A couple of days ago at work I had to refuse a couple – a gay couple – from sharing a fitting room at the retail store I work at. As I tried to explain that “our company policy” doesn’t allow two people to share a room, I felt their sense of victimization as a gay couple being singled out.
“We are married” as he showed me the ring on his finger as he and his husband walked into the same room. In this moment, I should have clarified that our policy restricts anyone, even couples regardless of orientation from sharing a fitting room.
“But you let that other (straight) couple share a room.”
“The man’s arm is broken so his wife is helping him,” I replied.
The couple didn’t look convinced, and neither did I as they both closed the door as I told them, “sorry, it’s just our policy that two people can’t use the same room.”
I told a co-worker about the situation who went to them, in a more assertive manner, telling them repeatedly to “please come out” until one man left the room dissatisfied.
I tried to be cheerful and told him, “congratulations on your marriage”. To my ignorance he replied, “we’ve been married for (insert respectable amount of time/years) that I could not hear in the heap of the noise and chaos working in retail embodies. He walked away.
In this short moment, I felt mixed. I felt their sense of othering, and I felt empathy for them as I envisioned myself in their situation, as a gay man being refused our dignity and rights. I was worried I was causing a scene and that I was embarrassing them, and I wanted to tell them not to take it personally, because, I like them, felt what they were going through.
With the Pride parade in Vancouver, I am reminded that something as simple as this situation mirrors a continuing overcoming of heteronormativity in society. The Pride parade didn’t come from nowhere, it started as a political march in response to police raids against LGBTQ+ people at a gay bar in New York in 1969. The stonewall riot in New York happened for a reason.
I am very pleased that this year’s Pride parade in Vancouver included an agreement for marchers to sign stating their recognizing and commitment to trans*/transgender rights and freedoms. The initial Pride parade was political, and the fight for equality transgender and gender variant people is a very real political issue.
When I think of that gay couple that felt denied a right to share the same fitting room, I am reminded of struggles they may have faced in the past. Just maybe, could companies, politicians, and elected officials further entrench policies that guarantee and secure a person’s legal right to not be discriminated or denied essential services?
As much as gay rights have been achieved in a majority of Western states, the absence of legal protection, condemnation, and execution of homosexuals is a reality for many people globally. When 76 countries worldwide have laws against homosexuality, I know I cannot say that our rights as a community have been met if only my immediate surroundings have made progress to some extent.
And I say only to some extent because when a gay couple wants to use a change room, they shouldn’t have to feel that they are being discriminated. When discrimination has become a norm, when trans* people, racialized minorities, and women succumb to this daily reality of being treated as second-class citizens not because they are weak, but because social forces are too entrenched in our every day lives, social change is needed.