Walmart has a distribution center in a small town west of Indy. At noon, yesterday, nearly forty department managers from the center, and from the store across the way, gathered for one of their annual, required sessions in diversity training.
The discussion for their sake was to better understand concerns of LGBT folks. The panel was comprised of an L—Judi is a youthful older lady who has been married to her wife for 39 years (originally married in Canada)—a G—Robert is 40ish, married to his husband for a dozen years, and they have an adopted teenaged son—the mother of a G—Cathy, about my age, is the woman I met at Indiana University, when I sat on a panel in the class she was teaching, who asked me to be the T for today’s session—and myself.
To begin, we each sketched our life’s story and some of our efforts to educate. For the other three, it was highlighting the work of their local PFLAG chapter, and for me it was encouraging them to read my Indianapolis Monthly article. With our variety of ages, situations, and experiences, we provided a helpful resume to these leaders in that Walmart community.
With the table set, we fielded their questions. I got the oft-asked, “How did your kids take your news?” which I am always pleased to answer, to demonstrate how it is not only we trans folks who have plenty of struggles with this revelation and with transitioning.
All of the questions were important, were fielded well by my fellow panelists, and the audience got that for which they were assembled. One question stood out: “What are the most important things we can do so that we treat you as well as possible?” I jumped on this question, not giving another panelist the slightest chance to go first: “This is the question I was hoping you would ask, and I’m going to stand up so that you have the full visual.”
I moved from the panelist table, took a spot before the front row—as in church, no one was sitting in it—and began instructing as if back on my familiar Bible class turf.
“Look at me. I am six foot one. Despite my chick glasses and makeup and hair, I have the face shape of a man. These are growing (I placed my hands on my chest), but these are going nowhere (I moved my hands to my hips). I have the build of a male, and as soon as I open my mouth, no matter how I am dressed or how feminine I act, I begin to hear the male pronouns.”
I appealed to them to instruct those under their supervision to take note of how their customers are presenting themselves. “Clearly,” I said, “I am presenting myself as a female.” At times, they might not be confident regarding the gender of a shopper. In those cases, I urged them to use the pronoun which is becoming common: they, them, their. Yes, this is a plural form, but it has been adapted to singular use. It works.
Judi suggested that stores like Walmart have more products for gays and lesbians—wedding cards and The Advocate magazine, for example. She spoke of a male friend who has a young child, who sometimes hears this when he has his son with him: “So, you’re giving you’re wife a night off?” Robert chimed in, “You have to decide whether you are going to explain—do you mean my husband?—or let it go. It can get exhausting.”
As a retail worker desiring to be friendly with small talk, how would you handle this? Why assume there is a wife, or a husband, or any mate? Besides same-sex couples, there are loads of single parents. The ultimate point became this, that we absentmindedly say all sorts of things, sometimes creating uncomfortable situations, and at times unintentionally and needlessly offending people. All of us need to understand that it can happen to anyone—that no disrespect is meant—and at the same time we can always do a better job.
As our hour and fifteen minutes was nearing its end and we panelists had just made a string of comments that could have sounded like we love to complain, I raised my hand to get the floor. “I know it can seem that all we do is whine about our problems. That’s the nature of a session like this. Please know how much we appreciate how hard many of you work on our behalf, how kind so many are to us. For my part, since I began going out last year as Gina, guess how many times I have had a problem in a Walmart, or a Kroger, or getting my oil changed, or at a restaurant. Zero. The worst was on the campus of IU where a young woman saw me walking down the sidewalk, made big eyes and, after I passed, laughed very loudly. Otherwise, to my face, I am always treated with respect, and I want you to know that, and that I appreciate it very much.”
I asked the store manager in charge of the event about other stores specifically in Indy and nearby, and more sessions like this. He gave me info to inquire of the proper person. I will be doing so, immediately.
Last evening, I received a Facebook message from the gentleman who, when I arrived, showed me to the restroom then, after the session, spoke with me. He wrote, “Hello! I met you today at Walmart during your presentation. I also just read your article in Indianapolis Monthly. It was a very good article. Anyway, I just wanted to say thank you for sharing your story and I wish you all the best.” I replied to him with a note filled with thanks.
Having lost the work that I love, this is very gratifying for me to be educating at a university and now in the workplace regarding what it is to be transgender. Everyone wants to do things which are fulfilling and, being a natural teacher, I am very pleased for chances to speak, to write, to educate, all for the purpose of bettering society.