Robert Allen is familiar with both Nissans and controversy. But none of the Helena car dealer's other online "rants" was as contentious as the one in which he said he would remove a transgender customer from his women's bathroom.
Allen's dealership received a letter of reprimand from the Montana Human Rights Network and more than 120 one-star Facebook reviews from people all over the country after he released the 47-second video about transgender bathrooms, which is one in a series titled "Robert Allen Rants."
Allen told the Independent Record he should have worded the video differently, and he believes some people misunderstood his views. The dealership's five-star reviews outnumbered its one-star reviews 134-125 on Facebook Saturday, after Allen's son and employee Tyler released his own online video encouraging supporters to give the business a perfect rating and vowing to return the favor.
Inspired by a video blog featuring Tim Allen's character on the TV show "Last Man Standing," the videos show the car dealer talking about a variety of hot-button issues from behind his desk and include a link to robertallennissan.com.
"You want to talk about transgender bathroom policy? We got one. It's called a men's room and a ladies’ room. Period," Allen says in the video.
"You know what? If a transgender guy comes in my store, he's sure welcome to spend his money and buy a car, but he probably ought to go in the men's bathroom, not the ladies’, because if he's in the ladies' we'll throw him out of the store. I know that's not politically correct, and I might make a few enemies, but I'm sorry, that's not American.
“Men and women were created differently for a reason. So keep the men in the men's bathroom and the women in the women's bathroom. And if I see a little boy walking in the girls' bathroom, I'm going to drag him out of there. I don't care if he's your kid -- he's not going in my ladies' bathroom, that's for sure."
Many of the online reviewers encouraged people to boycott the dealership because of Allen’s comments. Among them was lifelong Helena resident Autumn Laskowski, who told the Independent Record she believes the segment was unprofessional and hurtful to the transgender community.
"Broadcasting your political views for all your customers to see probably isn't the best idea," Laskowski, who goes by Autumn Jade on Facebook, wrote in her online review. "But thank you for doing so, we all now know which business to avoid when buying a car. … The transgender community already goes through enough without you adding to the hate."
In a letter to Allen dated Aug. 18, Montana Human Rights Network co-director Kim Abbott said it would be a violation of Helena's non-discrimination ordinance to remove a transgender female -- or someone who identifies as female but was assigned the sex of male at birth -- from the women's restroom. She also included information about the meaning of the terms "gender identity," "transgender" and "sex assigned at birth," and she offered to provide additional resources about the transgender community.
"Whether the statements you made in your 'rant' were meant to be a joke or meant to be a serious threat to your transgender customers, or potential customers, we are requesting that you follow the law and treat transgender Helenans and visitors fairly at your dealership," she wrote.
Allen told the Independent Record he has nothing against the LGBT community, and he is concerned about what he considers to be an unsafe federal directive.
The U.S. Department of Education recently directed public schools to let students use the restrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender identity. Allen said he believes that decision should be left to individual states, and he is concerned the directive will be extended to other public places.
"I'm concerned with the pedophile, the rapist, the pervert who goes in the ladies' room," he said. "That's my concern for the transgender bathroom issue, because an internal sense of gender, that becomes a defense in court, which is ridiculous. How do you define that?”
Allen said he loves his transgender cousin just as much as his other cousins, and he regularly employs members of the LGBT community. One of his openly gay employees, Dakota Baxter, was quick to defend his boss when people began criticizing him online.
"I've worked here for two years, and I have never felt bullied or uncomfortable in any situation at any point," Baxter, who said he was not offended by any of Allen’s videos, told the Independent Record. "And our probation is a year long here, and he's known that I've been gay that whole entire time. And if he wanted to fire me in that year, if he didn't like gay people, he probably would have found a reason to fire me."
Allen said he released the videos about three months before people started leaving the negative reviews. Big Sky Pride President Kev Hamm, who once contracted with a company that did business with Robert Allen Nissan, said he encouraged people to let Allen know how they felt about the video.
"If you're going to attack part of the community, I'm going to make sure you suffer for it," said Hamm, who added that his involvement in the issue has nothing to do with his prior business relationship with Allen.
Allen said he has invited anyone who disagrees with him to sit down and talk about it face-to-face, but "not one person has responded to that."
In addition to the video on transgender bathrooms, Allen has released videos in which he discusses bad tourist behavior at Yellowstone National Park, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, gun-free zones and sheltering children.
Nissan’s corporate office directed Allen to remove a link to all of the videos from his dealership’s website, though he has not removed any of the segments from his Robert Allen Rants YouTube channel and said he will continue to create them without involving Nissan. They can be viewed at http://bit.ly/2bj7qYT.
“The dealership has removed the links to comply with guidelines set forth in the framework of our business relationship,” Josh Clifton, a spokesman for Nissan North America Inc. in Franklin, Tennessee, told the Independent Record in an email. “We adamantly oppose any statements or actions that demean or allow discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals. Nissan dealerships are independently owned and operated; the opinions posted to this retail location website in no way speak for Nissan or reflects its values.”
KXLH in Helena produces the videos through a marketing arrangement with Allen. The views expressed in the videos are Allen's alone and are not endorsed by the TV station, Marketing Consultant Lynn LaValley said.
Despite the backlash, Allen said some people who saw his videos and agree with his views have purchased cars from him as a result. He said his views do not affect the way he treats his customers.
"If everybody we did business with and everybody we purchased from ... if we had to go in and check the guy's values and his views and they had to align with ours, we'd be hard-pressed to do business with anybody," he said. "So why is it a problem for me to have a different view than someone else?"