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Bathrooms and Pronouns: Markers Of A Country In Transition

Last month,  a woman was barred from using the bathroom at New York-New York hotel-casino. The woman is transgender, and was at the hotel to see Cirque Du Soleil’s production of "Zumanity." She went to the bathroom once with no incident. But when she tried to go a second time, she says she was blocked.

MGM Resorts International, which owns New York-New York, gave us a statement when we asked them to participate in this program. It reads:

“Diversity and inclusion are core values of MGM Resorts International. Our policy for the last several years is that any individual guest is free to use the restroom facilities of their choice consistent with their gender identity.

We have expressed to our guest our sincere regret and concern with the handling of the situation involving her at New York-New York, and have voiced an apology to her on behalf of our Company. We have otherwise taken the internal steps we believe are warranted under the circumstances, including a renewed emphasis on training to prevent this situation from being repeated at our properties.

We are also sensitive to the transgender community's concern that their pursuit of equality not be defined by fixation on the single issue of bathroom access, which is only one of many challenges they confront. MGM Resorts is committed to supporting the transgender and LGBTQ community as it strives for universal equality, respect, and acceptance in all walks of life.”

There is some irony that this happened at a performance of Zumanity, which is the Cirque show that explicitly explores human sexuality. Jerry Nadal, Cirque’s senior vice president in charge of live entertainment, said that many people in his cast were upset by the incident. Some reached out to the guest, who lives in San Francisco.

He also noted that the moment he heard about the incident, he knew it must be a training error.

“MGM, as our long term and largest corporate partner, completely aligns with our values. They kind of set the standard for diversity [and] diversity training. They walk the talk. It really boils down to that was a relatively new security guard,” Nadal said. “Despite the best politics in place… training, training, training.”

Nadal, who is also president of KNPR’s board of directors, said that even Cirque fell on the wrong side of diversity training. But about a decade ago, they denied work to an HIV positive performer.

“It was a firestorm,” he said. But he noted it made them a better company.

“There’s no organization that 100 percent perfect because people are involved and people will make mistakes.”

Jan Jones Blackhurst knows that people make mistakes. And training is key. But she also expects people at Caesars to follow corporate policy. And the corporate policy at Caesars Entertainment, where Jones Blackhurst is the vice president of Public Policy and Corporate Responsibility, is to be completely diverse.

“You do the right thing,” Jones Blackhurst said.

She noted that Caesars has properties in states like Mississippi, which doesn't restrict bathroom access to transgender people but grants immunity to businesses and public agencies that do.

But Caesars properties aren’t public. So Caesars tells its employees to follow their policies and procedures.

“In our circumstance, we think the moral right supersedes an inappropriate law.”

Jones Blackhurst said Caesars Entertainment’s policy is to have the guests use the facilities that conform with their gender identity. She said those policies stand even in states like Mississippi where the laws are different.

“It’s our policy,” she said, “In our circumstance, we think the moral right supersedes an inappropriate law.”

Brooke Maylath said that when she heard about the incident at New York-New York, she thought, “MGM is such a leader in diversity, that this has to be a mistake.” Maylath is the president of Transgender Allies Group in Reno.

“The fact is there is nobody in the entire country who is authorized to be the gender police,” she said, “Nobody is authorized to check genitals. Who is supposed to go into what bathroom? What we’re looking at is individual implicit bias – a bias of ‘what looks out of order.’ That bias is triggered," she said, when an individual sees someone who doesn’t fit into their world order. “They’re using a bias filter that they’re not necessarily conscious of.”

The answer, says Maylath, is training.

“In order to get past that, every individual, particularly those who are in authority positions have to have the kind of training to understand what their implicit biases may cause them to do,” she said.

Maylath pointed out that gender identity and sexual orientation are not the same things. She put the concept a very simple way: “Sexual orientation is who you want to go to bed with, but gender identity is who you want to go to bed as.”

But what about the idea put forth by people who want bathroom restrictions that men will take advantage and lurk in order to hurt women?

Maylath knows her statistics. She said there has never been an incident of a woman or a girl being attacked by a transgender person in a bathroom, but there are multiple reports of transgender women being attacked in women’s bathrooms.

“The funny part about this whole bathroom situation specifically, is that lesbian identified women who are really butch are becoming more targets than the trans community,” said Blue Montana, the transgender program manager at The Center, Las Vegas’ LGBTQ community center. He said he has never pulled out of a bathroom in Nevada but he has in other states.

For him, the bathroom question is not one just for the transgender community.

“This is not really a trans issue,” he said, “This is about a public accommodation issue for everyone involved.”

He said bathrooms need to be open to caregivers of children, the elderly or disabled.

While bathrooms seem to dominate the conversation around transgender and gender identity, there are more important issues that transgender people have to deal with, including a high rate of suicide and a high rate of unemployment.

Andre Wade is the new executive director of The Center. He said the country as a whole is just starting to have conversations around gender identity and transgender.  

“We have a very binary sense of male and female and that is just where it has been,” he said, “We have to start educating folks around the fluidity of not only sexuality but gender and how we’re going to express that as well.”

He suggests people talk and listen to each other before reacting and remember transgender people are that – people.

Montana agrees and points out that words matter. Outdated and derogatory words just work to hurt people.

“It’s just another way of disrespecting us when people refuse to use the words that we identify as or use something that’s derogatory,” he said.

While Wade doesn’t particularly like the idea that trans people are stopped, he feels that part of getting over your internal prejudices is making the mistake and acknowledging it. If a manager mistakenly stops somebody who then tells them she’s trans, that manager should then apologize and let her go to the bathroom. It’s a learning experience.

“Once you know somebody, you can’t hate them.”

Nadal has seen a change over the last decade and a half. Fourteen years ago, when "Zumanity" opened, people would walk out or make retching sounds after an act that ended with two men – two mixed race men – kissing.

“Fast forward about 10 years, and we start noticing that people weren’t walking out anymore… people started clapping and cheering," he said, "The more it just becomes part of everyday life and accepted, then the issues start to fall away, and that’s where the transgender community is now.”

But is it really fair to ask someone who is dealing with discrimination to teach people how and why not to discriminate?

“I think there’s a fatigue that we have where we’re constantly explaining ourselves, we’re constantly justifying our existence,” Wade said. “However, if I don’t take the time to get out of my stuff to educate someone about gender and sexuality, then I’m doing a disservice to my entire community. I think it’s my responsibility as an advocate to have those conversations all day every day.”


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(Editor's Note: This discussion originally aired August 25, 2017)

Jan Jones Blackhurst, vice president of Public Policy and Corporate Responsibility, Caesars Entertainment; Jerry Nadal, senior vice president, Cirque Du Soleil; Brooke Maylath, president, Transgender Allies Group in Reno; Andre Wade, executive director, the Center, Las Vegas’ LGBTQ community center; Blue Montana, transgender program manager, the Center

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(EDITOR'S NOTE: Carrie Kaufman no longer works for KNPR News. She left in April 2018)
Kristy Totten is a producer at KNPR's State of Nevada. Previously she was a staff writer at Las Vegas Weekly, and has covered technology, education and economic development for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. She's a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism.