Friday, April 29, 2011

What If The Cosmo-Transgender Thing Is A Hoax?

Late Wednesday, I couldn't get relief from a nagging feeling that there was something awry about the hullabaloo that erupted regarding a transgender woman named Stephanie who alleged she was banned for life from the Cosmopolitan after being confronted recently for using the ladies' restroom at 4 a.m.

It was a startling account as rendered by HotelChatter.Com blogger Julia Buckley, complete with what is supposed to be the document given to Stephanie informing her that she could no longer come on the property without risking arrest for trespassing. That the Cosmo seemed to acknowledge the incident by issuing successive press statements helped lend credence, as does the fact that Buckley writes for a blog owned by Conde Nast.

And yet, something was off. It's dead of night, nobody around and here's this dramatic reaction from a security staff that was on their toes to address something even though there was nobody there to complain. It all seemed so . . . disproportionate.

So I dug. And you'll never believe what I found. And after I found it, I interviewed Stephanie. Hang on tight, folks.

Buckley writes a private blog, too, called BitchinVegas.Com. And on January 20, 2011, she had an item that was eerily similar. In fact, it's shocking. Under a headline, "The Hard Rock Needs Work On Its LGBT Outreach Program," there's this account:

I have taken an extreme dislike to [The Hard Rock] since I had my friend Stephanie visiting from New York the week before last. Stephanie is trans. Last time she was in Vegas (April 2010), she went to the Hard Rock and, in the course of an evening, used the ladies’ bathroom. At 4am, in an almost deserted casino.

On that occasion, upon coming out of the bathroom, she was greeted by an entire SWAT team, with bulletproof vests and dogs, asking her to leave the premises.

This visit, she was looking for a late night place to drink having been clubbing in the area, and, not being one to prejudge a place on one visit, she went back to the Hard Rock (I hadn’t had time to brief her on how the Rumor across the road is way way better). She got drinking with a group of fellow New Yorkers at the bar. And then, at 6am, she needed the bathroom. In her words:

"Finding the Unisex restroom occupied (or locked) I ventured again into the ladies restroom. At this time I was literally one of possibly 10 patrons in the entire Hard Rock establishment spending money at 6am.

Much to my surprise, waiting patiently outside the ladies restroom on my exit was a gentleman who wanted to view my ID to determine my gender. Upon determining the obvious, which he had already apparently determined by security camera, he read me the riot act for using the ladies restroom.

This was unbelievably humiliating for me. Like, don’t they have ANYTHING better to do. The only way I could possibly be more discrete is to be wearing a cloak of invisibility.

In my entire transition I have rarely been driven to tears such that I shed in the taxi that night."

Wow, right? The same person had not one but two nearly identical experiences at the same place, the first time involving DOGS and BULLETPROOF VESTS, before the Cosmo moment. Just to remind you, here's what Buckley wrote about Stephanie's alleged Cosmo experience, which would be the third situation for Stephanie in one year:

She sits down at the Vesper Bar, in the lobby of the hotel, and orders drinks. Her drinks are good, the barman is pleasant, all is well. And then, at 4am, she realizes she needs the bathroom.

She goes, as is her wont, to the women’s restroom, just across from the bar. It’s empty, as you’d expect at 4am on a Monday. Not a single person in there. She powders her nose and exits the restroom, only to be met by two security guards who immediately say “Come with us” and start marching her out of the hotel. As they walk her, they demand to see her ID (to establish her legal gender). It’s in her purse, and she fumbles for it as she’s being forcibly marched through the lobby of the hotel. As she fumbles, one of the men tells her to hurry up. She is scared, and starts apologizing, saying she’s not trying to cause trouble, but it’s hard to walk and look for her ID at the same time.

They march her outside the hotel (the bathroom is near the main entrance) and she finds her ID. One of the guards checks it, establishes that her legal gender is male, and pulls out a yellow form from his pocket and starts writing in her details to the blank spaces. As he does so, he says, “Are you working?” Way to add insult to injury.

There's a lot going on here, so stay with me. First, let's assume all of this is true. It's a stretch and I don't believe that, but hold that thought. How is it possible that Buckley didn't reference or mention the alleged Hard Rock incident in her Cosmo post on Wednesday? As a journalist, that's what we do; we put things in context, we reference back to similar incidents or a person's history. Especially on the Internet.

Ahh, the Internet. It's a tricky little thing, isn't it? Buckley pursued the Cosmo, apparently for a few days, and got this initial response:

We regret that any guest may have had an unfortunate experience at The Cosmopolitan. All guests are welcome to experience the city's newest luxury resort. Our guests' safety, comfort and enjoyment always remains our top priority. The resort contains numerous public restroom facilities that guests can use at their discretion as well as numerous private family restrooms throughout. Additionally, The Cosmopolitan is a TAG approved resort.

It seemed inadequate, but read it again from the point of view of a PR staff that doesn't think anything actually happened. Then it's cagey and cautious, but with good reason. Except it didn't do the trick because Buckley's post went viral and threatened to tar the Cosmo's reputation. So, to quiet the storm, they put this one out:

The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas is committed to maintaining a community that recognizes and values the inherent dignity of every person, by fostering sensitivity, understanding and mutual respect of our guests and employees. We sincerely regret any misunderstanding or inappropriate actions that any member of our staff may have taken. And to ensure increased sensitivity within this area, the organization will focus on continued training and on-going awareness initiatives. In addition, we apologize to the individual guest and welcome her back to the resort anytime. Again, we would like to apologize to the LGBT community and anyone concerned and hope to demonstrate our firm dedication to fair and unbiased treatment of all.

Again, imagine if the Cosmo folks know that this is a bunch of malarkey but also know that saying so is impossible because every Vegas resort is extremely strict about not discussing specific guest situations. But we all know how Vegas handles its boo-boos, by offering free rooms and meals and stuff. This apparent apology just says "the individual guest" is welcome back. It's vague; every word is chosen with great care.

So I spoke to Stephanie by phone today. When I asked Buckley to help me do so on Wednesday, I was sympathetic and interested in hearing more. I was not yet gripped by suspicion. But then yesterday we arranged a call, which took place this morning. She recounted the Cosmo drama pretty much as Buckley rendered it. Then there was this:

Friess: Has this ever happened to you before?
Stephanie: Yeah, I’ve occasionally had security, you know, mention to me, hey, could you not use the ladies room? There’s a unisex restroom over there or whatever. I’ve never been evicted from a premises. At any time in the few times in the past where this has come up, it’s just been a friendly, casual conversation with me from whatever security guard.

STOP THE TAPE! Scroll up and see what Stephanie told Buckley in January 2011 about the alleged incidents at the Hard Rock in January 2011 and April 2010. There were SWAT TEAMS and DOGS the first time! She was read "the riot act" the second time! Casual conversations with "whatever security guard?" Huh?

In my entire transition I have rarely been driven to tears such that I shed in the taxi that night.

But hey, no biggie!

I confronted Stephanie shortly thereafter. How is it that she's had three virtually identical situations -- drinking, dead of night, goes to tinkle, emerges to goons? It strains believability, and I told her. And she said:

When I said it wasn’t a big deal, I was referring to their reaction, which I compared to the reaction to the Cosmopolitan. In other words, the SWAT team not withstanding, the reaction of the Hard Rock wasn’t as big a deal as the Cosmopolitan, which required that I be threatened with trespassing if I returned to the premises. So I admit it was a big deal emotionally, but that wasn’t what we were discussing, I didn’t think. This is not about me, this is about the Cosmopolitan's reaction to the situation compared to the Hard Rock’s reaction to the same situation. Does that make any sense?

No. Not really. She said she had had "friendly, casual conversations" on the prior incidents. SWAT teams, dogs and the riot act are not what most people would consider "friendly, casual conversations."

Meanwhile, earlier in the discussion, we had this exchange:

Friess: So these instances have happened before in other places around the country or in Las Vegas or what?
Stephanie: Really just in Las Vegas. Generally speaking, New York City actually has laws protecting the rights of the transgender individual. It comes up occasionally in Las Vegas on the Strip. What makes it a big deal for me was the Cosmopolitan’s reaction. To me, that’s the issue. If they had just said, It would be better for you to use the men’s room or it would be better to use the unisex one" or anything, it would be a non-story.

And yet, later on I wanted Stephanie to explain to me why she would return to the Hard Rock after she had encountered SWAT teams (!).

Why did I go back? Because I live transgender. If I never went back a second time to places I had a problem, I would sit at home, cowering in fear. I would never walk down the street. At some in my life, I’ve had issues wherever I went. And if I never repeated those experiences, I’d never have a life.

If I had adopted a philosophy that wherever I had an issue I’d never return, I would never go anywhere. I have to get over that, I have to go back. I have to take the subway, I have to get on the bus, I have to walk down the street, I have to go to Home Depot. That’s how I live, that’s how I survive. A transgender people must get over those fears.

What I’m trying to say, Steve, is the Cosmo’s eviction notwithstanding, this exact incident has happened to me dozens of times all around the country. Not every time, but this exact thing happened identically and you’re presenting that as a problem in logic. The exact thing that happened at the Hard Rock, where the security was waiting for me to read me the riot act for using the ladies room, happened to me in a mall in New Jersey. The exact situation.

STOP THE TAPE! We just went from happening seldom and primarily in Vegas to happening "dozens of times" everywhere. We'll get back to that in a moment.

As the interview became more contentious, this happened:

Stephanie: I’m on the defensive here. I’m like a rape victim being cross-examined on the stand. That’s how I feel.
Friess: I don’t believe you, is what I’m telling you. I don’t believe these incidents happened in such an uncannily similar way that Julia nor you mentioned the earlier ones in the current account. It doesn’t add up.
Stephanie: I suggest you fact-check. I suggest you talk to the security officers at these establishments and validate the facts.

AHA! Ding Ding Ding! That's a smart thing to say. Why? Because, as Stephanie and Julia both must know, the security officers at these establishments CAN'T VALIDATE THE FACTS. It's against their policy, as referenced earlier. Stephanie could say absolutely anything she wanted about something that happened, she can wave some blurry expulsion paper and claim any sort of treatment and the resorts WOULD NEVER REPLY TO IT DIRECTLY. Well, unless there was an illicit accusation that the resort had broken the law; then maybe they'd be able to.

The Cosmo, of course, declined to discuss the matter with me beyond their statements. I've got calls out to the Hard Rock but thus far I've heard nothing back. Odds are it'll stay that way.

Stephanie also suggested that if I knew transgender people as I claimed to, I'd understand better. Except that I do. I was a finalist this year for a GLAAD Media Award for my 7,000-word cover story in the Los Angeles Weekly on the suicide of a transgender L.A. Times sports writer Christine Daniels. I know loads of trans people and totally get the whole thing.

I called up one of my best sources, Amy LaCoe. She was Daniels' best friend and is an out trans woman in L.A. preparing for her surgery this summer. I recounted the circumstances as Buckley had written them, explained that this one trans woman claimed to have been confronted three times in the dead of night when there was nobody even around to complain but also nobody to witness it.

It didn't pass LaCoe's smell test, either. I asked if she'd ever been confronted by security over restroom use or heard of such a thing happening:

I’ve known 80 or 90 trans women since I came out in the past five years, and I’ve never heard anything like this. And I wasn't passing well when I first started out. I’ve even carried on conversations in the restroom with other women. It sounds like a situation that’s a little more than a trans woman going to the bathroom. There’s a missing element here. It sounds fishy to me.

You must understand bathroom use is a huge issue for trans people. It's something that's discussed a lot. Stephanie says this has happened to her DOZENS OF TIMES and yet Amy hasn't ever heard of it happening once to any of the DOZENS of trans women she knows. Also, Stephanie initially said it was a relatively rare occurrence and primarily in Las Vegas.

By the way, here is how Stephanie described her appearance to me:

I'm 5-7, skinny. It’s not like I’m a steelworker in drag, absolutely not. I've got better legs than most women do. I’m not altogether horrible-looking. Most people, unless they look really closely, don’t take me as a guy. … I dress conservatively, I dress appropriately.

So this happens dozens of times to someone who isn't even that obviously trans? And security is alert to the point of bringing SWAT dogs to confront her at a time of day when nobody's even around to be offended or complain? Surely Stephanie needs to relieve herself during the day, too, when there's lots of people around. But, no, this only happened at the least likely time.

Now, I don't know what's really going on here. I can't figure out the angle. Did Stephanie actually get expelled from the Cosmo? Is Stephanie even a real trans person? Is she doing something else to draw security attention to herself? Why did Buckley not evaluate the inconsistencies in these stories? Why didn't she reference the earlier situations in her post on Wednesday?

It's baffling, and I told her so:

Stephanie: I don’t know why you think I’m making these things up?
Friess: I don’t know. That is a great question. That is the one thing that bothers me the most. I don’t get it.

Maybe this was a gambit for a freebie? A misguided attempt to raise awareness of a serious and important issue? A plea for attention? Stephanie said she declined a request by a GLAAD spokesperson to appear on TV this week and she told me this:

If you’re suggesting I’m doing this for visibility to push transgender rights, I’m doing it very badly.

Finally, we agree on something.


Anonymous said...

"On that occasion, upon coming out of the bathroom, she was greeted by an entire SWAT team, with bulletproof vests and dogs, asking her to leave the premises."

OK, as far as I know, no hotel casino employs SWAT units. Also, as far as I know, there are no K9's assigned to Metro's SWAT unit. If they were Metro officers, they would be wearing bullet proof vests because they ALWAYS wear bullet proof vests.

Stephanie is full of shit and Julia Buckley is an example of the danger of bloggers and citizen journalists.

I just don't know what her angle is. Nor do I care one whit.

Thomas said...

Very nice work, Steve.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting reporting, Steve. Thanks for looking into this.

Something about that hotelchatter story always sounded just a little off, or sounded like it was at least missing some details.

Eric said...

Great reporting, Steve. I just posted a whole long comment which Google swallowed, so I won't recreate the whole thing here.

But I will say that I found it interesting that Buckley now has a post on her personal blog from today (4/28/11) where she mentions Stephanie's previous experiences at the Hard Rock.

And I wonder, is this damage control? Given the fact that she knew you were inquiring about Stephanie (and maybe mentioned that you'd seen the January blog entry) is she simply making a "oh yeah, I meant to mention this earlier" sort of post??

It's absolutely mind-boggling that Stephanie's previous experience at the Hard Rock wasn't mentioned in relation to the Cosmo event.

At best, it means that Buckley is a lousy journalist. At worst, it makes her an out-and-out liar. In any case, though I like some of the other writers at VegasChatter, I think I'm done trusting their stories.

Great, great work.

James Stanley said...

This is solid reporting. And really well written. You've done a good thing.

Anonymous said...

"Maybe this was a gambit for a freebie? A misguided attempt to raise awareness of a serious and important issue? "

Isn't this also the week the Nevada state legislature was voting on three bills on Transgender rights? Two of the three passed, if I recall.

Rachel Crain said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Thanks for researching this story and coming up with some real information. The original story always smelled funny. It's amazing how many people were willing to believe it hook, line and sinker. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

*well done*
Awesome job!

Jeff Simpson said...

I know the casino lawyers probably advise company execs not to comment publicly on customer complaints about security officers and their actions, but in a case like this I wonder how smart that is. I'd love for an expert to enlighten me as to why, if a customer makes a complaint public and casino executives know the allegation isn't true and can substantiate a refutation (with surveillance video and/or eyewitness statements), it doesn't make sense to publicly debunk the claim. In this case, was the person 86ed? If so, casino execs should say so and say why. I obviously don't know what happened but the casino execs do. This isn't the subject of a lawsuit or a human resource issue.


Jeff... I'm with you. Absolutely. I think they put themselves in situations to be exploited, and they should be able to clarify it. I remain baffled by elements on both sides of this.

Jeff Simpson said...

You know, Steve, after thinking about this supposed incident for a while it reminded me of a story I covered over at the Orleans about 10 years ago. In that case the Orleans folks talked to me on the record, explained their side of the story and faxed me a copy of the apology letter they sent the customer.

mike_ch said...

I hate to throw these kinds of accusations at people, but I'm going to go ahead and break the gate:

The issues for trans people and bathrooms exists everywhere, from the corner Applebee's to shopping at Vons. Casino bathrooms are notorious for other types of activities, however; and the more of these stories you read where a person gets ejected from for the exact same issue... well, the more likely the common reader is to assume that the restrooms are being used for casual sex after all.

The "I don't mind if you eject me so long as you don't blackball me" thing is a bit awkward, though at the same time having an entire team of security (the attorneys like lots of witnesses) seems expected if a casino that is concerned about it's status as a haven for illegal vice (like the Hard Rock is) plans to eject someone for soliciting prostitution.

Are individual floorpeople jumpy to perceived crimes? Yes. Ask anyone who has been accosted for simple photography that doesn't implicate anyone. But look at the number of incidents from the perspective of someone running casino security and you can begin to think that so many different places on the Strip can't be wrong.

It's also possible none of this happened and it's just a plea for attention, but at least it looks like Cosmo has blackballed somebody at some point or that's a well done imitation (though again, the reservations/URL at the bottom is wacky.)

Anonymous said...

Damn Steve, that is some badass work!

Jason said...

Very nice work...and just a little "Gs" aren't supposed to question what the Ls, Bs or Ts are doing, didn't you get a copy of the agenda?!?
Any idea how often those "Trespass Warnings" are handed out? It seems like a rather simple form for what I would think is kind of a "big deal" activity. Seems to me those forms would be numbered and a log would be kept of when/why they're issued. If I was managing security I'd sure want a paper trail to cover my ass--at least a one sentence "reason" and the location of the incident.

Jeff in OKC said...

Good story, Steve. A real community service for Las Vegas. I nominate this for the 2011 Vegitzer Prize, which should be given at the Vegas Internet Mafia Picnic.

Michael said...

Just my two cents, I think your instincts did you well here and I think there is definitely enough circumstantial evidence to guess that the facts are not as the 'victim' is claiming them to be.

I realize that as a straight white male, I don't get to see the discrimination others experience, but I do know as a society we have gotten more tolerant in certain areas and when you are talking about corporations I believe it's much better then it used to be (if for no other reason then publicity and litigation).

Having said that, any female or trans in the middle of the night hanging out by themselves is going to be thought of as a person 'working' it's just not a normal site at these places. They may not be, but that is who is typically hanging around at that time of morning if they aren't gambling and flags go off if they are female or trans as I'd put a subjective estimate at 75-90% of those out at that time are working from my experience at being in the casinos at that time of night.

That doesn't necessarily excuse the behavior of security if in fact they treated this person in that manner, but it does provide some background to the perception that security is likely approaching from.

Anonymous said...

It seems that "Stephanie" loves to play the victim card. How pathetic. Now they lie to push their trans agenda. It's unbelivable. That should be a warning sign.

Anonymous said... instances like this, they NEED to prove it didnt happen...Or at least turn around and sue for defamation.

Anonymous said...

something is not right

janequeer said...

"Can you imagine a SWAT team actually responding to a bathroom 'violation'?" Well, yes, I can. This same sort of thing happened to me at a local Las Vegas casino some years ago (read an extended version of my experience: I was escorted by several security officers to a back office, told to surrender my license, held for over 20 minutes against my will (I guess I went back with them, and I would say I went unwillingly), was told that I was never to return and would be arrested if I did, and was escorted by security officers to my car and watched as a drove away.

I have worked for almost 13 years with trans persons in Southern Nevada as a licensed therapist and community organizer. While I cannot confirm or deny this person's experience described at the Cosmo last week, I can tell you that I have heard similar stories over and over through the years. I don't want these things to be true; I have worked for years to keep such things from happening; and Las Vegas casinos are not the friendliest of places for many trans persons.

Finally -- and not to paint with too broad a brush because I have never had the pleasure of talking at any length with Mr. Friess -- Mr. Friess does not enjoy the best reputation for fairness here among our Southern Nevada trans communities. In all my years of advocacy, he has never contacted me once even though my participation is most directly responsible for the emergence of the first trans-inclusive legislation in our state (AB184 in 2009) and I have been a central figure in pushing for the passage of the several bills now working their way through the state legislature (see -- among other available articles), including a bill providing protections in public accommodations (SB331). In addition, when I have seen Mr. Friess and read his words in various media, I have not ever heard him discuss transgender persons (recently in an interview in the Las Vegas Weekly:

In the end, for those of you who do not live in Southern Nevada or who are not part of the local queer communities on a regular basis, you must know that in our part of the world, straight-acting white gay men have the greatest influence and occupy almost all of the positions of authority in our queer communities. Transgender and gender non-conforming persons have almost always been fundamentally excluded from participation, and have never, in my opinion, been fully and fairly included in our Southern Nevada queer communities.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that Stephanie should remain with a group where there is a witness to her events. If I had numerous incidents, in the early morning hours, in an almost deserted bar, and was not with a friendly, I would stop going out like that. It's like she's waiting for the one time when someone is going to decide to take her out. A "Death Wish"?