I was recently denied entry to a store by the clerk explicitly because I am transgender. When I questioned their judgment, the manager told me it was legal because there was a posted sign that read “We reserve the right to refuse service,” and because they were a private business. Was their denial of entry legal?

Short Answer:
If you live in California, no. if you live elsewhere, it may depend upon the laws of your state and other related federal laws.

Long Answer:

(1) What are Public Accommodations?
Public accommodations include are businesses and other entities that are open to, or offer services to the general public like hospitals, movie theaters, parks, sports arenas, libraries, etc . In some cases, even privately owned businesses that offer certain types of goods or services can be public entities. Both private businesses and government entities can be public accommodations subject to state antidiscrimination laws. Religious organizations, however, are generally not considered places of public accommodation and are not subject to state antidiscrimination laws – except in California where public accommodation laws do not exempt religious organizations that are not engaging in religious services.

(2) How do public accommodation laws protect transgender people?
Some states have nondiscrimination laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity in public accommodations. If you live in one of these states, you cannot be denied services because you are transgender: a store’s “right to refuse service to anyone” means that they can refuse service only for any lawful reason, and discriminating against transgender customers is not lawful

(3) Which states extend legal protection to transgender individuals?
At the moment, there are no federal laws that specifically protect transgender individuals from discrimination within public accommodations. However, thirteen states and the District of Columbia have created laws that extend protection to transgender individuals within places of public accommodation based upon “gender identity” or “gender expression.” These thirteen states include California, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington. Although the states may differ in their wording and legal mechanisms, they all functionally protect transgender individuals from discrimination within places of public accommodation.

Keep in mind that you may be protected in a public accommodation even if you live in a state that does not explicitly include “gender identity” or “gender expression” in its non-discrimination laws. In a landmark decision, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently held that Title VII, the federal sex discrimination law, protects federal employees that are discriminated against due to their transgender identities. This decision is not only ground-breaking, but it also has great potential to improve the interpretation of sex discrimination to include protection for transgender individuals in arenas beyond the workplace – such a public accommodations.

(4) What can an individual do if they experience discrimination within a public accommodation based upon their gender identity or gender expression?
If you experience discrimination based upon your gender identity or gender expression, please contact the Transgender Law Center.