Transgender Woman: Clarify the Rights of Transgender People to Access Public Accommodations

By all accounts, Michelle’s transition from male to female in 2013 went very smoothly. She received tremendous support from her friends, family, neighbors, religious community, and her employer of 13 years. Her employer had clear guidance on how to approach the overall parameters of the transition, thanks to employment non-discrimination protection for gender identity and expression that had been the law in Massachusetts since 2012.

071cb502-7233-49f0-aaf8-1c76e09c8eb6Michelle voluntarily resigned her membership at her corporate subsidized fitness center several months before her transition because she no longer felt comfortable using a men’s locker room. She re-joined the fitness center 4 months after her transition, once it felt like her coworkers had comfortably adapted to the change.

While not required to do so, Michelle sent a courtesy email to her partner in human resources to let her know that she would be returning to the fitness center. The response from HR was that Michelle was not permitted to use the fitness center because she is a transgender woman. They denied her access to this accommodation, and withheld a benefit provided to every one of her coworkers, because they didn’t know the right thing to do. This denial came as a complete surprise to Michelle after her company had put so much energy into ensuring she had a smooth, successful transition.

After two weeks of negotiating, Michelle was granted provisional access to use the fitness center without using the locker room.

But how, she wondered, was she supposed to use a fitness center without a locker room?

Michelle found that without access to a shower, she couldn’t continue her routine of workouts before work, or even between work and her frequent evening meetings. Michelle’s new routine was to change into her workout clothes in the women’s restroom near her office, cover up with outerwear to walk in the New England winter to the fitness center, then hide in a corner of the towel room of the fitness center to remove the outerwear without drawing attention to herself as the one person who couldn’t just change at the fitness center.

“Before I transitioned,” Michelle said, “I often had to go to great lengths to keep my true gender identity secret. I had been so relieved to live my life openly, and here I was being thrust right back into the closet. It was humiliating.”

Michelle finally gained full access to the fitness center by driving a formal justification through her senior HR management. With a large effort by Michelle and her human resources partner, and countless review and back-and-forth with senior management, this whole situation with the fitness center cost her employer in the ballpark of 50 personnel hours – All in an effort to figure out the “right thing to do” without clear guidance.

“Before I transitioned, I often had to go to great lengths to keep my true gender identity secret. I had been so relieved to live my life openly, and here I was being thrust right back into the closet. It was humiliating.”

It doesn’t have to be so hard: right now, the Massachusetts Assembly is considering legislation that would extend clear, explicit non-discrimination protections to transgender people in public places – including restaurants, hotels, public transportation, and gyms. This legislation will provide clear guidance to employers like Michelle’s regarding the rights of transgender people to use restrooms and locker rooms matching their gender identity.

“With public accommodations legislation in place, there would have been no question about what my rights were in terms of working out and using the proper locker room,” Michelle said. “The law would have provided the direction our leadership needed to have dealt with this more effectively. They didn’t accept that this was my right to use this space until I pushed.”

Michelle knows that many transgender people in Massachusetts aren’t in a position to go to the mat for their basic protections. “I am fortunate that I could speak up. I am secure in my job and have the experience to work with corporate leaders. It shouldn’t come down to this – these same basic protections need to be provided to all people, not just those with a voice.”

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