Trans Oral Histories: Working Retail
In each issue of Pinko, we offer edited excerpts from the NYC Trans Oral History Project, with the permission of the narrators. NYC TOHP is an online, open-access, Creative Commons archive of recorded and transcribed oral histories with trans New Yorkers. The interviews are conducted by volunteers and collective members, talking to trans people who have inspired them. The Project is described by themselves as a
collective, community archive working to document transgender resistance and resilience in New York City...and to record diverse histories of gender as intersecting with race and racism, poverty, dis/ability, aging, housing migration, sexism, and the AIDS crisis.
In our previous issue, we excerpted trans people discussing sex work and specifically modes of self-organization by women of color. Here, we consider another employment niche in which trans people have been able to find a foothold: retail sales. We include three stories: Shannon Harrington talks about working at Lee’s Mardi Gras, a legendary store for drag queen supplies; N.S. Toussaint discusses her worker organizing while selling clothes at Banana Republic; and Phoenix delves into building a union while selling sex toys. Both N.S. and Phoenix came to sharing their stories with NYC TOHP through their leadership in worker organizing.
The interviews evoke a series of strategic questions on wage work for gay communist politics: What has enabled trans people to find work in retail? What leads trans people to take leadership roles in retail working organizing? How is retail work gendered and sexualized? How are changes in the industry shaping workers’ lives? How do retail workers build solidarity, relationships of care, and fighting organizations?
We highlight two important political insights we draw from these interviews:
First, aspects of retail lend themselves to being a form of trans work. Low-wage retail is one of the few formal industries where non-passing trans people have been able to find work. Despite discrimination and harassment, trans people are able to get work in retail in part because retail is sexualized and gendered for all workers. Managers seek to associate their brands and products with the stylish allure and leading fashion that circulate among queer countercultures, particularly young queer New Yorkers of color.
Some trans people, like N.S. Toussaint who worked at Banana Republic while studying fashion, bring to their jobs a careful and sophisticated attention to personal style and aesthetics. For others, like Shannon at Lee’s Mardis Gras or Phoenix at Babeland, the sexualized margins of NYC retail can provide employment for trans workers.
Second, trans people play leading roles in working rights struggles. N.S. discusses her organizing with the worker center Retail Action Project, and Phoenix the successful unionization drive at Babeland. Experiences of anti-trans and racist harassment, hostility or indifference from managers, and personal ties to other social movement struggles all lend themselves to trans people playing early and major roles in workplace organizing.
Interview conducted by AJ Lewis.
TOHP Why don’t you talk about meeting Lee Brewster?
Harrington I answered an ad that he was looking for sales help. It was about ’87, ’88, and I wanted a steady gig from doing night jobs all the time, so I was looking for a day gig. Me and [my boyfriend] Kenny had just gotten our first apartment. Paying the bills and keeping everything on the up and up, and he was working, so I was like “Okay, going to get a day job.” So I did, and I started working for Lee, and he was great. I think he saw a lot of himself in me.
And this was at Lee’s Mardi Gras.
Lee’s Mardi Gras, the department store for queens. [Laughter.] The tranny department store, we called it. Yeah, it was 10,000 square feet. We had a huge space. It was the third floor on 400 West 14th, which was the corner building. Big building. In fact, on the third floor we could always tell when the girls were coming down to work, because that was a big sort of area, too, for working girls, because when it would start to get dark, they would come like, oh, there’s Vanessa, she’s coming down, walking down the street, and they were all customers, because they would all buy their shoes. Where could you get a five-inch heel in a size 13, you know? So it was like, they knew Lee’s and he had steel shanks that went through the heels so they could run in them. That like, if they don’t last running from the po-po, that was it. [Laughter.] We had one queen that, she would always come in and her name was Christine, and it looked like an explosion had happened in her shoes every time. She goes, I don’t know what I did, it’s like—it looked like the whole front of her shoe just exploded. Lee would be like, “Oh, I can’t take these back, you know?” So she’d buy a new pair. We’d see her every three weeks or so? I mean, the working girls would be around, and we’d be leaving work and they’d be coming in for work. But they loved Lee, they really did. He treated them with respect. He treated them like paying customers and said "What do you need, what do you want?" He was more annoyed with the gay guys that would come in and just shop for Halloween or something, because they would look around and then they were like, “I know where I can get that cheaper, you know?” I mean, he had corsets and lingerie and dresses and shoes and wigs and makeup. He had everything in that store, so.
And when did he open? When did he start the boutique?
He started it in the mid-80s. He did start earlier. I didn’t come to him until a little later, but he started in the early 80s and the store was on 10th Avenue in the 40s, and he lived upstairs and he had the bookstore as well, with the store. But the store wasn’t as big. It was kind of small and then there was a bookstore kind of adjacent. When he got the place on 14th Street is when he got all this incredible space. We always had a good crew of people to work with. There was Robert and Ronnie and Terry and there were just so many that were good friends of Lee’s that he had known for years, like B.B., who he had known for years who was assistant principal for eons at the New School. I think she’s retired now, but they were good friends of Lee’s. They kind of worked with Lee. They would work with Lee.
So it was like, and we would kind of sit back and hear the stories of how Lee got started and what Lee was up to, because Lee didn’t like to talk about it as much, and we would always be like, you know, come on Lee, we know—we’ll dress you and we’ll take you out. He was like, “No, no, no, no, no.” He goes, because those days for him were kind of like—he felt behind him, you know? He would do the lace-front wigs and he was gorgeous. He wasn’t really doing the drag at the time, so he would live kind of vicariously through us in a lot of ways. Because he’d be like, where did you go, what did you do.
But he would always take us out to dinner once a week. To a fancy-ass restaurant. Places that we could normally never afford. And he would take us and be like, come on, we’re going to dinner and he would be like, invite Kenny. You know, and I’d invite my husband and we’d have dinner and it would be like the Old Homestead [Steakhouse] or Cherchez la Femme, like Josephine’s. It would be like places where you wouldn’t normally go and you normally couldn’t afford, but Lee could and he would treat you to dinner and it would be quite a spread. So, and he loved doing that. He was a very generous guy at the same time. That’s kind of what made Lee very special.
I think I learned a lot from Lee. I learned about the whole—there isn’t just queens or pre-ops or you know, post-ops. There’s this whole grey area—there’s a whole grey area of straight men who feel kind of trapped and feel like this is the way they kind of live out themselves—that will never come out or never walk down the street in drag ever, you know, in their entire life. But he always thought well, they’re good because they purge and then they re-buy everything. [Laughter.] Lee kind of thought of it as the good side of everything. “Shannon, go and deal with him, you’ll be able to deal with him fine. He’s been coming here for twenty years.” He looks around and then he runs out the store. They’re always very nervous and they’re always looking at a book like, “Is anybody watching me right now?”
We had one area in the store that were all the magazines and books, and it was like this separate room. It was kind of pornography, but at the same sense it was like a drag magazine that Lee had published. It was the stuff that he had put together and had letters and places and where people meet and things like that, or discussion groups, or outings, where they’d go somewhere, where they can dress up for a weekend and be their femme selves, you know, pretty much. There was always things like that going on, and they loved that.
I mean, there were guys that are attracted to queens, and then there are guys that would want to be queens, you know? There’s always that kind of fine line. They weren’t into you so much as they wanted to be like you. You were their inspiration in a lot of ways. They would come in and you’d be like, well this is what you would need, and you would outfit them from head to toe and some were long-standing customers.
After working at Lee’s Mardis Gras, Shannon Harrington became a wigmaker, working with Broadway shows and film and television.
Interview conducted by Yana Calou.
Toussaint I applied to work at Banana Republic, the SoHo flagship store, and I got the job because I was getting out of college and I needed to do something for the summer. So 2010, I’m 19—
TOHP And you were like, “I work at FIT [Fashion Institute of Technology], I’m into fashion.”
So I started working—at the time I just started as a sales associate. But then I became an accessory specialist, because I love diamonds and bling and stuff. I love just wearing beautiful accessories. I knew the product well. In that time, keep in mind, I was beating my face. I’m talking about like, not beating my face like hitting it, but for folks who don’t know the term, but the community know like, child, when I said smoky eye, she had a smoky eye. Concealer under my eyes. I was hired with the concealer under my eyes, natural look, not with the eye shadow, and in a couple of months of transitioning, then that’s when the eye shadow and stuff started coming in.
So did you apply with your birth name, like when you applied for the job?
Yes, because I wasn’t even thinking of—I mean, the thought of transness was there, but it was like “Oh, I’m just an effeminate guy, and that’s fine.” That’s what was there, more so what I was connecting to. I started journeying into becoming more feminine. Started stepping into what I really felt, because as I’m getting older I’m like, “Fuck that, I’m trying to please people for what? Why am I trying to please people?”
They’re not trying to please you. [Laughter.]
My hours were getting cut. But then five new employees were hired. I was like, “What the fuck?”
Is this around the time that—
I was transitioning.
How did you learn about the Retail Action Project?
Well, I learned from a co-worker that was there, that was already going through RAP, and they would secretly be like “Yeah, come to this place, they help you,” because at the time my hours were cut so severely that I only was making $72 every two weeks. Four hour shifts, basically a Metrocard. I told them, “You can’t keep doing this.” And they still did it, and if you didn’t show you got written up. I don’t want that on my record. They’re writing you up. So I met with Sasha from RAP.
And were they calling your name at work, or?
Oh, child, no. Oh, so the good thing about retail—there is such a high turnover you get new staff. So there were some people who would simply refuse to call me by my name.
So I was happy, because as I transitioned I started blossoming. And boy, when I tell you I was gorgeous, as they would say, when I say I was just gorgeous looking? What? [Clicks tongue]. Looking good. So there was like, sometimes worker guys primarily would try to hit on me, and I’m like no, try to turn them down, and then the old workers was like, “Just so you know, this person is A, B, and C.” Like trying to spill tea as we call it. And I’m like “Ugh, why would you like”—I was turning them down anyway, I wasn’t interested. But because of that, it created a hostile environment like, this guy started going around saying you know, “She is attracted to me, but too bad she’s a man” kind of bullshit kind of conversation. So it got out of hand to the point I had to tell a manager. And it seemed like they were just trying to push it under the table, hush it up.
They just didn’t want to deal with it, didn’t know how, didn’t want to.
Right. So it was like “We can try to just make sure that y’all don’t work together on the same shift.” It’s like “What? What? Okay.” But neither here or there, my hours started being cut the more I was trying to speak up about stuff, about hours, experience of discrimination, in terms of like the misgendering, just folks talking about me like, around my gender, my transness, and laughing. It just became like a not-so-great environment.
How about like if when you were hired there, you had really specific rules about what clothes that you wear when you’re working at a retail store, so you were like—
Oh my God, yeah. They would even say that. There was one time—[Laughter]—one time, a manager, was like, “You can’t wear this on the floor.” I was like, “What do you mean?” I already told them I was trans, I won’t be taking this off. I was very feisty, a Caribbean. I was like, “No, I’m not taking this off.”
And you’re wearing like, Banana clothes—
Banana clothes, styled, decked, I was looking hot in my pumps, okay? They was like—the person was like, “Oh, let me see about that, let me go back, because I really don’t have no problem, I’m not trying to create a problem but let me see.” Literally, he was like “Oh, okay, but—.” I’m like “No. I will be keeping this one. It’s not revealing. It’s like pants with a button down, a blazer, and heels, and some diamonds on my neck.” I call them diamonds but again people, they’re not diamonds. It was like, some cheap costume jewelry. [Laughter.] But it looked good! It felt wonderful. I was looking good. I had my little bang in my hair. But I noticed—
So they tried to be like, “You’re not dress code” and you’re like, “Actually I am, you’re just saying this stuff.”
Yeah, I’m not in dress code.
You’re pissed that I’m trans.
Yes. Then it was like, “Oh, you’ve got a nose ring.” And I’m like, “You can’t even see my nose ring.” So they were trying to pick things. “Let’s write you up because you’ve been late.” Here I am in my transness trying to navigate life and trying to come to work and trying to figure out how I’m going to get paid.
Can you tell me a little bit about when you went and met Sasha and went to RAP for the first time, and any of the organizing work or anything that you remember from being empowered to change things at work or speak up or anything that you remember from those days?
I will say one of the things that I did learn from RAP was how to organize, how to become unionized. I think that was one of the things that was great because I didn’t even know that existed, I didn’t even know that I could speak up, I didn’t even know that I could get short-term unemployment because they were cutting my shifts. Imagine me trying to live off of $72, like to eat. Can you imagine? I remember trying to like, find scraps, scraps just to eat because I was so hungry, but I knew it was important to go to work.
And then you started speaking out. I know that, you know, you and I talked a little bit about our experiences in retail and also in speaking out, but you ended up speaking up and out, and how did you end up leaving Banana?
Oh yeah, so I asked because again, there was a situation where he threatened to punch me, the guy, the coworker—because I was trans. It was just getting uncomfortable being around him. So I asked to be transferred to another store, because my school was next door at FIT and I was always going there and was always welcome. Once I was transferred, same bullshit. It was like, I would get hours, but it wasn’t enough. Islan Nettles had passed away around in August and then I remember reaching out to Janet Mock. And I was like, “Hey, I know you don’t know me, [Laughter], but you know, I’m very inspired by you. Something that’s bothering me, you know, I’m very inspired, so if there’s anything that I can do to support.” And then she connected me with some other folks, and I introduced myself to her and we started a meeting. And the meeting became this thing called Trans Women of Color Collective. I became a founder of something that is now about to be national. My connection, and I connect to Islan Nettles’ story because—and there was times that we would go to the group at Callen-Lorde that they would have to talk about—because it was a trans support group so we could vent about our transness, and I want to tell you how gorgeous this girl was. I mean, all trans people are amazing, unique. Seeing her, there was such a light that was on her face. Gorgeous. Quiet. Yet making a statement at the same time. And she apparently went to Fashion Industry, the high school, so fashion was a part of her journey. So I connected with her when I heard about her death because we were the same age, and I easily thought, that could have been me. That could have been me. At the time of her death and then dealing with this stuff at Banana Republic, I was like, “I need to be doing something more.” I just got out of school, of fashion design, and at the time I didn’t even think that was enough to apply to the fashion industry because I was transitioning. My first experience with interning for fashion design was racism.
After organizing as a worker with the Retail Action Project (RAP) against anti-trans harassment at Banana Republic, N.S. Toussaint began working in LGBTQ health services, and founded the Trans Women of Color Collective.
Interview by ME O’Brien.
Phoenix I applied to Babeland, I got the job. I think that this was the beginning of me really wanting to be around more queer people, especially since I was using they and them pronouns, as well as she and her pronouns, but the use of she and her pronouns felt sort of coercive. So I just wanted to be somewhere I could be more authentically myself, and I wanted to sell sex toys. That seemed fun. I don’t remember if this was the case, but I think that I wanted to get out of food service, because the hours were really long. And particularly the hours that I was working at the coffee shop were long and difficult.
TOHP What was your starting pay at Babeland?
The starting pay was $12, and then once you passed your 90-day review, it went up to $13.
How were working conditions? What were some pluses and difficulties?
Being around the queer people thing was exactly what I expected. It was amazing and occasionally dramatic, and everyone had great style. The discount was fun, and toys were fun, and having this body of knowledge and returning to the communities that I was in, and having that be fun and sexy, was great. Those aren’t really working conditions, though. They are advantages. From the beginning it was a little bit difficult. The way that the shifts were structured was that you either were full-time, which was almost no one, you worked at least three shifts a week, or you worked two shifts a week and were required to pick up four shifts a month, or you were assigned zero permanent shifts and had to pick up six shifts a month, and that was me. I was scraping together $400 a month at this point, and I was living in a commune, which was really helpful, because it was okay that I was making $400 a month, and I was still being supported.
Where was the commune?
The commune was in Bed-Stuy. It was called Casa Duende. It was a queer commune. There were, at any given time, between five to seven of us. We actually built a wall in the house to accommodate more people. I lived there for maybe a year, or a year and a half, but the commune in total went on for five or six years.
Do you remember the first conversations around organizing?
I would see other things happening, like when someone would get fired. The way that you found out was that you got an email that said, “So-and-so is no longer with Babeland,” or something like that. It was a one-line email. It was very ominous. And then of course everyone would immediately start gossiping afterwards, like, “What happened? What happened? What happened?” We were all, at the very least, friendly with each other, so it was like, you would get the information—whoever was closest to that person would get the information from the source, be like, “Is it okay if I share this?” We would find out. A lot of the times, you know, it was a lot of people getting fired over things like individually speaking up about workplace conditions that were universally disliked. For instance, one of my friends who had worked there for three years and who was a shift supervisor. We had to, every year, do feedback surveys, and they were specifically asking for feedback, and she was saying stuff along the lines of, “I feel like Babeland is kind of losing touch with its queer roots, and its queer customer base,” whatever. Fired. For being too critical.
There was just other stuff that led to the organizing. We didn’t always feel safe at the store, and we felt like upper management was really out of touch with that. You know, as queer and trans people we are targets of violence, and we happen to be concentrated in this retail store, and that makes some people mad, particularly—I mean, particularly men. It makes men angry, and it maybe makes them angry that we sell dildos? I don’t know, whatever. And so particularly in the Lower East Side store, there—which actually still employs the most trans people, and in particular the most trans women—and so there would be incidents at that store in particular of verbally and physically violent transphobic harassment, transmisogynist harassment. It was so scary. Like, someone spit on another customer in the store and they had to close the store. Two guys joked about having a gun. People would shout slurs. We get prank phone calls where people are rude, or violent, or masturbating, just the whole spectrum of people taking out their feelings about sex and sexuality on us, which is often violent. We didn’t feel like we had enough support around that. We wanted phones that had caller ID. We wanted phones that we didn’t have to pick up, or something like that, or that would go to voicemail or something like that, or that would just go between the stores, because we do call each other a lot. Yeah. The policy was that if you really felt threatened, and people agreed on it—and usually if there wasn’t a manager around, because they would say no—you would close the store. But the problem was that you would lose wages. You had to choose between your physical and emotional safety, and your financial safety, which is violent. Yeah, and so I think safety was a big part of the conversation, and then wages were also part of the conversation. Those were the conversations that we were having around when we started organizing.
The turnover just got really high, and we were just losing people that we really cared about, because it was people who had been there for a long time who were getting fired or quitting. It’s almost like a curse. I’ve been there for three years, and I don’t know almost anyone who’s been there longer, for three and a half years. So I don’t know what’s going to happen to me in, like, six months. So, people were getting fired and quitting. The turnover was really high. We were losing people who we loved, and—so it was actually my partner, who had just been there for three years at that point, who was kind of like, “I can’t be at this job any longer, but I also can’t leave knowing that it’s just going to be like this unless we do something.” And so she contacted an organizer at the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, the RWDSU, and we met with him and another organizer, and so we met with the two of them, and we were kind of like, “I don’t know, do you even organize stores like this? Do you want a sex toy store in your union? You know, a lot of these people are queer and trans. Can you handle that?” I will give them so much credit, because they were like, ‘Yes, everyone—retail stores have a place in our union. Big stores, small stores.’ They actually brought in someone to train not just the organizers, but the whole office, on gender and sexuality competence. It felt like we were really impacting each other, which was great. The conversations were basically, like, “Hey, it’s precarious to work here, it’s threatening to our safety, we’re not making enough money, people are fired or ignored if they say anything. So it seems like the thing to do now is to take collective action—Let’s get a union! Let’s get a union.”
We would continue giving interviews, tabling outside the store, and just sticking up for each other, and that was really, really meaningful. It was really important to stay socially cohesive. We would spend time with each other and build on these real relationships, because now not only were we hanging out, but we were also doing something political together, which I think sort of tied us up in risk and made us want to protect each other more. Having a lot of those personal connections, I think were important. And then—yeah, I don’t know. I think that just feeling empowered to stand up for each other was a really big deal, and being tied up with each other politically was a really big deal. I would say that was probably, one of the things that made us most—that brought us closer. Because it brought us closer politically, in investing in each other’s protection, and it brought us together personally, because we had to take time to form those relationships…We got a really rad dress code, which is—I would never picture myself saying the words “rad dress code,” because dress codes are often rooted in fucked up shit. But we felt like the dress code was being unfairly enforced, particularly with trans women, and so the workers drafted a new dress code that was like, “All right, whatever. We won’t show our genitals. Fine. Other than that, we’re going to wear whatever we want. You know, we will be respectful of people’s sensitivity to different scents. That’s fine. We want to do that. Like, there’s almost nothing that you can’t wear, except for something that advocates violence against an oppressed group, and this must be enforced, if you’re going to enforce it, across the board. And we are the ones who determine if that’s fucked up or not.” So, yeah. I think those are some of my contract highlights.
So, it sounds like overall that the culture there has been really profoundly transformed by the solidarity between people.
Yeah, absolutely. I guess this is pretty standard with unions: we went from being at-will employees, where we could be fired for any reason, up to no reason at all, to being just cause employees, where they have to have a reason that fits certain criteria to fire us, if they’re going to fire us. Yeah. So, yes, the culture has definitely changed for the better. Yeah, I don’t know. I just never thought that I was going to be a part of something like this. I think maybe a lot of people didn’t, also, and so this has just been transformative.
How has it transformed you?
I mean, I’m really interested in labor now. Before a lot of my interests were around immigration, and queer people of color, and trans people. Obviously I’m still interested in those things, and I have a much stronger labor lens on that, and the underemployment of those communities, and just the way that employment and jobs are violent and oppressive, particularly towards those communities. I feel a sense of solidarity with my peers. I feel invested in anyone and everyone having a union. I feel more powerful at work.
After Babeland workers won their unionization drive, Phoenix became a shop steward and union leader. They continue to work as a receiver for Babeland. ⊱