lounge.

One of her friends asked Stephanie to accompany her to the women’s bathroom. After entering the women’s restroom, a male bouncer followed Stephanie into the women’s restroom and told her to leave. Interestingly, the bouncer followed up the demand to leave the women’s bathroom with an offer to watch the men’s room so she could use those facilities.  Stephanie politely declined the offer, and left the Tiki Lounge immediately after. Stephanie did not raise a ruckus while she was there. She didn’t want to cause a scene. We have all been there at one time or another. When something super shitty happens, we don’t want to have to deal with even more discriminatory behavior or potentially escalate the situation to physical violence. When Stephanie got home, she posted her experience to her social media account. A manager from the establishment saw the post and responded directly, promising further action.

The following day this was put on the Tiki Lounge Facebook page:

There have been some true social media reports indicating that a transgender customer was removed from a restroom at Tiki lounge. The management staff and employees at Tiki lounge are saddened and upset by this occurrence. We are deeply sorry for what happened. We aim to always welcome our customers from all backgrounds. This includes the lesbian Gay bisexual and transgender (LGBTQ) community. Here, at tiki lounge our customers deserve the respect and appreciation of being able to bring their full selves into our bar. Lastly, as a result of this upsetting event; we are taking a meaningful and humble approach to address positive changes to ensure this does not happen again. We are in the process of meeting to discuss policies, signing, training and establishing a policy of which did not exist prior. We’re sending this out now but this apology does not end here.

It seems to me that Tiki security should, at a minimum, be reprimanded, educated about the policies for their business, and trained to identify the inappropriate conduct that Stephanie was subjected to. Given this situation, what does one do?  After the initial  feelings of outrage and dehumanization, what rights does Stephanie have?  Perhaps this turns on the larger question: Are there laws which could be used to protect Stephanie?

Local attorney Elise Delong informs us that this particular incident is about ‘public accommodation’, a device used to describe those public events, public forums, restaurants, bars, sports events, and the like, that we all expect from businesses, organizations, groups and individuals.  Delong also stated, “It is part of the protections granted to all citizens under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and also known as Title VII. These baseline prohibitions are enforced by the federal government, but states have the right to establish their own version of Title VII, so long as they provide at least the federal level of protection, at a minimum.  States always have the right to extend more protections than those provided in Title VII. The City of Pittsburgh has adopted its’ own Human Relations Commission (HRC) under Pennsylvania law,  and is similar to those HRCs such as in Philadelphia, Harrisburg, Allentown/Bethlehem, and Allegheny, Dauphin and York Counties.”

In accordance with the City of Pittsburgh Code of Ordinances, Article 5: entitled “Discrimination”, its Section 651.04 (b) defines ‘DISCRIMINATE’ OR ‘DISCRIMINATION’ as “…any difference in treatment based on race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, place of birth, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, familial status, age, handicap or disability, or use of support animals, as specified.” Further,  Article 5, Section 651.04 (ii) defines “sex” as “ [t]he gender of a person, as perceived, presumed, or assumed by others, including those who are changing or have changed their gender identification. (Pgh. Code of Ord.1-1997, eff. 2-7-97)” The code itself can be found HERE.

What can you do if this happens to you? 

Delong gave us the breakdown. “If the defendant (Respondent, or perpetrator of the discriminatory act) is within the legal boundary of Pittsburgh,and the discriminatory act occurred in the jurisdiction of Pittsburgh, then you should be able to file a Complaint with the City of Pittsburgh’s Human Relations Commission. The HRC is located downtown in the City County Building on the 9th floor, which can be reached by taking the rear elevators (near Ross Street).  You will be required to write-out your story about the behavior you complain of and you must sign a verification that your story is true, meaning the story you write about is the truth.” Ms Delong warns that is never a good idea to embellish details-just be truthful and forthright. “Once the complaint is filed,” Delong continues, “the HRC will send out an investigator to verify your story. They will elicit the businesses’ side of the complaint, speak to all or most of the involved parties, and determine whether it meets their definitions and requirements.  A Complaint is free to file, and will be investigated free to the Complainant. This investigative part make take several weeks to months, depending on how complicated the issues may be. Once the complaint is investigated, the HRC will usually determine whether your claim is founded (it probably happened the way you said), or may inform the Complainant their claim is unfounded.  HRC Staff try to remain neutral, especially in the beginning, and especially before any investigation work, so if you do file a complaint, expect that HRC Staff will be friendly and helpful, but it will take time to complete their investigation.”

“Once the Commission completes its’ investigation, the HRC Staff will contact you or your counsel, and inform you of what it intends to do.  If the HRC Complaint is founded, the Commission will try to obtain redress for the Complainant by compelling the Complainant and Respondent to come to the table to reach some kind of settlement. If no settlement is reached, the HRC can issue a right to sue letter and everything will move to the courts-but as a brand new action.  Everything that occurred before was free. Now, in the Common Pleas Court, nothing is free. The same is usually true of all of the other HRC’s. If the Commission agrees with you and your complaint, they will take the lead to try to compel a meeting and ultimate agreement between Complainant and Respondent. So it is worth your time to get help through the HRC if this happens again.”

Dena Stanley, trans advocate and founder of Trans YOUniting, a local trans advocacy organization, also encourages folks to contact the ACLU once you have filed a complaint with the HRC.  You can file the ACLU complaint at their website, www.ACLUPA.org. If you would like some additional support with this process, please reach out to Dena Stanley Dstanley@transyouniting.org or Naiymah Sanchez from the ACLU, nsanchez@aclupa.org.

This is definitely an incident we hope never happens to anyone. but it is important to know your rights and what to do next should you ever be in this situation.

This article originally appeared on QueerPgh.com. This article is preserved as a part of the Q Archives project. Please consider donating to help preserve Pittsburgh’s Queer history.