About a month ago, I was at the grocery store waiting in the checkout line when I overheard an employee of the store disparaging transgender people while bagging groceries one aisle over. She was easily 12-feet away from me and the aisles were full of people also within level earshot of her unloving candor.
I couldn’t help myself. Loudly across the distance between us, I said, “Ma’am, you are representing the company while speaking like that about people. It’s bad enough that you hold this opinion yourself, but now you’re representing the company as well.”
She shouted back, “I’m not representing the company. And you’re just taking this too personally!” I said, “I’m not taking it personally. You’re wearing their uniform and performing your job at this exact moment. And clearly, you know nothing about the subject or else you wouldn’t be saying any of this.”
Our exchanges continued for a bit. Her’s hostile, mine refusing to back down. Until I decided my point had been made and I need not continue making the people around us feel either uncomfortable or wished they could pull up a chair and eat popcorn to watch the show.
I wouldn’t normally have a loud verbal smackdown with somebody so publicly, but I just couldn’t believe how unkind and incorrect she was being about a subject she clearly knows nothing about, especially from the ersatz bully pulpit of a professional setting.
I’m sure my confrontation didn’t change her mind, but no one around me stood up for her and several people gave me subtle smiles. I don’t normally like being a tattletale either, but I couldn’t help but call the management as I was exiting the parking lot to let them know. He was grateful that I told him and made a point to tell me that that is not the view of their store. I expressly did not want her fired, just admonished.
In the days that followed I replayed the scene in my head over and over. I wondered if I was just being a “Karen.” No, I didn’t overdo my meltdown, I never allowed my anger to foment into public rage. I wondered if I had embarrassed myself to the level that my calling her out had clearly embarrassed her. No, I was defiantly firm, but not unkind. I said my piece, but didn’t lose my cool. I didn’t storm to the customer service desk afterward and demand to see a manager so that I could point her out in front of everyone. I kept my dignity and avoided further bedraggling hers.
I hoped that I had modeled good behavior for others around me. Maybe I did. Hard to say. Fingers crossed. But there was one point of the conversation that I wished had gone differently. I wish that when she accused me of taking it personally I had acknowledged that, yes, I definitely was taking it personally.
I take it personally when people like her make those I love feel unsafe in this world. I am not sorry that I took her words personally and I should have said so. I’m not sorry that I countermanded her publicly-stated ignorance with an equally publicly-stated reprimand. But I am sorry I didn’t let her — and by extension, everyone around us — know that what she was saying can be overheard. And you never know who’s listening.
What if there had been a transgender kid listening to her being further exposed to the false idea that who they are is somehow wrong? What would it have made them feel like if no one had said anything in their defense? It would have made them feel like she must be right.
The fact is, transgender people have an astronomically higher rate of suicide unless they are supported by their family, their community, and receive appropriate gender-affirming care. Why might that be? It’s not because they’re lying about who and what they are. Nor have they been brainwashed by their parents, as one of that employee’s accusations had leveled. If it’s so easy to brainwash a kid into believing that their perceived gender does not match their appearance, why don’t people just brainwash them to be otherwise? Because truth can’t be brainwashed for very long or without dire consequences.
I wished I had told her just how deeply personally I take it, because people’s lives are actually, literally, at stake. And not just people I know and love.
I also wished I had asked the management if I could sit down and talk with her, rather than just leave the residue of our confrontation clinging to us indefinitely, without resolution. Without compassion. I wished, and I still wish, I could tell her that it’s not a sin to be ignorant. Ignorance can be healed. It can be educated. Its fears have a right to be heard, too.
I hope she reads this column. I hope she knows that her words do have an impact on the world. And that, in the absence of always knowing what’s true, at least seek to do no harm.
We are responsible for our neighbor. Whether you like them, or not, whether you love them or not, whether or not you understand them or agree with them, we are the caretakers of one another. All of us. If someone needs something, seek to understand it before condemning it. There is always something more profound to comprehend.
That’s what I really wished I had said.
Wil Darcangelo, M.Div, is a Unitarian Universalist Minister at the First Parish of Fitchburg and the First Church of Lancaster. Email [email protected] Follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok @wildarcangelo. His blog, Hopeful Thinking, can be found at hopefulthinkingworld.blogspot.com.