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Coming out in the face of discrimination: the bathroom selfie saga

Maxwell Jamison
Photo credit:
Maxwell Jamison - Facebook

On April 19 2016, Target publicly announced the company’s inclusive restroom policy in response to North Carolina’s House Bill 2, the anti-transgender bill that sparked debate throughout the nation.

“Inclusivity is a core belief at Target,” states the release, notifying the public that the company encourages people to use the restroom and dressing room that matches their gender identity, “Everyone deserves to feel like they belong. And you’ll always be accepted, respected and welcomed at Target.”

As a queer transgender employee of Target, one who specifically sought out a career with the company due to their inclusive policies, hearing the statement of positive representation of what it means to be a truly trans-inclusive company was comforting.

Having had previous jobs that were very strict in their “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach towards sexuality and gender discrimination, Target was a breath of fresh air to someone who was still transitioning.

At the end of my shift on April 19, I never would have expected the nightmare that I would walk in to the day following Target Corporations release of their bathroom policy, one which had existed long before HB2 was even a twinkle of a dream in a conservative North Carolina politicians eye.

I began working at Target in spring of 2015 after leaving a career that had been incredibly soul-crushing to a queer transgender person. I was trapped in a field that would not allow me to be my authentic self, where I had no choice but to respond to my birth name, female pronouns and be careful to whom I divulged information about my relationships.

Praying for a call from Target human resources asking for an interview was the closest I’ll ever be to identifying as a religious man. Accepting a job offer after nervously confessing that I had changed my name and gender, the reason why I didn’t have a listed prior employment history, was a reason to celebrate.

Target was the welcoming hug at the end of a long day. Target was the promise of a healthy future where I could be myself, and not my past. Where I would be seen as who I am, a man, and nothing else, for the first time in my life. A fresh start. A new beginning.

It was all I had ever wanted, to be read as me, and not my history, working for a company that supported and actively advocated for others like me.

April 19 was just another step in progressive advocacy for the Target Corporation, standing up for their employees and guests who did not take doctors discernible eye at birth to designate what their existence would look like.

The infuriated calls start ringing in early on the morning of April 20. Our store, just outside of the metropolis of Phoenix, one of the 1,793 Target stores across the United States, becomes the recipient of dozens of infuriated calls, guests insistent on sharing their biased beliefs.

Guests refusing to shop at a store that “supports men dressing as women so that they can rape my wife and daughters.”

“Allowing freaks of nature to have easy access to women and children.”

“It’s against the word of God.”

“A disgrace.”

Guests enter our store just so that they can stomp up to guest service and demand, red-faced, for a manager. The complaints are all the same. The discriminatory, disgusting, vile commentary bounce off of well-practiced faces, brows tilt in understanding, responses ready at the tip of their tongue, superiors with experience in handling upset guests. “We understand your concern, but we will continue to uphold Target’s policy to maintain inclusive restrooms for our guests and team members.”

Much to the respect and recognition of my supervisors, regardless of their personal beliefs, they stand for the greater good and do not back down, even to the guests who scream and stomp their feet. Without them knowing, they are standing up for me, and other coworkers like me, forever chased by a shadow of our previous selves as we strive to become who we have always meant to be.

I am not ashamed to be transgender. I spent my time as a female-passing person with a hole deep in my heart that I could never explain, an emptiness in the back of my mind as I traveled through adolescence. I felt out of place, I did not belong, but was told that was normal for a teenager, and I would grow out of it eventually.

It took meeting a boy at a local queer support group who held a confidence about himself that was far headier than his acne and stray facial hair ought to have graced him with. I questioned why he would come to a queer youth group after I watched him flirt with girl after girl, and he cleared his throat, leaned in and whispered, “I’m transgender.”

At this point in my life, 18, I had never heard of the term, and it took him multiple attempts at clarifying before I understood. It didn’t hit me with the pomp and circumstance that one would expect. It took weeks, repeated meetings with him and further explanation and finally, one night, attempting to fall asleep, it clicked.

The identity crisis. The emptiness in my chest. Visible discomfort when others would refer to me as a lesbian, tell me that I ought to dress like a woman. A deep ache in my stomach when the sex assigned to me at birth seemed to designate some sort of worth in me or a fate that would decide what I do with my life.

Each night falling asleep as a child hoping beyond all hope that I would wake up a boy. Letting my young imagination run wild with friends as we played pretend and I was able to become the adventurous Huckleberry Finn that I saw myself as in the mirror when I held back my ponytail. Begging my parents through tears to let me cut my hair.

I had never been female. I had only ever been told that I was.

Target gave me the opportunity to finalize what I had been working toward. After the appropriate legal transactions to change my name and gender, after a multitude of doctors appointments that allowed me to inject a little bit of masculinity into my thigh once a week, after thousands of dollars spent to get a literal and metaphorical weight off my chest, all I needed was a career that accepted me.

Target was everything I had worked toward, albeit low wage retail, and the company gave me the opportunity to bring my transition full circle. Finally, I was no one other than my authentic self.

Well into the afternoon of April 20, the calls continue. Coworkers I spent the last year working along side find the situation varying levels of humorous. At this point, the scope of what was occurring had not yet been realized. Nobody knew of the petitions, that over the following days we would watch our clientele drop down to a trickle as people rally against the company.

I keep myself quiet and avoid the topic as much as I can. A work friend texts me throughout the day to inform me on what the latest threat is against our store, or how many angry calls we had received.

It doesn’t take long before threats beyond “I will no longer be shopping at your store” start ringing in.

Word begins to spread about ultimatums being called in to Targets across the nation, stores being evacuated because of violent threats and picketers protesting the bathroom policy. I overhear supervisors discussing an email that was sent from corporate about how to respond to these types of situations, how guest and team member safety are more important than sales.

The days following present a constant whirlwind of angry calls complaining about the policy, sales drop rapidly in our store and nationwide.

Everywhere I turn at work I overhear the commentary. No matter how hard I try to tune it out, whether from the mouths of guests or my fellow team members, everybody has an opinion.

The intolerance begins to weigh on me. For the past year I have worked alongside people who have taken the press release as an opportunity to share their anti-trans beliefs to anyone with a set of ears.

To some degree, I was able to brush off the news reports of thousands of petitioners vowing to never shop at our stores again. The calls coming in to the receptionists and the guests complaining to customer service were almost humorous on occasion.

These people, strangers, had no effect on my life. They were hateful, and sometimes dangerous, but as the saying goes, you don’t know what a person has experienced until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes, or at least alongside them. In their cases, the idea of gender-variant individuals were only what they had been led to believe by media; confused, needing to be “fixed.”

A large retail chain allowing trans folk access to whichever bathroom they desired left the general public feeling unsafe.

Friends, coworkers, even supervisors sharing their uninvited opinions about what genitalia belong in which waste-receptacle room was another story.

Within a few days of the press release, I was continuously agitated each time I had to work, knowing that the conversations would continue, and unbeknownst to the people I worked with, they were actively discriminating against me.

I had become shrouded in a depression I had not felt in years, and each comment was a continuous reminder of being an adolescent and having to listen to intrusive thoughts telling me that the world would be better off without me.

The calls keep ringing in, our sales continue to drop, and the number of signatures on the petitions steadily rises.

Seven days after Target’s initial press release, I’d had enough. I was raised with the ideal that if you do not like how something is being done, do something about it.

Whether my stance would be seen by anyone outside of my closest friends did not matter to me.

Towards the end of my shift on April 27, I stepped out of a stall, adjusted my plaid shirt and name tag in the mirror and took a photo of myself in Target’s men’s room. That evening, I posted it to Facebook.

By the next morning, my post had reached one hundred shares, far exceeding my 80-some Facebook friends.

By that afternoon, it had been shared over 500 times, and a terrified pit grew in my stomach that someone from work would see my image online and that the life I had worked so hard to create would come crashing down.

Comments started flooding in from other Target team members and trans individuals across the country.

Praise for my bravery, for standing up when the nation was trying to tear us down. Parents of trans children sent me photos of their kids, thanking me for providing a role model to them and telling me to be safe.

Soon, the shares soared above 1,000 and I was receiving messages from people across the world cheering me on, thanking me, apologizing for the bigotry that myself and others have faced in the wake of the press release and North Carolina’s ruling.

With each encouraging comment and message sent with well wishes, the fear of being outed at my store faded. All of the bigotry that had weighed hard on my bones over the past week was lifting, and I was engulfed with thousands of messages of support and love.

As the shares of my image rose; the spiteful, ignorant and hateful commentary began. I watched in awe as strangers, trans and cisgender alike, responded to intolerance and trolls, standing up for Target and standing up for me, turning discrimination into an educational opportunity.

I have never in my life felt closer to my community and our allies.

Returning to work after the weekend, I was no longer afraid about who knew of my identity.

My life, my history, had never felt more validated. Never in my existence would I have known that my image would have such an effect on people, that so much genuine support and acceptance would come out of a selfie taken in the bathroom of my gender-inclusive workplace.

I vowed myself that I would stick to my guns, and if in the event that my coworkers chose not to associate with me due to the knowledge of my transgender existence, I would not let their callous beliefs effect me.

Thankfully, and almost surprisingly, I was greeted with nothing less than support, advocacy and quite a few hugs.

My store manager and human resources representative took the opportunity to sit down with me and ensure that I was protected, to come to them immediately if I were to face any backlash from my post or my identity.

It was a best-case scenario that came true.

On April 19, Target publicly stood up for their transgender and gender-variant employees and guests, putting the company in a place that would eventually come to lose them hundreds of thousands of customers and cost the company millions in sales.

Though I began my career at Target with no intention of ever revealing my identity to those that I worked with, the events that took place leading to a selfie in the store restroom provided an opportunity to educate those around me.

From my fellow Target team members, to every Facebook newsfeed that my stance reached across the globe, I am continuously thankful to work for a company that stands for embracing humanity and all of its inhabitant’s identities.

(Editor's note: This post was originally published on our media partner HuffPost Queer Voices)