“That lesbian woman attacked me just for using a restroom that I have equal rights to use,” says Ebony Belcher.
The women’s restroom in question was at a Northeast D.C. Giant grocery store, where Belcher claims to have been assaulted last week by on-duty security guard Francine Bernice Jones. Jones was standing at the door and greeted Belcher as she entered the store. Belcher then asked a Giant employee for directions to the restroom. A minute or two after entering, the door sprang open and she heard someone shouting.
“I know you’re a he-she,” she heard Jones say. “I know you hear me. You’re not supposed to be in the women’s restroom. They didn’t pass the law yet. You know you did wrong to have ya’ll coming in here using the restroom when they didn’t pass the law.”
At first, Belcher didn’t realize Jones was yelling at her. “Ma’am, are you serious?” she asked as she exited the stall. “Are you talking to me?”
“You know who I’m talking to, you man…you faggot,” Jones replied.
Belcher informed Jones that she was “legally a female” and had an ID.
“I don’t give a shit about that,” Jones said. “I know you’re a man. Look at you — you look like you’re dying anyway.”
The verbal assault became physical when Belcher tried to leave the restroom. “I couldn’t even get past her because she started doing this like football, side-to-side move,” she says. “Then she grabbed me by my arm, swung me around and started pushing me out of the store.”
All the while, the 32-year-old Belcher claims a Giant employee was calling her obscene names. “It was awful and really hurt my feelings. I’ve been transgender since I was 14 years old and I have never had that problem ever in my life.” Things were made worse when the attacker identified herself as a lesbian.
“While she was at the door of the restroom, she kept acknowledging herself as being in the LGBT community,” Belcher says. “I said, ‘If you are in the community, you should have some compassion for people like myself using the restroom.’ She was like, ‘I don’t give a shit. I know who you are.’ I told her she was evil.”
Belcher suffers from Parkinson’s disease, a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects movement, making the experience even more traumatic. “When she assaulted me, that’s when I got nervous and started tremoring,” Belcher says. “When she was pushing me out of the door, I almost fell.”
Once outside of the store, Belcher called the police and asked the operator if what had just happened was illegal. She was told that she “had every right” to use the women’s restroom.
“I was going to leave, but then I thought about it,” Belcher says. “She’s going to jail because she had no right to put her hands on me.”
Sgt. Jessica Hawkins, head of the police department’s LGBT Liaison Unit, who is a transgender woman, was one of the officers who responded to Belcher’s 911 call. “She was really heartfelt and sympathetic towards me,” Belcher says. “She told me to keep my head up and that no one should have ever stopped me from using the restroom.”
Jones was arrested and appeared the following day in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia on a charge of simple assault. The misdemeanor carries a maximum of 180 days in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. She plead not guilty and will appear for a status hearing on July 21. Belcher believes she was assaulted because of her gender identity and expression — and the U.S. Attorney’s Office is investigating whether the assault will be elevated to a hate crime.
Metro Weekly asked to speak with Jones, but received no response from her attorney, Joel Robert Davidson. Ned Kodeck, the attorney for Wolf Professional Security, which employed Jones, did not reply to multiple phone calls and emails. Support for Jones’ plea of innocence is not looking strong, even from Giant’s perspective.
“Giant has a longstanding commitment to creating a diverse and inclusive environment in which all associates and all customers are treated fairly and with respect at all times,” Ahold USA, parent company of Giant Food of Maryland, said in a statement to Metro Weekly. “We view the choice of restroom as a personal matter, and if any customer feels uncomfortable at any point shopping in our stores for any reason, we encourage them to speak to a member of store management, who have both the experience and the discretion to address all issues. Clearly, in this case, a third party security guard appears to have acted inappropriately, and we apologize unreservedly.”
Ahold USA is “considering all of its options” and may discontinue using Wolf Professional Security, spokesperson Christopher Brand says.
The District has had public accommodations laws protecting people from discrimination based on gender identity and expression for a decade. “This situation underscores the need for more education and the repercussions of the rhetoric and vitriol that we’ve seen by a lot of elected officials and law enforcement individuals,” says Joanna Cifredo, racial and economic justice policy analyst for the National Center for Transgender Equality. Cifredo affirms that all trans people have that right to access bathrooms that match their gender identities and expressions, not just in D.C. but in all locations across the U.S.
“The national dialogue around bathrooms and the policing of bathrooms and who’s allowed to be in which bathroom definitely adds to a general confusion and a very hostile environment for trans people,” she says. “D.C.’s law affirms that right, but it is a right that all trans people have across the country. North Carolina’s law is more unique because it goes against federal laws and that’s why the Department of Justice sued the state.”
Other grocery chains within the greater Washington area told Metro Weekly that they welcome diverse communities.
“Whole Foods Market prides itself on creating an inclusive shopping experience where everyone feels welcome,” Annie Cull, spokesperson for Whole Foods Market, said in an email. “We encourage our team members and shoppers to use the restroom facility that meets their needs.”
Family restrooms are available in 60 percent of Wegmans Food Markets, including all new locations and in remodeled stores when there is enough space, Jo Natale, a spokesperson for the grocery chain, said in an email. “We do not have a bathroom policy and don’t intend to implement one,” she said. “Honestly, it has not been an issue in our stores. If someone were to bring a concern to our attention, we would apply common sense and courtesy to address their concern.”
Belcher planned on going to the District’s Trans Pride celebration last weekend, but the attack changed that. “Since that happened, I have been really depressed,” she says. “I’ve been crying and I’ve been down. I’ve been so out of it and not wanting to do anything. It’s been a hard week for me.”
As a free LGBTQ publication, Metro Weekly relies on advertising in order to bring you unique, high quality journalism, both online and in our weekly edition. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has forced many of our incredible advertisers to temporarily close their doors to protect staff and customers, and so we’re asking you, our readers, to help support Metro Weekly during this trying period. We appreciate anything you can do, and please keep reading us on the website and our new Digital Edition, released every Thursday and available for online reading or download.