A transgender customer was recently turned away from the women’s fitting room at an Urban Outfitters in Los Angeles while she was shopping with her friend.
Nicholas Gorham — who identifies as a “gender-fluid trans person,” uses female and gender-neutral pronouns, and primarily wears women’s clothing — was told by the attendant that she could not get a fitting room next to her friend Tamara, a cisgender woman.
Gorham, who wrote about the encounter for Mic, said that after the attendant gave Tamara a room, she began to lead Gorham to a different area.
“Well the thing is there are young girls over there so I can’t really…,” the attendant said, according to Gorham, who then explained to the attendant that she’s trans. The attendant merely responded, “I know,” but “it’s just that it’s the policy.”
After a long pause, the attendant then said “I mean, I guess I can put you in here,” and pointed to a room several rooms away from Tamara.
“When I entered into that room, my heart was racing — I could hardly breathe,” Gorham wrote. “Despite knowing all too well that many of my friends deal with this on a daily basis, I had yet to experience it myself. All of my insecurities came rushing to the surface. All the fear of trying to live as an authentic person; all the work I’ve done to unblock myself from those fears, all of that energy swirled around me in that room.”
When Gorham later tweeted about the incident, Urban Outfitters responded by saying that California law did not obligate them to allow trans people to use the fitting room in accordance with their gender identity. Later, in an official statement, Urban Outfitters said the employee who redirected Gorham did not follow the store’s policy, and that their fitting rooms are gender neutral.
Regardless of what the store policy is, Gorham met discrimination and mistreatment in that store, and as she puts it, “what started as a simple errand took a rather heavy turn.”
Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. A recent study by the Equal Rights Center (ERC) found that transgender people often face discrimination while simply shopping.
The pilot study — which involved 60 pairs of a transgender woman and a cisgender woman (matched by race and other factors) shopping at retail stores in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia — analyzed the way the transgender tester was treated by store employees compared to the cisgender tester, including whether they were greeted, how long it took for them to be greeted, whether they were asked if they needed help, whether they experienced harassment, any wait time differential, any encounters with security, and their ability to access the women’s dressing room.
It found that 75 percent of transgender testers experienced at least one instance of adverse differential treatment, such as being ignored by employees while the cisgender tester was greeted or helped. 40 percent experienced negative treatment like verbal harassment, inappropriate comments, rude service, being laughed at, or being watched or followed by security or a store employee. Unsurprisingly, transgender women of color were treated negatively more often than white transgender women.
Equally important, it found that there was a lower rate of adverse differential treatment in states with nondiscrimination protections in public accommodations (Maryland and Washington, D.C.), than in states without them (Virginia). However, Maryland had the highest disparity between how white transgender women and transgender women of color were treated: African American transgender women faced differential treatment compared to cisgender testers at over twice the rate of white transgender women.
The report thus highlighted both the importance of intersectionality in combating anti-transgender violence, as well as the need for not only state-level nondiscrimination protections in public accommodations, but federal protections as well, as state protections are currently unavailable to the majority of transgender adults. It corroborates other data showing the widespread discrimination transgender people face — in homeless shelters, in employment, in healthcare — and the need for comprehensive nondiscrimination protections. Currently, going an extra few miles across a border could be the difference between being protected, or not.
Caitlin Rooney is a Research Assistant for the LGBT Research and Communications Project at American Progress. She holds a degree in Legal and Political Rhetoric from Whitman College and has worked on LGBT and criminal justice issues in a political office and at advocacy organizations.