On Thursday, May 2, 2013, I witnessed a clerk in a Pittsburgh 7-Eleven (Western Avenue on the Northside) using the word "tranny" at the register while telling an anecdote to a coworker and at least one customer. This was after a lengthy conversation about "fat women" and gastric bypass surgery that took place while I was in line.
As I approached the exit, I heard this employee say, "...and this guy, you know the 'tranny' who comes in here..." I immediately turned around and said loudly, "Did you just say tranny?"
He responded with a mumbled "sorry" and a smirk. The entire store went silent. I told him that "sorry" isn't sufficient when accompanied by a smirk. I also said that the term "tranny" is offensive and demeaning and not appropriate in a business setting. He turned around and ran into the back office. I asked the other clerks for his name, and they told me it was "Bee." I then asked if a manager was around, but there was none, so I left.
After getting home I tried to find the franchise information. I left a voicemail at the restaurant, then contacted 7-Eleven's corporate offices and filed a complaint. The franchise called me within an hour and said that they were not sure it was one of their stores - she said it looked like that particular store had been sold and that I should work with corporate.
Corporate emailed me the next day and said they would need a few days to investigate. On Tuesday, May 7, I followed up with corporate and they expressed surprise that the franchise owner, whose name is Liz Ulstott, had not called me back. They followed up with her, and she claimed she had addressed it. The employee - I learned that his name was actually Brandon -- acknowledged he used the word but said it was a private conversation.
I politely requested that the franchise owner meet with me and two members of the community to discuss the situation and my other concerns regarding the preceding conversation and the response by Brandon's coworkers. I wanted to bring local trans advocate (and Northside resident) Eli Kuti and local Unitarian-Universalist LGBTQ minister (and Northside resident) Rev Dave McFarland together with the owners of this franchise to discuss the incident and the surrounding events, and consider how we can ensure that this store is welcoming and safe to everyone. They refused, and I was told that 7-Eleven would have no further comment on the issue.
So why am I sharing this on a national LGBTQ blog?
First, corporate is well aware of the situation but needs to realize that most people don't draw a distinction between individual franchises and the larger corporation. They do not stop and think "Oh, that's a franchise issue, not a reflection on the entire corporation." No, they get a negative impression of the brand itself and thus, corporate has a vested interest in facilitating a meeting and ensuring the community that 7-Eleven is a welcoming and safe environment for all customers.
Second, one of the regional people who spoke with me didn't know what the term "tranny" meant and even asked me how to spell it. When I offered her a few comparable terms (f*g and c*nt), she was shocked but still didn't really understand -- even though I know 7-Eleven has trans customers and I bet more than a few employees. So this is a bit odd.
Third, everyone has a connection to Pittsburgh. We call it the "Steeler Nation:" people all over the world love our city (and of course, the Steelers). Whether you live here yourself, your grandma lives here, you went to college here, or you came to Pride or Netroots Nation or Creating Change here, you have an interest in creating a safe and welcoming business community.
I've created a Change.org petition asking the franchise owners to meet with community members to discuss this incident. I hope you'll consider signing it.
The petition has already gathered some notable signatories, including Pittsburgh City Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle, whose district includes this business and my personal neighborhood. Faculty and staff from the nearby community college, as well as other nearby business owners, have been vigorously signing and commenting; they don't want our neighborhood to be defined by this ugly slur or 7-Eleven's subsequent refusal to work with concerned members of our community.
I've also been approached quietly by several members of the trans community who don't feel safe or comfortable signing the petition. As allies, I believe it's our job to hear that vulnerability and step up even more, so I've been reaching out to PFLAG and other organizations that specifically exist to provide the support and encouragement people need.
So why all this effort?
It is important that business owners take steps to ensure everyone feels safe and welcome in their establishment. We believe a face-to-face meeting with a small group of community leaders can open a dialogue to create a welcoming environment. The meeting would include three people: a local pastor who is part of the LGBTQ community, a local trans man, and myself, a lesbian. All three of us live in the neighborhood.
Our goal is to simply ensure the owner understands that even a private conversation using an offensive and hateful slur sends a message to everyone in hearing range. Personal opinions need to be expressed in private, not while in uniform waiting on customers at a register. We're not demanding that Brandon be fired, because we don't want him to lose his job. Instead, we want Brandon to understand that the words he chooses to use while at work reflect on his professionalism and sends a message about the values of the business he works for. That's a good life lesson for anyone to learn, but Brandon's managers and the 7-Eleven corporate team needs to learn it as well. Finally, during this meeting we hope to discuss ways of ensuring that the community, both geographic and LGBTQ, feels safe and welcome in this store.
While I recognize that this incident occurred in a franchise, we are including 7-Eleven corporate in this petition in hopes that they will support our request and encourage their franchisee to sit down and meet with us.
Thank you again for signing the petition, and many thanks to Monica Roberts for her advice and feedback.
Sign the petition here.