A reader writes: “As a cis-gendered man who tries to be an ally, I wonder what your take on the situation is and if there is something more I can follow up with or if there are suggestions for how to handle this in a better way in the future.
“I am a graduate student and I regularly spend time before class in a coffee shop across the street from where my classes meet. One day, I overheard the worker behind the counter and a customer talking in some derogatory and insensitive ways about trans women.
“As I was trying to decide how exactly to ‘turn this into a teaching moment,’ they started laughing over the customer’s suggestion that the solution to their problem would be to ‘examine them from a distance with a stick.’ At this point I decided to screw teaching and just end this nightmare.
“I approached them and explained that their conversation was incredibly offensive and unacceptable. When the customer apologized ‘that I was offended,’ I explained that this wasn’t about me being offended but about the conversation being offensive. I then wrote a comment on one of those review websites and decided I had lost the use of a coffee shop.
“A day later I got a note from the owner asking for more information with a profound apology and a request to identify the people involved. After I responded with the information she requested, I received a followup e-mail stating that the employee involved was severely reprimanded and that the customer involved was spoken to as well.
“I returned to the coffee shop a few times after this e-mail exchange and have been warmly received and haven’t felt or heard any hostility. My question is: Should I have waited and considered how to use this as a teaching moment? What is the appropriate way for an ally to respond in these situations that empower our trans friends? I don’t think in this instance there were any trans folks around, but I worry that my speaking up on behalf of someone could in fact disempower rather than empower.”
This was a difficult situation that you encountered, and I think that it takes a lot of guts to speak out when you hear derogatory language being used or offensive jokes being told about any group of people, so I commend you for your actions. I also commend the coffee shop for responding to your complaint and taking it seriously.
As long as there is one other person in the coffee shop besides those partaking in the offensive jokes, there might be a trans person in the coffee shop. There also might be a parent, child, partner, relative, or friend of trans person in the coffee shop. And even if there was nobody else in the coffee shop, you were there and you were offended, and that’s all that matters.
As far as I’m concerned, I don’t have to be a member of a particular marginalized group to be offended by jokes and slurs used against that group. In my mind, I separate being offended on behalf of someone else (which can sometimes be considered patronizing) from being offended on behalf of myself. So while I understand your concern about disempowering someone by speaking up on that person’s behalf, I also believe that you can be upset and offended in your own right, based on your own beliefs about what is acceptable and unacceptable for you.
It’s true that some members of marginalized groups might feel disempowered or patronized by a member of a more privileged group speaking up for them. But many will appreciate it – especially if they are silenced themselves by fear for their personal safety or for other reasons. At least I would certainly appreciate someone speaking up for me if I wasn’t in a position to do so, for whatever reason.
I think the only time that this might have been disempowering or patronizing is if there were trans people in the room and you said, “Don’t you know that there are trans people here?” At that point, it becomes about the specific people in the room instead of about the offensive nature of the conversation in general. But I sense that you would not have done that, because you were aware, and pointed out, that it wasn’t about any one person being offended – it was about that fact that the conversation was offensive, regardless of who was present.
So I believe that you should follow your own inner compass and your sense of what’s right, both for you and in general. I learned this many years ago when I failed to speak up at an injustice. The person who was targeted spoke up for himself, and was fully capable of doing so, but I realized later that he was alone in the situation – and that he likely felt that no one had his back. So I think it’s better to err on the side of what you know in your heart is right.
As far as a “teaching moment,” I think there are many of these that are presented to us – but I also think that sometimes a situation goes beyond such a moment, and you identified the point at which you felt the teaching moment was lost and some intervention had to happen. I think teaching moments are great for accidental slips of the tongue or for those who really don’t mean any harm, but are simply ignorant of the facts. Those talking about examining people at a distance with a stick are probably beyond that. You strike me as someone who can identify the difference.
So in my opinion, you did the right thing, the coffee shop did the right thing, and hopefully some good came out of this whole situation. Had you done nothing, there would come a time when someone would be in the coffee shop who would be devastated by these types of remarks, and you have likely prevented that from happening.
The only other thing I would suggest to this coffee shop, and to any company who does business with the public, is mandatory employee training on transgender issues (disclosure: this is what I do). With an increasing number of trans people, family, friends, and allies being out and visible, and speaking with their wallets and pocketbooks, no company can afford to alienate this segment of the community. So you did a favor for the coffee shop as well – they kept your business, and their refusal to accept this kind of behavior will keep them from losing other customers as well.
Those are my thoughts. Now it’s time to hear from the readers.