On March 16, at about 8:30 p.m., Lehcar Peterson was with a friend at Underground Atlanta when they had to use the restroom. The men’s room was being cleaned and several men were standing around it while the women’s restroom was clear. A transgender man, Peterson decided to use the women’s restroom.
“I had been using the women’s restroom my whole life, I didn’t think there would be a problem,” said Peterson, 21.
But after getting into a stall, Peterson said he heard a man shout, “Hey, sir,” several times.
“I didn’t know he was talking to me. I’m not passing a lot,” he said.
Peterson alleged that the security guard then came into the bathroom and started rattling the stall door where he was using the bathroom, shouting, “Are you male or female?” several times.
“I know he could hear me urinating,” Peterson said.
Peterson, who began transitioning from female to male in August after moving to Atlanta from Washington, D.C., said he typically uses the men’s room if there aren’t many men around and he feels safe. When attending Georgia State University, although not enrolled now, he said he could usually find a unisex restroom to use.
While the security guard continued to shake the door and threaten to pull it open, Peterson said he became terrified of what might happen if he identified as male or female. While he presents as male, he has not changed his GSU identification card to state he is male.
“I assumed he was a police officer because of the tone he was using. I remember [from a training about what rights people have when confronted by police] that I don’t have to tell them my gender — he has to have a reason. And he kept asking if I was male or female. I told him I don’t have to divulge this, that I want to speak to your supervisor,” Peterson said.
When they walked out of the restroom, Peterson alleges the security guard grabbed him by the arm and shouted at him in front of a group of men milling around the restroom.
“There were these guys around. He was still yelling, ‘Are you male or female.’ Some of the people are shouting, ‘That’s a female.’ I’m messed up. People will kill a transgender person. What do I say?” Peterson said. “I feel pressured to say something but still don’t.”
Peterson said he was finally asked for his ID.
“It has my birth name on it, the hated name, my female name on it. Then another guard starts asking me horrible questions, like, ‘Do you have a dick or vagina between your legs?’” Peterson said. “I felt like some weird side show.”
The security officer’s supervisor read the ID and Peterson said he asked him why he just didn’t identify his gender. But Peterson said fear kept him from saying.
“I knew hate crimes happen to transgender people. If I say male and show my ID, I could get my ass beat. I really didn’t want to say either way because either way it could go bad,” he said.
Peterson said he spoke to Officer Dani Lee Harris, the LGBT liaison for the Atlanta Police Department, and filed an official complaint against the security officers at Underground Atlanta.
Harris confirmed a report had been filed but it was not made available despite numerous requests. A call to Varonel Manzueta, director of security at Underground Atlanta, was not returned.
Justin Tanis, community education and outreach manager for the National Center for Transgender Equality, said bathroom harassment of transgender individuals is prevalent.
“Trans people are very much at risk in the restroom — they can be harassed, asked to leave. Even if their ID shows they are male or female [the gender they are presenting as], they can face harassment,” he said.
Being confronted in a public restroom by someone or having a security guard called is embarrassing and dangerous, Tanis added.
“Research shows that violent attacks against transgender people often come from people in law enforcement,” he said.
Peterson said what he wants most to come from the incident is for security personnel at Underground Atlanta to undergo mandatory diversity training so what happened to him won’t happen to anyone else.
“I have social anxiety about this now. This had never happened to me before,” he said. “That was a real traumatic experience.”
Photo by Dyana Bagby