On the same night Sarah Huckabee Sanders got kicked out of Red Hen, two of my transgender friends were denied bathroom access. This is what real discrimination looks like.
Here’s something I never thought I’d say: my bachelorette party made national news over the weekend.
Here’s something I wish I’d never have to say: it happened because two of my dear friends were victims of anti-LGBTQ discrimination, in the nation’s capital, in 2018.
And here’s something I have trouble believing, after a different controversy erupted this weekend over Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders being turned away from a restaurant: a lot of people seem more worried about the “civility” of protesting bigotry than about bigotry itself.
On Friday night, about a dozen friends and I went out dancing at Cuba Libre Restaurant & Rum Bar in Washington, D.C., to kick off a weekend of bachelorette party celebrations.
Two of the friends who were with me that night are transgender. Both of them — Charlotte Clymer, who is a trans woman, and Ronen Kohn, who is a trans non-binary person — were harassed by Cuba Libre staff who demanded they show I.D. to prove their gender before using the women’s restroom.
I didn’t witness what happened to Charlotte and Ronen, but I’ve spoken extensively with those who did. I didn’t see anyone else being asked to show identification near the restrooms. In fact, I’ve never been asked to show I.D. before using a bathroom in my life, and I don’t know anyone else who has until now.
Also on Friday night, three hours away in Lexington, Virginia, the owner of a small farm-to-table restaurant called Red Hen noticed that White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was dining at one of her tables.
The owner of Red Hen, Stephanie Wilkinson, told the Washington Post that Sanders served an “inhumane and unethical” administration. She knew Sanders had defended Trump as he separated parents from their children. She had gay employees, and knew that Trump has openly promoted discrimination against transgender people.
With the support of her employees, Wilkinson politely asked Sanders to leave. Sanders politely agreed.
With this small action, Wilkinson and her staff took a stand against Trump’s cruelty to immigrant families and his discrimination against transgender people.
But after Sanders complained about the incident on Twitter, some commentators acted like she was the one being discriminated against.
Former Obama adviser David Axelrod lamented on Twitter that America is now divided between “red plates & blue plates,” thanks to those on the left who defend Red Hen.
Many others fretted that if this could happen to Sanders because she works for Trump, we might all be on a slippery slope to mass discrimination based on political affiliation.
All of these people need to take a deep breath.
If Red Hen had kicked Sarah Huckabee Sanders out just because she was a Republican, that would count as discriminating based on political affiliation, as Sonia Rao reported at the Washington Post — although most states, Virginia included, don’t actually ban that kind of discrimination.
But that’s not what happened to Sanders. She was refused service because of loathsome actions she has personally taken to harm others — not because of any protected group or class she belongs to.
Compare this to the very real discrimination my friends experienced that same night, simply for being transgender and trying to live their lives authentically and safely.
Ronen (who uses the gender-neutral pronoun fae) generally decides whether to use the men’s or the women’s restroom based on whatever feels safest at the moment.
That night, the women’s room seemed like the best bet — until fae was stopped outside the door by a male attendant, who demanded identification before letting Ronen enter.
Ronen decided to show faer driver’s license, which did read “female,” in the hopes that it might “smooth things along” with the aggressive staff member.
But then, Ronen said, the Cuba Libre employee actually tried to walk off with the I.D. before other friends intervened.
In Charlotte’s case, the male attendant actually followed her into the bathroom, barging in after her to demand identification.
But as Charlotte recalled in a Twitter thread that went viral, she refused. She knew she had the right to use the restroom she identified with under D.C. law. She tried to explain this to the manager at Cuba Libre, but he insisted she was wrong. Charlotte even warned the manager that she works for the Human Rights Campaign, a major LGBTQ rights organization.
In response, the manager mocked her and threatened to call the police. She told him to go ahead. A bouncer urged her to be “reasonable” — then grabbed her arm and pushed her out of the club.
Both of my friends were bullied at Cuba Libre. One tried to keep the peace; the other made noise. Both are valid responses for people who face discrimination every day and have to pick their emotional battles. But neither response could actually convince the bullies to stop.
Thankfully, after Charlotte herself called the police, they treated her with the respect she deserved. And thankfully, she has now drawn some serious attention to a serious problem. What happened to my friends is illegal in D.C., and Cuba Libre is now facing a public relations nightmare and possible legal consequences.
Believe it or not, though, bigoted treatment like this still isn’t outlawed in most states. And the Trump administration is still trying to dismantle the few legal protections that transgender people have against this kind of discrimination, from classrooms to the military.
Somehow, much of the media has managed to spend the last few days hand-wringing about whether liberals are being too mean when they criticize the Trump administration for keeping toddlers in cages.
Some people are asking where we should draw the line in our public discourse — but they’re asking whether it’s OK for celebrities to curse at the president, not whether it’s OK for the president to compare immigrants to vermin.
Civility is a fine thing when both sides actually value the rules of civility. But bullies don’t care about politeness — they care about power, and about consequences.
We as a society need to prove to bullies, like Trump and the people who cover for his atrocities, that they will actually face consequences when they abuse others.
Published with permission of The American Independent.