Arizona Legislator Shows His Ignorance – And a Lesson on Sex and Birth Certificates

I’m not writing about Autism today, but I am writing about discriminated against another group of people – trans* (I’m using this primarily to refer to transsexual people, but using “trans” instead because I believe this issues affect more than just transsexuals), intersexed, and people that might get mistaken for being the other sex (such as people like Khadijah Farmer who was thrown out of a restaurant bathroom that matched her sex, gender, and, presumably, chromosomes).

An Arizona legislator has entered a proposed amendment to a bill being heard by committee. The bill was originally written to establish regulations for massage therapy. The amendment would completely strike that language and replace it with nothing to do with massage. Instead, it would create a criminal penalty for using the wrong bathroom:


It does go on to grant some exceptions, such as allowing a small child of the opposite sex accompanied by a parent into a bathroom.

This type of thing is not unique to proposed laws in Arizona. It’s been tried elsewhere. For instance, the University of Pittsburgh expelled a student for using the “wrong” locker room on the basis that the student’s birth certificate presumably indicated a different gender than the sign on the bathroom door.

Bathroom and locker room usage is also a common objection by people generally opposed to LGBT non-discrimination laws, particularly when “T” is included in the law. In fact, it appears that the Arizona proposed amendment may be a response to the City of Phoenix passing a law banning discrimination against LGBT people. The argument is, essentially, that women and girls are placed at great risk if a man enters their bathroom, and that sexual predators will be granted freedom to molest girls because they’ll be able to pretend to be a woman and thus protected by the law. That’s bogus, and I’ll explain why later – but I’ll give a preview: it’s less to deal with protecting children than simply having moral disapproval for how someone else lives their life. But “I think they are sick” doesn’t track as well with the public as “children are at risk.”

So, here’s some education for future potential legislators seeking to ban trans people from public life. If you want to be a bigot, at least do it right.

Not Everyone Has Birth Certificates

An Arizona legislator should know this, since there is a way to apply for a “delayed birth certificate” in Arizona (like most, if not all, other states and foreign jurisdictions). A delayed birth certificate is issued when no birth certificate exists for a person who is older than one years old. That person could even be an adult that for whatever reason never had their birth recorded. They are still citizens of Arizona and the USA (assuming they were born in Arizona), but don’t have a certificate on file.

Under this proposed law, they could not use any public bathroom in Arizona that was signed for one or both sexes (they could enter unsigned bathrooms).

Not Every Birth Certificate Indicates Sex

Not all birth certificates indicate the sex of a person. I know a person who has the word “CHILD” under “sex” on the birth certificate. This person, and others like this person, could not enter any public bathroom in Arizona that was signed for one or both sexes (they could enter unsigned bathrooms). I guess they could enter a bathroom marked “CHILD” but that’s probably not the intent of the law!

I Can See Your…Birth Certificate?

This would seem to be obvious, but people generally don’t carry their birth certificate with them. A police officer arresting someone or charging someone on the basis of their presumed birth certificate, without any evidence as to what the certificate actually says, very well could be subject to a bias complaint – remember, sex discrimination is against federal law, and sex discrimination can occur when decisions are made because someone doesn’t fit the expected sex stereotype.

So a police officer confronted with a person who doesn’t look like a “proper” man or woman has a choice: she can either assume that the person has a birth certificate that matches her assumptions or not. But there’s not necessarily a direct connection. Remember, the law proposed doesn’t care about anatomy – it only cares about what is written on the paper.

Evidence also must be presented in court. Presumably, the prosecution would request the birth certificate from the state of birth and ask someone to testify as to its’ authenticity. But that seems a bit much for a misdemeanor. Without that, there is no evidence however, baring a person incriminating themself. It’s even more difficult if the state or foreign jurisdiction doesn’t see the request for birth certificate as a valid reason to produce the record.

Doesn’t Do What it Means to Do

The intent of the law is clear: establish law that doesn’t recognize legal sex changes. The assumption is that the birth certificate reflects the person’s “birth sex” (which is problematic in itself), while other ID, such as a driver’s license (which is often easier to change) might not. However, birth certificates don’t necessarily recognize birth sex, despite this legislator’s apparent beliefs.

In some cases, birth certificates are wrong. All it takes is a simple typo that goes unnoticed. That person, in Arizona, would be required to use a bathroom they don’t belong in.

In other cases, birth certificates are changed without surgery. I.E. the person may have a penis but be listed as “F” on their birth certificate. My guess is that the legislator intends that such a person wouldn’t be in the women’s locker room. However, this law would require that person to use the women’s locker room – exactly the opposite of the legislator’s intent. Ontario, Illinois, and federal (USA) jurisdiction (for births of USA citizens-by-birth abroad) are just a few jurisdictions that don’t require surgery to change birth certificates.

It also works the other way – someone can have genital surgery and have a birth certificate under their “old” gender. They may not have applied for a new one, or they may be in one of the few jurisdictions that won’t allow a birth certificate change (in the USA, only Idaho, Ohio, and Tennessee fit this category). So now you can have someone with the “wrong” parts legally required to use a bathroom that this legislator probably doesn’t think they belong in.

Far from preventing “men from being in the girl’s locker room”, this law would require that.

It Doesn’t Make People More Comfortable

One of the arguments – which is completely bogus – is that we have to think of everyone using a bathroom or locker room, and their comfort. Of course, usually the trans or intersexed person’s comfort isn’t a major consideration.

But, tell me, would most women feel comfortable changing in front of Ian Harvie? Now, I have no idea what sex is listed on Ian’s birth certificate, but I doubt anyone worried about men in the women’s room would want someone like Ian in the women’s room!

It Promotes Discrimination

Many people who are transitioning pick a bathroom based on safety and discrimination concerns. Sometimes it may be safer to use the men’s room, other times the women’s room. Using the bathroom of the target gender confirms to people that you “really are” what you present as, particularly if it’s not completely unambiguous. Being outed as trans, by using an inappropriate bathroom, can expose someone to anti-trans violence. While we should live in a world where someone should be able to safely be trans anywhere, we don’t. So we have to think of the safety of the people most likely to be hurt. Ultimately, it isn’t my place to tell someone else what bathroom they should use when their personal safety is at stake. (note that it is NEVER the trans-person’s ‘fault’ if they are attacked for simply being trans, regardless of what bathroom they use)

We Already Have Laws to Protect Girls

Despite that plenty of boys are abused in bathrooms, the discussion on these laws usually deals with the perceived risk to girls (apparently, boys can’t be molested in some people’s eyes).

In Boulder, CO, a man was recently charged with watching others use the bathroom. It’s become a bit of a circus, but clearly there are still laws violated when people breach the privacy of a bathroom or locker room, even in places where there are strong anti-discrimination laws, like Boulder, CO (which has some of the strongest in the country).

We have laws to protect people from inappropriate behavior in bathrooms and locker rooms. I don’t care what is between your legs if you are trying to molest someone. Fortunately the law doesn’t, either. Nor do I care what parts you have (or certainly not what is on your birth certificate) if you are sexually harassing people or violating their privacy – I also don’t care if you are straight or gay, or doing it to someone of the same or opposite sex. It’s wrong and illegal. Already.

In addition, in no jurisdiction where there is good non-discrimination law has that law been successfully used as a defense by someone using the bathroom to molest or invade the privacy of others.

Not Every Man Has a Penis

While I think the proposed law would be more likely to match the intent of the legislator if he wrote “people with penises must not use the women’s room,” it still would be a bad law (it is interesting however that the people most concerned with whether or not someone else has a penis are the same people who refuse to use the word “penis”). Besides transmen that may or may not have a penis, people can have unusual genitals for all sorts of reasons, such as accidents, medical errors/malpractice, or biological conditions.


Clearly, some people are uncomfortable with the idea of transsexuals and others they don’t approve of in the bathroom.

The solution is simple: they shouldn’t use multi-occupancy bathrooms, locker-rooms, etc. Just as someone who is uncomfortable in the presence of blacks should not use public accommodations, if they want to be comfortable. It’s not any more right to ban transsexual and other people from public spaces than to ban blacks from public spaces, even if people are sincerely uncomfortable. There are plenty of sincere racists.

It’s not the victim of discrimination’s fault that a bigot is uncomfortable. The problem is the bigot, not the victim. So the burden should be placed squarely on the bigot when deciding who doesn’t need to fully participate in society.

For people concerned about minimizing discomfort (and increasing safety) to all people, it’s best to have spaces where people can disrobe or use the bathroom in true privacy. We don’t have to build open showers and changing areas. Really. Single-stall/shower facilities are a great solution. That said, nobody should be forced into such facilities while others use other facilities, but at the same time such facilities provide a place for people who desire greater privacy, such as people who might be offended by the presence of a trans person.

If people really cared about their fellow citizens, this would be the demand: private changing areas and bathrooms. Seriously. I’m not any more comfortable with a creepy man staring at my parts than a creepy woman staring at my parts!

Much of the debate comes down to: is a trans person “really” the gender they claim to be, or should they be forced to be what someone else thinks they should be? Beyond the sad case of David Reimer, modern science has certainty here – they are who they say they are. Yes, they (pdf) are. Don’t worry, nobody will make you change your gender against your will. So please don’t you try to do that to anyone by punishing them if they live authentically.

You’re No Ally of Mine

In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the Bible (don’t worry, I’m not going to try changing your religion), there’s a parable told about a man who was travelling, beat, and essentially left for dead alongside a road.  Two people walked by individually, neither stopping for the nearly-dead man.  Finally, a third man walks by, helps the man, finds the man a place to recover, and pays the man’s bills.  Jesus relates the story and then asks, “Who, then, was this man’s neighbor?” followed by “And, then, go and do likewise.”

We also saw who was and wasn’t a neighbor – or ally – in rape and sexual assault.  No, I’m not talking just Steubenville.    Or India where bystanders ignored a naked, bleeding couple following a brutal attack.  In fact, famously, it was studied after a 1964 rape in New York City, where despite screaming in a crowded urban area for 30 minutes, a woman was raped and murdered without any apparent action by witnesses, as the following video shows:

While bystander inaction in rape is absolutely beyond understanding, there’s a few things to note. I’m guessing that many of the bystanders in Steubenville, India, and New York felt that they were decent human beings. They would probably talk about how hard it is to be a lone voice, which nobody would contest. But they were no ally of the victim. In fact, their silence demonstrates that they frankly didn’t give a damn about the victim. Oh, sure, they might have in an abstract sense, but when the rubber met the road, they didn’t.

Rape is not the only place where bystanders do nothing. Too often, when a member of a minority group is harassed or belittled, the “good” people who bystanders do nothing. Let me tell you something – if you stand by inactive even for “minor” (ya, right) harassment and bullying:

You are no ally of mine.

Again: You are no ally of mine.

Being an ally isn’t a passive activity that you get to do only when it’s comfortable and nice and you don’t have to risk upsetting a friend or acquiescent. It’s not an activity that you only need to do when you know everyone around you will agree with you. It’s not passive. It’s not just “believing” that people shouldn’t be hurt, abused, raped, taunted, bullied, etc. That’s not enough. It’s not even enough that you, yourself don’t do these things, if you passively agree to them when they happen. You don’t get a “get out of jail card” for callously standing around while someone is hurt just because you didn’t actually say the words / commit the act. No, you sat there and watched someone do something horrible and felt that it was more okay for that horrible thing to happen than for you to get uncomfortable.

You are no ally of mine.

Is being an ally hard? Of course. There is a difference between a weak-willed well-wisher with no backbone and an ally. The well-wisher with no backbone creates no change.

Am I saying you have to respond every single time you see someone being mistreated? Well, yes. Even if it’s dangerous? Yes. Again, yes. Yes, even if it is dangerous. Yes.

Now, I’m not telling you to get into a physical altercation with someone that will just beat the shit out of you. Of course that would be stupid. But you can do things. Whether it is taking good note of the perpetrators to be a good witness, calling the police, asking “is that person bothering you,” or even comforting the victim after the attack, there’s something you can do. But you can’t do nothing. Even if you can’t do everything. If you don’t…

You are no ally of mine.

You also don’t get a pass when someone is insulted or verbally harassed and they don’t seem bothered by it. You see, the victim that is marginalized, abused, belittled, and probably way more scared than you are is a victim. When you’re not that target, you need to speak up or do something for the person who can’t.

Let’s give an example, using race. You and a group of your white friends (pretend you’re white for a minute, even if you aren’t) are eating lunch with another of your mutual friends, who is black. When one of your white friends calls your black friend “monkey lips” or some other racist bullshit. Maybe he’s joking. Maybe he’s not. Doesn’t matter. Your responsibility is to call out the bullshit. Even if your black friend doesn’t visibly appear bothered. His appearance of not being bothered may simply be a coping mechanism, a defense. You, as a person of privilege (white privilege in this case) have a position where you are at less risk personally if you stand up for what is right. So it doesn’t matter that the person without privilege didn’t speak up, you still need to do that. And you don’t need his permission (although if this happens a lot around you, you probably should discuss and defer to him as to what your response should be – but if you haven’t done that, you need to assume you should respond). The only exception to this is if your friend, the victim, says that he’s okay with it. Even if you don’t agree, he’s the victim, he gets to make that call – don’t persist at that point. But up to that point, you have a responsibility. If you just sit there because you don’t know what he wants…

You’re no ally of mine.

Sure, if you tell a friend that his joking is racist, he might get upset. You may even lose a friend. Here’s where you need to know what is important to you. And here is where we find out if an ally believes something because it’s right or merely because of social expectation. If you believe it’s right, you stand up. You take risks. You might get hurt. But you do the right thing. If you value not upsetting your friend more than you value me not getting hurt…

You’re no ally of mine.

It also doesn’t matter if it’s just words or a joke, wrong pronouns for a transgender person (accidentally or intentionally), stereotypes about people, or even something that a lot of people around agree with or laugh at. Even in these “little” things (which are anything but to someone subjected to them daily), you need to speak out or act up. Because they become bigger things. Your silent approval (and your silence is always approval) gives license to see where the line is. If the line isn’t verbal harassment, maybe a slight physical touch won’t be a problem either. And when you don’t speak up there, maybe it will escalate more. You need to speak up. You can remain silent, but just don’t call yourself an ally of mine.

You’re no ally of mine.

Now, you’ve probably not acted at some point when you should have. Change. Seriously. And let the victim of your silence know you are sorry. Don’t expect them to kiss you and tell you how wonderful you are for your new view on life. They probably won’t. You still hurt them, and words that don’t involve risk are still just words. You’ll have to earn your ally status back. You will have to put actions – and risk – to work.

Again, speaking up isn’t always the right thing. Again, you can do any number of things. Anything other than nothing. If you want to be my ally, or someone else’s ally, that’s what you’ll do. I don’t care if your thoughts about me are pure if those thoughts never leave your head when they matter. So let them out. Take the risk. And actually be an ally. You don’t get to be both passive and an ally.

Sports-seasonal Affective Disorder

While this is an autistic blog, I do recognize that there are many different types of neurological conditions, such as neurotypicality.  Neurotypicality, as you may know, affects 96% of the world’s population.  You probably have friends and relatives that daily live with neurotypicality.  One commonly associated disorder is Sports-seasonal Affective Disorder, or SSAD.

SSAD affects mostly males, with different symptom clusters broken down roughly by geography.  For instance, in the USA, SSAD symptoms peak in the “NFL Playoffs” but run throughout much of the late summer to early winter.  In other places, SSAD peaks at different times of the year, but we haven’t fully discovered the reasons for this.

During a SSAD symptom peak, a sufferer may find himself compelled to draw away from his family, particularly the opposite sex, and seek out other SSAD suffers, often at a large SSAD complex (“stadium”).  In some cases, SSAD sufferers self-medicate with alcohol.  Alcohol intake however is not based on a rational decision-making process, but instead a symptom of the disease.  For instance, one sufferer may self-medicate because “my team lost” while another self-medicates “in celebration of the victory.”  As can be seen, this is not logical!

SSAD sufferers often feel a compulsion to “not miss” a game, and may travel great distances at great expense in search of an elusive, temporary feeling.

In most cases, the symptoms are seasonal, but in severe cases the symptoms are present year-round, often manifesting in different time periods with different symptom clusters (“NFL-type” vs. “NBA-type”, for instance).

Also, a sense of perspective may be lost and others may be blamed for the patient’s mood swings.  For instance, one autistic brother of a SSAD sufferer reported that his brother “ranted for over a week about how a referee’s bad call destroyed ‘his’ team’s chances.”  Note that the SSAD sufferer did not actually own any team but still displayed a possessive attitude.

What can you do to help?  Sadly, there isn’t much we can do.  While autistics can also have SSAD, it seems most associated with neurotypicality and perhaps an excess of testosterone.  Most treatment options, except in extremely severe manifestations of SSAD, involve “waiting out” the season.  While it is tough to watch your loved one screaming incomprehensible words at a television, know that it is likely only a temporary episode and will soon pass.  In other cases, the affected may feel an urge to dress up and pretend to both be much younger (typically pretending to be in his early 20s) and more athletic than he is in real life.  In some cases, the person may even choose to change the color of his skin.  There are even internet sites where suffers compare notes on this type of disconnected-with-reality play.  While this manifestation is hard for outsiders to understand, it rarely is a symptom of more severe problems and can be left untreated for most individuals.

For family members unaffected, it’s best to seek respite care as needed to cope with your loved ones flare-ups.  In particular, many family members have found a “night out” on so-called “game” days can be a huge stress reliever.  Of course it’s important to remember that sometimes during the flare-ups, those affected can require help with basic life functioning and may need help with tasks such as food preparation and comfort during times when the binary nature of the syndrome cause downward mood swings (you’ll be keyed into such events such by your loved one using phrases such “the game was stolen” or “how could he miss that catch?”).

As autistics, we can help our family members by realizing that SSAD is not a choice.  We don’t yet know what causes it – it’s believed both genetics and social factors are involved, but we don’t believe it’s caused by bad parenting.  Most symptoms pass within hours, so it’s possible to manage a full life even in the presence of a SSAD suffers.  In fact, many SSAD sufferers have relatively normal employment histories and can even live relatively independently.  Some lucky SSAD sufferers find understanding mates and even successfully raise children (there is a risk of inheriting SSAD, but most doctors agree that the additional risk of a SSAD sufferer being born to a parent with SSAD is relatively small – SSAD children are often born to non-affected parents as well).

I hope this helps you understand this complex and puzzling condition.

Stupid Responses to a Harassment Complaint

I was thinking about two different responses I have seen to a harassment complaint – in both, I was a third party.  One was a great response that recognized the harm done, while the other seemingly blamed the victim.  Ironically, the great response was from a group I had less than full respect for, while the poor response was by someone I have great respect for – I guess that shows that properly responding to a complaint isn’t necessarily a skill that all people have.  I use strong language here because I do think there are appropriate places for strong language.  This is one of them.

I’m talking about this in employment context, but it also applies to other organizations – even groups of friends when someone might confide in you about a wrong someone did.

Before I get into too much detail on what not to do, I’ll tell a somewhat anonymity story of the good response.

Doing the Right Thing

One of my past coworkers was in an interracial marriage and had a picture of him and his wife on his desk.  I’m sure I saw the picture at times, but it was nothing remarkable to me – just a family picture, a fairly common item in an office environment.  Someone I worked with, however, didn’t agree that this was a common office item – and left a note telling the worker, essentially, that he disapproved of the man’s “nigger bride.”  Obviously, highly, highly, highly offensive and a demonstration of true asshole status on the part of the note-writer.

My coworker, we’ll call him Bob, went to HR and reported the incident.  HR immediately took the issue very seriously and recognized it for what it was – not just a potential lawsuit (yes, it was that, at least if not handled properly), but, way more importantly, something that had the potential to greatly affect the ability of people in the office to work together to accomplish the company’s goals.    And, even more importantly – something that was incredibly hurtful and potentially frightening.  I don’t know if Bob was scared or not, but it certainly would have made me look at my coworkers differently.

HR’s response was, with Bob’s permission, to call each of us who had access to Bob’s office into HR in private, and to interview us to see if we had any idea who might have done such a thing.  Obviously one of us did it (it was a locked, secure office environment), and they no doubt interviewed the asshole.  I was shocked when I heard what happened, and, although I couldn’t give any useful information to HR, I did let Bob know what I thought of the person who did it and offered any support I could provide.

They never did find the racist asshole.  Nor did they substantiate the discrimination complaint – there simply wasn’t evidence beyond one piece of paper.  But even without substantiating the complaint, it was taken seriously as a real complaint, where a real harm was done.  Bob wasn’t lectured on how to respond to people, how some people might be bothered by a picture of an interracial couple, or that he needed to lock his door better.  Maybe someone intended it as a joke, but that still wouldn’t have made it acceptable behavior and the joker still would have been a racist asshole.  Regardless of the reason for the person doing it, Bob was a victim.  And, through a proper investigative process, other coworkers who learned of the event were able to offer support for Bob – to show him he wasn’t alone in his anger and upset.

A Stupid Response

I’ll talk about someone else who raised a complaint.  The complaint was about verbal sexual harassment.  When the harassment was reported, the first response was, “Are you sure that it was intended that way, and wasn’t just someone who innocently said the wrong thing or didn’t understand that their words could be taken that way?”  In other words, the very first thing that was said by authority was, “you could be wrong.”  Not, “I’m sorry.”  Not, “We’ll get to the bottom of this.”  Not, “we don’t tolerate that behavior.”  No, it was an excuse for the harasser.  This was followed by a lecture on “ways to respond” to such talk.

Never was an investigation discussed, nor was permission sought to interview other people, such as the people present at the time of the incident (who could substantiate the claim, potentially).  Certainly nobody expected this manager to fire the harasser on the spot just on the basis of one person’s unsubstantiated word (after all, it could be an attempt to smear someone else who really is innocent).  But they did expect that a complaint would be taken seriously and not dismissed immediately, and that, even if the complaint couldn’t actually be substantiated (which is very far from being proven false), the victim would receive at least understanding of her feelings of betrayal, powerlessness, and vulnerability.  But, no, she was told that it might help if she learned ways to respond to people doing that.

Maybe it would help if she learned ways to respond.  But that’s not a decent response to a victim.  They aren’t reporting it to be lectured.  They are reporting it because they want your help responding to the wrong committed against them, not told that they themselves are responsible for people doing bad things to them.  And not conducting interviews with the witnesses missed a great opportunity to make sure that the workplace stayed supportive – and that the support was obvious.  By interviewing witnesses, it could be made clear that people in power see this as serious and that there was a victim of what might have seemed to be innocent words to some.  With this new insight, the witnesses would recognize this behavior in the future for what it is and perhaps act on their own to stop it when they see it.

In addition to being told she could learn to respond to bad behavior by others, she was also offered a chance for engagement with the harasser.  Of course this is terrifying to a victim and probably the last thing that is needed.  Most people don’t want to confront the people who did harm to them.  Instead they want appropriate authorities, when an act of evil is reported, to investigate it and deal with the situation.  They don’t want to build understanding with their harasser.

The harasser is still employed, while the victim left (because of her treatment).  The victim absolutely has a claim against the employer legally, but, more important, the organization has shown itself to not give a damn about their employees.  At least not when it counts.

Here’s my recommendations, should anyone report harassment or bullying to you:

  • Don’t lecture the victim, even if you haven’t verified the story.  Especially if you haven’t verified the story.
  • If it’s important to the victim, it’s important.  Period.  Don’t dismiss, make light of it, or tell the victim that it might not “really” have been bad.
  • Actually investigate.  Seek permission to talk to witnesses and people who might be able to shed light on the events.
  • Use the investigative process to show how seriously you take the allegations.  Use it as a teaching moment for all in how not to respond and why to speak up when evil is observed.  It’s also a chance for people to learn that there was a victim, so they can offer their support to the victim.
  • Unsubstantiated is not the same as not true.  Make sure the victim knows that you see the difference.
  • Even seemingly innocent or joking behavior can be harassment.  That’s no excuse for mistreatment of others.
  • Don’t go so far in maintaining an impression of impartiality that you fail to demonstrate empathy.  Let the victim know you understand and see what is wrong.  You don’t have to punish someone without substantiation, but at the same time you don’t need to throw that into the victim’s face.

Stopping Harassment or Just Stopping Harassment Claims

I’ve been looking for some good adult anti-bullying/anti-harassment training material.  Unfortunately, I’m looking for cheap stuff (preferably free), as I’m not doing this for a for-profit organization, but for a community group.  So I can’t afford “$50 per employee” or such.  I’m also looking for something a bit more general than just sexual harassment (ideally it would cover harassment on the basis of race or disability, as well as other areas).

Unfortunately almost everything I have is full of problems:

Problem 1: The Focus

The biggest problem has been the focus of the material.  Most is about avoiding claims.  While I realize that talking about how much a successful lawsuit against a company can cost might convince a corporate officer to pay for some training material (“See, you’ll save money!”), that’s not what I’m after.  I couldn’t give a flying you-know-what about checking a box that says “Yes, we’ve trained people.  So you can’t sue us. Ha-ha-ha!  And we don’t actually have to stop abuse!  Ha-ha-ha!”  But that’s exactly what I’ve found.

Maybe I’m unfairly characterizing some of this stuff.  But go do your own Google search for harassment training, and report what you find.  Most is marketed as “when your people harass each other, now you can say, ‘I trained them!  So you can’t sue me.  I tried.”  Sorry, no.  First, that’s not what the law says.  But I’m not a lawyer so I probably shouldn’t go there.  Second, and more importantly, there’s a huge difference between trying to reduce claims and trying to reduce actual harassment.  Reducing harassment has a neat side effect of reducing claims, although not necessarily the other way around.

For instance, see Best Practices for Preventing Workplace Harassment – a site you  might expect to tell you how to create a decent workplace, at least regarding harassment.  Nope!  It has gems like this:

Harassment claims are bad for business. They hurt productivity and morale, can make it harder to retain qualified employees, and can damage your organization’s reputation through negative media coverage. Also, dealing with a harassment claim could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees, and even larger amounts in settlements, judgments, and punitive damage awards.

Seriously?  Let me let you in on a hint: Harassment even without a “claim” is bad for business and hurts productivity and morale!  I’m not saying this site isn’t giving good legal advice (it likely is).  But eliminating liability shouldn’t be anyone’s major reason for teaching people how to stop sexual harassment.

Problem 2: Discouraging People from Seeking Solutions

A few years ago, the employer I was with (not my current one) made us watch a supposedly anti-harassment video for, presumably, liability reasons.  I say “made us” because  it was clear this was simply a requirement of the company based on sound legal advice – not something that actually mattered in our lives or to our managers.  But I’ll put that aside and move onto the content of the video.  After all, it’s possible that the tool itself wasn’t bad, even if the presentation of the tool to employees was.

After watching the video, it became clear that there was a theme.  The theme was “not everything is harassment.”  Well, duh.  Along with valid points (yes, having a romance between coworkers that is mutual, consensual  and doesn’t create a conflict of interest is fine), it kept emphasizing this point.  What point, exactly?  It was essentially saying, “You might be bothered by something, but that doesn’t make it harassment.  There’s a high bar for harassment.”  The subtle message conveyed was that your (likely real) harassment might not be real enough.  After all, one of the biggest doubts victims of abuse have is that they were actually abused.

Following the “you weren’t really harassed” nonsense, it progressed into talk about how your management would have to do a deep, invasive investigation to figure out the truth, because, basically, you might be a liar.  Sure, they told you (quickly and quietly) that there would be no retaliation for reporting harassment – but the message conveyed was quite different.  It was, “it probably wasn’t harassment, you’re just overreacting.  And even if it was, you don’t want to go through this horrible process that doesn’t respect that if you really are a victim that you might feel scared, powerless, and concerned about even reporting it.”

I suspect this is typical of these videos (along with cheesy acting and bad attempts to use “common” vernacular street terms to demonstrate what is and isn’t harassment, but likely using terms that would never be used by anyone outside of an HR department’s classroom.

Problem 3: Too Much Focus on Distinctions

Almost every training curriculum out there spends a lot of time talking about what is harassment (particularly, what is sexual harassment?).  They focus an amazing amount of time on the distinction between quid-pro-quo harassment and hostile environment harassment.  Now, while this might be interesting and useful to lawyers, it doesn’t help anyone.  Both types of harassment are illegal and immoral, and both types should not be seen in any decent organization.  I don’t know that someone who is a victim of harassment cares whether or not he can label it “quid-pro-quo” or “hostile environment.”  He just wants it stopped.

And that’s my concern.  Rather than making us memorize definitions (ah, but there’s a test at the end!  And it’s harder to test for “decent human being” than “was able to remember the difference between definition A and definition B”), it might be better to focus on how to stop harassment.  Most people only need a short lesson on what is inappropriate (basically, “it doesn’t matter if you’re asking for sexual favors as a supervisor or you are just a coworker making crude jokes about someone’s anatomy – it’s wrong either way.”).  What each type of harassment is called isn’t nearly as important as (1) recognizing it is harassment and (2) knowing what to do.

Problem 4: Response to Harassment

I’ve only come across a few sites that don’t immediately say “go talk to your harasser in private” or similar.  They convey an expectation that if you aren’t just trying to get money from the company, you would talk to the harasser first.  After all, she might not know what she’s doing is wrong.  Or so the theory goes.

Certainly, there are times when a private one-on-one discussion makes sense and can solve an issue.  But harassment is often not one of those times.  Much harassment takes advantage of power differences – a man harassing a woman, a non-disabled person harassing a disabled person, a (supposedly) Christian man harassing a Muslim, etc.  These aren’t equal power – these are groups that have legitimate reasons to fear physical and other attack and abuse from the world.  So asking someone to talk to their harasser…well, that can shut down the whole process right there.

Even if the person isn’t scared to do so, what do you say? What do you do?  That’s rarely talked about, and if talked about at all, it’s talked about rarely.

Some programs get that the best time to confront someone is right when they speak the bigotry, hatred, racism, misogyny, etc.  But then they get it wrong what the response of the victim should be.  First, let me say in most cases, the victim should not need to respond.  Someone else should.  Most harassment is witnessed by others.  But, all too often, the rest of a room remains silent.  Sometimes there isn’t others there.  Either way, sometimes the victim can stop further abuse by speaking up.

It’s important to note a few things here.  There are two possible reasons someone said or did something inappropriate.  Either they knew it was wrong or they didn’t! If they didn’t, and they are a decent human being, a simple quick rebuke should extract an apology and behavior change.  Failing that (or where it is obvious it’s intentionally malicious, sexist, racist, etc), the best response I’ve seen is public shaming.  Confronting the harasser in private protects the harasser, but doesn’t help the victim.  The best example I can think of this was when a woman coworker was grabbed by the arm by a man coworker to keep her from leaving his office until he finished his lecture to her.  She responded by shouting, very loudly, “Don’t touch me.  Don’t ever touch me again.”  She was alone in the office with him, but this shout got the attention of half the building – and got her support if he were ever to do it again.  He didn’t.

What doesn’t work, ever, is ignoring it or using humor and jokes.  Yet, that’s exactly what’s recommended by North Carolina’s Health and Human Services Anti-Harassment Training:

… here are some standard responses, said lightly and jokingly that might be useful:

“Uh-Oh! That’s sexual harassment — you had better watch out before you get in big trouble.”

“Is this a test to see how I handle sexual harassment? (This could also be said without humor. See previous suggestion.)

“Are you sexually harassing me again? I’m going to have to call the sexual harassment committee (EEOC, my attorney, the affirmative action officer, etc.) right now.

Uh, no (in fairness to the State of NC, this training looks relatively old and does have some good in it as well – but they really miss the mark here).

No, the right response, if any, is to tell they harasser they are wrong.  And to stop.  Now.

Problem 5: Making it the Victim’s Problem

Most harassment doesn’t happen in isolated spaces with nobody else around.  But, rather than creating an environment where everyone speaks up when they see abuse or harassment, most bystandards are silent when harassment occurs – or may even laugh with inappropriate jokes or remarks.

That doesn’t mean the bystandards are comfortable – they probably aren’t.  But, at the same time, they’ve acted in a way that says to the victim, “Your well-being is less important than me not stirring up anything.  I don’t care about you.

Yes, that’s what you say when you stay silent.

Yet few trainings on harassment, and even fewer policies, make those who observe harassment accountable for giving power to the abuser through silence.  Instead, they focus on “what could the victim have done?”  No, the victim didn’t do anything to deserve to be harassed.  So the question is, “How could the asshole be stopped?” That involves everyone else (all of us!) speaking up and let him have it verbally when we observe harassment.  Sure, it take courage.  And it’s hard.  But it’s a lot easier for us than the victim.

When this doesn’t happen, we should be accountable.  Seriously.  We can give the victim or the harasser power – doing nothing always works in favor of promoting harassment.

In addition, when we observe this crap, we need to report it.  We were witnesses and can strengthen the case.  This person very likely doesn’t just have one victim during one incident.  By keeping silent, we allow him or her to continue.


Does anyone know of any anti-bullying/anti-harassment training that doesn’t have these problems, is cheap or free, and which focuses on a wide spectrum of harassment, not just sexual harassment?  If so, I’d love to know about it.