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Is it fair or safe to make trans woman share a room alone with a bigot?
Grab a beer with someone who disagrees with you and talk out your differences—it’s a simple message from Heineken, and there’s some merit to it. But it’s also one that has LGBTQ activists outraged for good reason: It’s severely tone-deaf.
The Worlds Apart ad, part of the #OpenYourWorld campaign, asks three pairs of strangers to build a bar together. Toward the end of the exercise, the strangers learn that they have opposing viewpoints on issues like climate change and feminism. The ad, taking on a neutral point of view, wants to build a dialogue between “different sides,” which for the pairs means choosing to grab a beer together and having a conversation.
The ad offers a simple theme: “Is there more that unites than divides us?”
While that question makes sense for political issues like global warming, one of the pairings is a bit more complicated. A transgender woman is coupled up with a transphobe who insists trans people cannot be real.
Of course, the two end up getting together and drinking. The transphobic man’s ways are challenged, and he admits that he grew up in a world that’s “black and white,” even though “life isn’t black and white.” And as the ad closes, Heineken shows how the two plan to keep in touch after the exercise. It’s a sweet message.
At least it is for Heineken. LGBTQ activists, meanwhile, are unhappy with how the ad was created. Some argue that it was particularly dangerous for the transgender woman involved.
hello the heineken advert where they leave a trans woman alone in a room with a transphobe is not an antidote to pepsi it is possibly worse
— Taisie Tsikas (@TaisieT) April 27, 2017
Everyone is sharing this fucking Heineken ad; am I alone in feeling icky about it presenting the existence of trans people as an opinion?
— cayden (@cayden) April 28, 2017
Mirah Curzer over at Athena Talks points out that “not all viewpoints are equal” and “not all olive branches are earned.” She argues that Heineken only asks the anonymous man to act courteous, whereas the experiment’s setup essentially forces the transgender woman to open up about her life story in front of a mysterious and unpredictable stranger.
“Both sides are not the same,” Curzer says. “The transphobe who agrees to have a beer with the trans woman is sacrificing nothing. She, on the other hand, is giving up a certain amount of dignity by breaking bread with someone who thinks she shouldn’t have the right to exist.”
Curzer notes a pretty obvious problem with the video: Now outed as transgender, and now confronting one man’s bigotry toward her, the ad’s transgender woman has to carefully work step-by-step with the man in validating her humanity. That’s a frightening situation if the other person isn’t totally convinced that a trans person should have basic human rights. In some cases, it can lead to violence.
“And with ads like this, that labor is being demanded of her with no consideration of how much it may cost,” Curzer says. “Worse, it’s heavily implied that if she were to walk away, it would make her just as intolerant as the bigot who views her with disgust.”
That’s a point also shared by Dori Mooneyham over at the Orbit, who explains just how awful it feels to repeatedly come out as trans to strangers. She focuses on the feelings that the anonymous transgender woman may go through, reflecting the very real (and debilitating) problems that trans people experience in situations like these.
“You put on that forced smile learned from your matriarchs for dealing with potentially dangerous men, and you make yourself as welcoming and understanding as you possibly can be,” Mooneyham writes. “He asks you the same tired crap you’ve been answering your whole life out of the closet. And now, as you both leave, you know he feels great about himself, while you already feel like shit on the way home.”
Ultimately, it’s not a transgender person’s responsibility to teach others what it means to be trans. While some transgender individuals might choose to take on that role—either as educators, advocates, or paid speakers—forcing a person to open up about their past, their gender identity, and their gender transitioning is pretty invasive. That’s the sort of conversation that a trans person might have with their intimate partners, not a stranger at a makeshift bar. Heineken doesn’t seem to get that, though.
"Look at this heartwarming ad where we put a trans woman in a potentially dangerous situation awwww have a beer" https://t.co/UJkkpdRxZ9
— tuxedo masq (@alicegoldfuss) April 27, 2017
my dad sent me the heineken ad like 'look how nice this is' and im just like 'ah yes, i love putting trans women in a room w/ transphobes'
— crockpot cold water (@boigapants) April 30, 2017
That’s not to say that “Worlds Apart” is totally worthless. It still has the potential to open eyes, convince people to treat transgender people with respect, and normalize trans experiences as just another part of life. And if it convinces even one family to accept their trans child, then it’s given back to the world in a pretty significant way.
But what companies like Heineken and Pepsi still need to learn is that they have to seek out and incorporate input from the people whose struggle they’re capitalizing on. As both Mooneyham and Curzer point out, there’s a lot of nasty messages embedded in the Heineken experiment: Oppressors should shake hands with the oppressed; the marginalized have to serve as teachers to the privileged; and it’s just as bad to walk away from a potential aggressor as it is for the potential aggressor to act impolitely toward you.
Those lessons don’t help transgender people because it puts the onus on them to explain their existence instead of just being treated as humans. And while Heineken may think accepting trans people—or choosing not to—is a matter of opinion, it’s the sort of binary that can get transgender women killed if they just so happen to tick off the wrong person. Real life is rarely given the viral-worthy happy ending of a mass-marketed ad.
Ana Valens is an LGBTQ reporter and essayist for the Daily Dot. Her work has previously appeared in Bitch, the Establishment, Vice's Waypoint, Rolling Stone's Glixel, and the Toast. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.