1. News
  2. /
  3. Business

She, he or they: Tampa Bay bars train to better serve LGBTQ customers

Workplace classes about navigating pronouns, gender identity and sexual orientation are getting more popular in the local customer service scene.
Kate Quinn, 26, chats with a patron at MacDinton's in St. Petersburg. Quinn and her fellow bartenders recently went through a LGBTQ+ diversity training to help them better interact with customers. [MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times]
Published Aug. 22
Updated Aug. 23

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.

RELATED COVERAGE: City of Tampa will now recognize LGBT-owned businesses

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.

Cole Foust of Metro Inclusive Health leads a diversity training for SunPub employees at MacDinton's Irish Pub in St. Petersburg. [SARA DINATALE | TIMES]

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.


  1. The main exhibit center at the Museum of Science & Industry in Tampa once stirred the imagination with dinosaurs and stars. Now, it's empty, but on the verge of rebirth as a movie studio.
    The County Commission has set aside $2 million for the project as the Film Commission studies the demand for it.
  2. Snack-focused delivery app GoPuff launched in Tampa in February. It serves the area surrounding the University of South Florida. GoPuff
    Flamin’ Hot Cheetos or Funyuns? GoPuff says it has the data for which snack Floridians love the most.
  3. "House Hunters," shot at a home in the Bayshore Beautiful area.  (Times | 2007) Tampa Tribune
    Whang, 57, was also a comedian and actress.
  4. The city is accepting applications for its Commercial Revitalization Program. The city has allocated $175,000 for the program this year.
  5. The Walmart supercenter at 990 Missouri Ave. faced fines in December for these storage containers in the parking lot. City officials are debating whether to make a short-term arrangement with the city two’s Largo stores this year so they can store their holiday inventory. City of Largo
    In the end, city commissioners say yes, with some reservations.
  6. More construction is on the way to St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, thanks to $19.75 million in Federal Aviation Administration grants to rehabilitate the airport’s runway. (Times file photo)
    The work is expected to be complete by spring 2021.
  7. Job applicants seek information about temporary positions available with the 2020 Census, during a job fair in Miami on Wednesday designed for people fifty years or older. LYNNE SLADKY  |  AP
    The state added 22,500 jobs in August.
  8. Homeowner Cheryl Murdoch, 59, explains the workings of the Philips Smart Mirror in her bathroom. Murdoch and her husband live in the Epperson neighborhood in Wesley Chapel, home of the Crystal Lagoon, where some residents are piloting new health technologies inside their homes. SCOTT KEELER  |   Times
    In Pasco’s Crystal Lagoon community, AdventHealth and Metro Development Group are testing in-home technology aimed at keeping people away from the hospital.
  9. A company called Flock Safety is selling automatic license plate readers to neighborhood associations to cut down on crime, and Tampa neighborhood Paddock Oaks is one of their customers. Pictured is a Flock camera on Paddock Oaks Dr. | [Luis Santana | Times] LUIS SANTANA  |  Times
    Atlanta-based Flock Safety has provided 14 area communities with high-speed, high-definition cameras for surveillance.
  10. An American Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft approaches Miami International Airport for landing in March. Bloomberg
    The 60-year-old veteran airline employee told investigators he was upset that union contract negotiations had stalled.