I began my transition from male to female a few months before my 32 birthday, after spending nearly half my life working in the restaurant industry. I say nearly because I made several attempts to get out of the industry for good, but found I wasn’t cut out for factory or office work. I eventually came to the conclusion I don’t like being exploited for my labor.
Despite the long hours, intense stress, low pay, filthy working conditions, toxic masculinity and queerphobia that was all too common in my experience, I spent many years working in kitchens; I wanted to become a chef, a dream inspired by Anthony Bourdain. By age 28, I had made the move to front-of-house, where the days were still long and stressful, but at least I made a lot more money and had a little more control over my schedule.
In many ways work was a distraction from my gender dysphoria, although it was always there in the back of my mind. I worried whether it would be possible to transition in the industry. For most of my life it didn’t seem possible to transition at all, but in 2016 I was living in Louisville, Ky.; I was in therapy and out to my partner, friends and even some family members. As it became clear Donald Trump would be elected president, I decided to postpone my transition, which led to a dependency on alcohol, an all-too-common coping mechanism for restaurant workers.
Briefly, in 2018, I lived in rural Illinois, where I was on Medicaid. Planned Parenthood of Illinois provides gender-affirming hormone therapy on an informed consent model, so I was able to finally begin my transition without any financial barriers or gatekeeping by medical professionals. I booked an appointment and after a short waiting period, I was filling my hormone prescription at the local pharmacy.
However, the relationship I was in ended suddenly and I found myself broke and on the verge of homelessness. My brother offered to let me stay with him in our hometown in Indiana, and I got a job as a line cook at a local brewpub. Despite having worked as a server and bartender for four years prior to beginning my transition, I didn’t yet feel confident enough in my gender presentation as a trans woman to work a front-of-house position. I was treated with respect by nearly every one of my coworkers, many of whom were queer themselves, and I became close friends with a few of them. This gave me the confidence to make the move to front-of-house. I was occasionally misgendered by customers but it was mostly a positive experience.
Like any woman working as a server I dealt with my share of sexual harassment, but I experienced few instances of explicitly transphobic abuse. Anonymous threats of violence were levied against me over the internet, but they ultimately proved to be empty. One regular in particular made it very clear he fetishized trans women; he tipped well, but serving him wasn’t worth the harassment and dehumanization I felt. There was a running joke about him among the staff and management, but nothing was ever done to address his behavior.
After nearly a year at the brewpub I moved back to Louisville. Despite the Louisville Fairness Ordinance – which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing, and public accommodations – I believe I was discriminated against in my search for employment. After two months I had submitted my resume to nearly a hundred different restaurants and bars in Louisville and interviewed at over a quarter of those. During one interview, I was offered a position in the kitchen but not the bartender position for which I had applied. Although I was eventually hired as a server at a restaurant, it quickly became clear to me that moving back to Louisville was a mistake.
Every time I visited my hometown I made sure to stop in at the brewpub, and each time the owner told me he would rehire me. I moved back a little more than two weeks before restaurants were shut down due to COVID-19. We reopened to the public only six weeks later.
Many of my former coworkers didn’t come back or had moved on to other jobs. My boss was increasingly agitated as the business had already been struggling before the pandemic. In many ways he consistently put the business over the health and safety of his staff, his customers and the community at large. What was once a supportive work environment turned sour very quickly.
I was once forced to serve a man with a swastika tattoo; when I brought it up to management, their response was to publicly claim “WE DO NOT DISCRIMINATE AGAINST ANYONE.” Yet I regularly experienced instances of transphobia from customers, co-workers and management. To create a work environment that truly does not discriminate against anyone, workers must speak up against all forms of hate speech in the workplace.
It should go without saying that being misgendered can be traumatic, so when a new hire saw my name on the schedule and asked if I was a “man, woman or cat,” and the owner responded “all of the above,” I felt othered, and outed to someone I hadn’t met. Although the owner had always used my correct pronouns, that incident made me feel as if he never actually saw me as a woman.
Speaking of misgendering, break the habit of using gendered language when casually referring to each other. “Man,” “dude” and “guy” are all clearly gendered terms. Many have argued they are used in a way that’s gender neutral, but even then such usage centers men as the default. Their usage often makes cis and trans women, as well as some non binary people, uncomfortable.
If someone says you’ve made them uncomfortable, it’s up to you to recognize the harm you’ve caused. An apology, a promise to do better and following through on that promise will go a long way in making a workplace inclusive.
Likewise, it helps to be aware of the ways in which your co-workers may be vulnerable. Significant disparities exist for marginalized people in every aspect of our lives, and we are often victims of discrimination and violence. For example, trans people are routinely denied access to homeless shelters due to their gender identity or housed with a gender with which they don’t belong, a policy endorsed by the Trump Administration.
During the last few months of my employment, my hours were cut considerably and the shifts I was scheduled to work were often those that made very little money. I confronted the owner about it. I told him I was struggling to make ends meet and that I was behind on rent. He responded that I was lucky to only be worried about paying my rent, as if keeping the business afloat was more important than keeping a roof over my head. I felt that this implied that I was somehow more privileged than an upper-middle class, cis, heterosexual business owner. When I expressed my frustration to a co-worker, she was offended by the implication that I was the most vulnerable person on the staff due to my gender identity.
I was fired shortly after confronting the owner. The official reason given was that I violated the attendance policy. During my employment, there was never any disciplinary action taken against me for my attendance or any other reason. However, I was still denied unemployment. I immediately appealed the decision on March 30 2021, but I’ve yet to receive a date for my hearing.
In conclusion, the owning class, no matter how progressive they may portray themselves, will always put class interests before the well-being of the workers. Likewise, they will always seek to punish those who stand up against them. A positive environment for all employees can be fostered by the staff but it must be maintained; reactionary ideas must actively be pushed back against and not allowed to take root.