Editor’s note: This essay is part of an occasional series presenting the reflections of Chipsters as they complete their CQS internships. Lam wrote her reflection in September 2018 and updated it in October 2019.
Having the conversation
by Kristin Lam
Regret. Frustration. Relief. Those emotions coursed through me as I heard, during the last two days of my internship, the phrase I wish you had told me sooner.
If I had told my editor or someone in the human resources department sooner, we could have had conversations about how to prevent the gender microaggressions that I, a gender-nonconforming woman, faced in the newsroom’s restroom. Management could have tried to address the issue. Instead, by keeping the experiences to myself, entering and being in the restroom became one of the most stressful aspects of my internship.
On four or five occasions, women were visibly distressed by my presence in the restroom. They would see me washing my hands, look at the women’s sign on the door and stare at me again. Sometimes they’d gasp, bringing their hands to their mouths. Then, in my high-pitched voice, I’d say hello. They’d compose themselves enough to head to a stall. One woman declared, “This is the women’s restroom,” challenging my right to be there.
Because of these encounters, going to the restroom was nerve-wracking. I’d be on edge and would listen to hear if anyone was inside before entering, to avoid both scaring someone and feeling like my presence was repulsive. I’d get in and out as quickly as possible. I’d drink less water at work so I’d have to use the restroom less often.
I experience similar reactions in public restrooms. Strangers tend to read me as male because of my short hair and men’s clothing. The women I’ve described were from other newsroom departments. I didn’t work with them, and they weren’t familiar with me. I thought that these unsettling experiences were just something I had to deal with.
My editor, who like me is Japanese American, reassured me I didn’t have to gaman through it. Perhaps, unlike our families who endured incarceration during World War II with patience and dignity, maybe I didn’t have to deal with feeling unsafe in workplace restrooms.
I realized that, unlike Japanese Americans who endured incarceration with patience and dignity, I didn’t have to deal with feeling unsafe in workplace restrooms.
Still, as a member of the LGBT community, I’ve found it hard to determine when it’s safe to disclose issues I’m struggling with inside newsrooms. Will my concerns be brushed off? Will my anxieties be disregarded as commonplace? Will my reactions be dismissed as oversensitive, just as others have minimized my concerns as an Asian American woman about insensitive racist and sexist comments?
The recent arguments before the Supreme Court on the legality of firing people because of their gender identity or sexual orientation serves as a reminder: LGBT rights are up for debate in this nation. And though the cases before the court deal with employment issues, the justices during the Oct. 8 proceeding still questioned transgender restroom usage.
As my internship ended last summer, I decided that bringing up the restroom issue was worth a shot if I could prevent microagressions and other distress from happening in the future. My editor and the HR person I spoke with did not know of any previous openly transgender or gender-nonconforming employees at the paper, but maybe they’ll join the staff in the future. I want them to feel safe in the newsroom restrooms, so in my exit interview I suggested offering diversity training and providing gender-inclusive restrooms.
I recently followed up on my earlier conversation with the senior HR director. She said in an email that no new training was introduced around restroom use, but that employees undergo harassment training that includes “sensitivity and legal issues relating to gender identity/sexual orientation,” in accordance with California law.
I don’t blame the company for the restroom environment I experienced. Gender-nonconforming, transgender and nonbinary people encounter ignorance and discrimination in many facets of life, from airport T.S.A. pat-downs to doctors denying health care. I yearn for the day people of all gender identities and expressions are free to use restrooms and exist without trepidation.
The conversations last summer reminded me to speak up for myself and my communities, which include fellow LGBT journalists of color. “I wish you had told me sooner” exchanges aren’t ideal on either end, after all.
Kristin Lam (2018) is a breaking news reporter for the USA TODAY Network in Los Angeles. Her CQS internship paper was The Mercury News in San Jose, California.