Werqing at Work: I'm a Trans Woman in Customer Service

While my co-workers and I can have a dialogue about my identity and what I experience, I don't have time to take on the burden of educating each person that offends me throughout the day.

Mar 23, 2012 at 9:00am | Leave a comment

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In Kate Bornstein's fabulous book "Hello, Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks, and Other Outlaws," she catalogues a long list of possible careers where one can let their Non-Normative Flag fly.

I'm a trans woman, and in my experience, her mention of retail as an accepting and workable environment is on-point.

I have been a Retail Queen (still waiting for official papers on this title) for the past two years. One of the most difficult moments of transitioning for me (from one gender to another, from teendom to adulthood, from work-wear to evening) was attempting to pin down a style. My job at a second-hand clothing store let the experiments fly for little money and rewarded me with a management position.

It is impossible to claim that all retail spaces are safe. Sometimes spaces are safe and sometimes, given the opportunity, I just have to boss around and make them safe. I was meek about my trans identity for three months. Then I woke up and said, "Helleluuuu 21st Century, I don't have time for your bigoted sass! Moving on!"

When I came out as trans at work I received no hostility, due to an effective blend of camaraderie, charisma and aforementioned bossiness. Also, I'm good at my job, which hinges on three major abilities: encouraging sales, being nice and working quickly.

While my job kicks ass in terms of access to cheap clothes and acceptance, the pay is generally awful and I am at the whims of the general public.  A perfectly amiable conversation about drop waist vs. baby doll fits will suddenly turn sour and the customer will have he'd all over my face and walked away before I realize what happened. Or someone will earnestly ask me a question like, "But 10 is a pretty average men's shoe size! What do you mean you have a hard time finding shoes?"

I want to respond, do I look like I wear men's shoes? Am I wearing one article of masculinely gendered clothing that you can see?  It's just confusing to be wearing a white eyelet dress, little motorcycle boots and a full face of makeup with my legs shaved only to still be referred to with masculine pronouns. The femme realness could not be any more exacerbated unless I had a wind machine. Who do they think this girl is? Their sassy gay male shopping associate in day-drag?

Instead, I manage these moments with an award-winning smile and excellent subject-changing skills. Sometimes the subject is a half-hearted laugh and, "Is it raining?" but people are too distracted by the smile to notice. This is the kind of werq necessary to preserve my sanity and sense of self at work.

Clothing is a powerful conduit for expression of gender identities. Clothing is an expressive force, period. Sometimes, regardless of the artless forcefulness and drama of the expression, people just do not get it. And I don't want to be condescending in that people should "get it," more so that I wish people wouldn't go ahead and assume.

I've tried to brainstorm ways I could handle being misgendered in the workplace, but they all result in a weird change in the customer-employee relationship. Even the non-aggressive, "I'd appreciate it if you used feminine pronouns when referring to me," opens myself up to questioning and the option for the customer to not give a damn about what I'd appreciate -- and could I get that necklace off the display in the window?

While crafting the kingdom, I am the subject of the patrons. The emotional stake I have in being misgendered is high. Correcting this turns a transactional encounter into a high stakes moment of emotional and educational weight, and the customer might not even react positively!

Also, there is little space to open up a dialogue without my position being considered the definitive view of all trans women or trans folks in general. Often cis folks -- people comfortable with the gender they were assigned at birth -- want to know exactly how to approach a trans person every time. This is a level of twerking that I often do not feel comfortable shifting into willy-nilly at work. I might break a nail.

On top of that, my trans identity is wholly inconsequential to the patrons so long as no details, explanation or conscious effort is required to process my existence. Recently someone came up to the counter to ring out and called me, "Sir. Or ma'am, whichever you prefer." I wasn't sure if they were trying to throw me a bone, make a joke or what. Is it really my job to explain to this person why they are completely out of line to say that?
 
Not knowing what gendered terms someone prefers is fine. Calling that question out (or in this case, just loudly  making the statement) in a public space, laughing after that statement, and then whistling along with Katy Perry is not the best way to go about finding an answer. It's dismissive in the extreme, rendering something important and intimate a punchline. These questions need to be posed with respect, or left alone.

If there is one piece of advice I could give anyone, it's not to make light of these gendered terms. The effort I put into conveying an identity and a gender are worth more than that.

I wish that my gender could just be off the table and all the confused folks patronizing our store could refrain from directly referring to me and get on with their days. While my co-workers and I can have a dialogue about my identity and what I experience, I don't have time to take on the burden of educating each person that offends me throughout the day.

But Bornstein's book affirms that sometimes getting cash flow where one can is most important. Misgendering aside, I can werq at work because transitioning is expensive. While retail isn't the best paying work, at this point for me it's secure, and that has a lot of value.