In June, a Florida couple was discriminated against at a spa in Duluth just outside of Atlanta. And because Georgia lacks explicit statewide protections prohibiting discrimination against LGBT people, Jake and Amber have limited legal options for addressing the incident.
That’s why they’re sharing their story—to help raise awareness about everyday discrimination that transgender people face and to make the case for state laws ensuring fair and equal treatment.
Jake and Amber had just completed a rigorous seven-day hike on the Appalachian Trail and were eager to rest their aching muscles and relax from their hike. They were recommended Jeju Sauna by a friend.
But before they even arrived, Jake had a bad feeling.
“For some reason my gut was telling me not to go in. And usually my gut’s right,” he said.
“We should be able to have a good time and enjoy our vacation,” said Amber.
Jake self identifies as trans masculine gender queer person, which means that he does not prescribe to the idea that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to be masculine or feminine. However, he does present masculinely and he uses the pronouns he, him, and his, as well as singular they pronouns. Even though he prefers to use gender neutral facilities when they’re available, when it comes to sex-segregated facilities, he uses the men’s room because that’s where he feels safest.
In most areas of life, Jake feels well supported in his gender identity. He works for the University of North Florida, which has had gender-neutral facilities in addition to sex-segregated facilities for years. His loving girlfriend, Amber, has been a strong support system since they met on an election campaign in March 2015. And his mother—who recognized he was different from a very young age—has been one of his biggest advocates since he initially came out as LGBT at the age of 14.
But despite his strong support system, Jake is well aware that, under state law in both Georgia and his home state of Florida, he has no explicit protections from discrimination.
He’s most keenly aware of his lack of protections when he’s in public places like restaurants, shopping centers, doctor’s offices, and government buildings.
“I’m more apt to frequent restaurants that have a gender neutral restrooms because I know I can use the restroom safely there,” he said. “For instance, our local BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse has a family restroom so we go there more often because I know I can drink two beers and—obviously if you drink two beers you’re going to have to go to the bathroom. I know I can drink two beers and be safe doing it. You’d think that’d be in the context of driving home but really I’m just trying to go to the bathroom.”
This is the type of calculus Jake does whenever he leaves work or home.
How many hours until I need to use the restroom? Will I be near facilities that I can use safely?
This is the calculus that was running through Jake’s mind when he and Amber were planning a spa day with their friend. After reviewing the company’s website, Jake saw that the spa had sex-segregated facilities, and his immediate gut reaction was: Don’t go.
He was nervous that because the company wasn’t explicitly inclusive of transgender people, that he might be denied service because of his gender identity. But Amber said they decided as a group to go ahead with their plans.
“I was sort of coming from the angle of we shouldn’t have to worry about this,” Amber said. “We should be able to have a good time and enjoy our vacation.”
“There’s a discrepancy with your ID.”
When they arrived at the spa, the group signed standard paperwork, and left their IDs at the front desk in return for a unisex uniform required of all guests, and a key to a locker in the changing room.
The receptionist gave Jake a key to the men’s locker room and they gave Amber and their friend keys to the women’s locker room—no hesitation, no questions asked.
The group went their separate ways and, after setting down his belongings in front of his locker, Jake went to the bathroom stall to change out of his street clothes and into the standard issue spa uniform.
But when he came out of the stall, there was an employee standing at the door of the changing room.
“There’s a discrepancy with your ID,” they said.
Jake explained that he’s transgender and that he uses men’s facilities, but that he hasn’t gotten his ID changed to reflect that.
The spa staff wouldn’t budge.
“You hear other people’s stories, but you don’t think it’s gonna happen to you,” Jake said.
“At that point, I knew I wasn’t going to get anywhere,” Jake said. He got permission to change. Put on his street clothes. And exited the changing room back into the lobby.
Meanwhile, Amber and her friend had already changed and entered the spa. So spa staff had to page them over the loudspeaker. And when they returned to the locker room, a manager told Amber, “There’s a problem with your boyfriend.”
Amber was furious.
“The manager kept trying to say that it was state law. That we could stay but that state law said Jake had to use the women’s changing rooms.”
This is false. In Georgia, there are no explicit state laws protecting LGBT people from discrimination. But there are also no explicit state laws dictating that establishments are required to deny service to gay or transgender people on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
A law like this does exist in the neighboring state of North Carolina. HB 2 gives license to discriminate against transgender people by denying them access to facilities that match their gender identity—and it has cost the state upwards of four hundred million dollars in frozen business investments, diverted tourism revenue, and cancelled events from concerts to NBA, NCAA and ACC championships games. Jake and Amber were well aware of this harmful law, and it was a big reason why their vacation plans did not include any treks through the Tarheel State.
Jake, for his part, was in shock.
“You hear other people’s stories, but you don’t think it’s gonna happen to you,” he said.
And even though he has felt uncomfortable and unsafe in restrooms before, including instances where others have asked him to leave a restroom, Jake had never been blatantly discriminated against and denied service like this before.
“I asked the manager: “So you’re telling me you want a person that’s been injecting themselves with testosterone for two years, who has facial hair to walk into the women’s restroom or locker room and make your female clients feel unsafe?”
Ultimately, the group demanded refunds and left as quickly as they could.
This is an example of the type of discrimination that transgender people live in fear of every day.
And for Jake and Amber, it felt ironic that it happened in Georgia of all places.
Georgia, which has billed itself as open for business to all since Governor Deal vetoed an anti-LGBT religious exemptions bill earlier this year.
Georgia, which has readily accepted major investments from General Electric, Honeywell, and Adidas in recent months—investments which were contingent in part upon Georgia’s open and welcoming business climate, and which will ultimately create thousands of new jobs.
Amber said, “It wasn’t like a normal situation where we’re out somewhere and a business does something wrong and you tell them and they’re like, “Oh my god, we’re so sorry. I’ll take care of this right now. What can we do?””
“They definitely were not apologetic.”
More than anything, this is a glaring example of why non-discrimination protections are so important. Georgia is full of tolerant, fair-minded people. And building a state brand of inclusiveness is important to both the state economy and the wellbeing of local communities.
But there will always be bad apples. And until state lawmakers take action to advance explicit protections for LGBT people, discrimination will continue to happen across the state—threatening the safety and livelihoods of gay and transgender Georgians, and ultimately jeopardizing a state economy built on the grounds of equal treatment for all.
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