ST. PETERSBURG — Cole Foust stood in front of a sleepy group of servers and bartenders, starting off the day’s class with a simple assertion during his introduction: “I go by he/him.”
“Has anyone heard the buzz around pronouns?” he asked.
A few seated at the tables at MacDinton’s Irish Pub nodded or quietly said “yes."
“Don’t worry," he said. "We’ll get more into that later.”
It was a weekday around noon, several hours before most of the staff of MacDinton’s on First Avenue N and the other bars under SunPubs ownership usually come in to crack beers, pour shots and chat with customers. Foust, the manager of the LGBTQ+ division at nonprofit Metro Inclusive Health, stood in front of turned-over stools in low lighting and tried to put the few dozen people seated staring at him at ease.
"None of you have to come away from this as a LGBTQ encyclopedia” he said. “I’m just here to give the best practices so you don’t misstep or put your foot in your mouth by accident.”
Foust has given dozens of these presentations, but before that day he’d never spoken to the staff of a bar. Until recently, customer-service oriented businesses hadn’t sought out Metro’s diversity training. Typically, Foust has trained health care and social service workers. But as a cultural shift has more people attuned to what it means to be inclusive, classes to help workers navigate pronouns and gender identity are increasingly in demand.
Recent studies show the LGBTQ community’s buying power is approaching $1 trillion. So not only are businesses pushing sensitivity for ethical reasons, but they’re doing so to help their bottom lines.
“We have seen more and more small businesses wanting to be inclusive,” said Justice Gennari, the CEO of the Tampa Bay Diversity Chamber. “I think that speaks volumes of the Tampa Bay area.”
St. Petersburg, especially, is known for its LGBTQ community. The city hosts the state’s largest Pride Parade and its LGBTQ Welcome Center was the third of its kind in the nation when it opened in Kenwood, the city’s “Gayborhood," in 2014.
Like Metro, Gennari has noticed his chamber members seeking out the same kind of training for their staffs.
“We want to be inclusive in our community,” said Alicia Kiel, who is the director of SunPubs training and development department. “We want to see people be comfortable and know this is an open space."
Kiel set up the training day with Metro for SunPubs, which owns MacDinton’s, Caddy’s, Yard of Ale and a few other area hot spots.
Still, 46 percent of LGBTQ people remain closeted at work, according to a survey done by the Human Rights Campaign last year. Talking about gender, sexuality, and what not to say can be uncomfortable. Foust even acknowledges the LGBTQ acronym can be a bit of an alphabet soup. He tells classes that no question is off limits: ask now so your mistake doesn’t become the next viral headline later.
Cara Pelletier, a diversity and equality director at Ultimate Software in South Florida, said while customer service oriented businesses are increasingly adopting such training, it usually doesn’t happen until after some sort of insensitivity or discrimination has already happened.
“That’s all well and good,” she said. “But I would like to see organizations across industries adopt a more proactive approach.”
From an anthropological perspective, professor Heather O’Leary said a store clerk fumbling someone’s gender or using the wrong term can be enough to make them feel like they don’t belong in their own culture.
“Training programs like this are really helping people learn not only just an extra word or two but challenging people to see through the eyes of someone else,” said O’Leary, who teaches a class on gender at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
Foust gives his classes simple tips like using “folks" or “friends” rather than “ladies and gentlemen” when greeting tables. He forms breakout groups to handle how to apologize to a guest after using the wrong pronoun and how to best handle a coworker’s decision to come out.
He broke down every letter of LGBTQ acronym slowly. "L" for lesbian; "G" for gay; "B" for bisexual.
Each PowerPoint slide had pictures of celebrity examples. When Foust got to the T slide, he had a photo of himself near Orange is the New Black star Laverne Cox. The "T" is for transgender, referring to people whose gender identity doesn’t match the gender they were assigned at birth.
Foust always waits until that moment, late into the presentation, to out himself as trans.
In a plaid shirt, black slacks and Buddy Holly glasses, Foust knows he can pass as someone who was assigned male at birth. He hopes the moment he comes out forces people to reflect on their assumptions and stereotypes.
He tackled the differences between gender identity and sexual orientation. He went over words like “non-binary," which is used by those who don’t identify as completely male or female. He explained why the word intersex should be used over the outdated term hermaphrodite.
And he came back to pronouns. Offering your pronouns, he said, breaks down assumptions. It also creates a space for someone to share their own pronouns, which may not align with how society views them.
The word cisgender? It describes the bulk of the population: people who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. In Latin, “cis” is essentially the opposite of “trans.”
He posed it to the group like this: If we just used the word “normal” instead of a term like cisgender, how would it make transgender people feel?
“Abnormal," someone called from the group.
“Exactly," he said.