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Transgender customer service employees face daily discrimination 

Queer&There

Trans people across America are waiting — with a sense of existential dread — for the outcome of the U.S. Supreme Court’s R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Arguments begin Oct. 8, and the U.S. government’s position is that transgender people are not protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin and religion.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, up to 57 percent of transgender survey respondents reported experiencing employment discrimination. Only 21 states — including Colorado — and the District of Columbia have non-discrimination laws that include sexual orientation and gender identity. Even in these states, the workplace can be a hostile environment for transgender people. Just ask anyone who has worked in customer service.

Customer service jobs, largely retail and hospitality, make up more than 20 percent of all the jobs in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Customer interactions, even for cisgender employees, can often be fraught and unpleasant. For transgender workers, these interactions can take on a completely different character.

Asher is a 35-year-old trans man who works for a major retail chain. Due to concerns of retaliation, we will refer to Asher and others quoted here by their first names only.

“It’s been hit or miss, especially in the beginning,” Asher says of working while trans. “Now I pass pretty well, as long as my co-workers don’t mess up my pronouns.” He recalls a time early in his transition when a co-worker referred to him as “she” in front of a customer. “I walk away with the [customer], everything is fine at first, and then he says ‘Can I ask you a question?’” That phrase can raise the hackles on almost any trans person. “‘Are you one of those freaks? You’re a boy right?’”
The man eventually dropped the topic but Asher says, “during the questioning of ‘are you a freak?’ I’m standing behind the counter and I can tell he’s looking for physical characteristics. I’m looking at his face and he’s looking below the belt.”

This kind of dehumanizing interrogation is common for trans people who work with the public. Charlotte, a 39-year-old trans woman who provides IT support, says, “One client asked me if I had ‘unusual genitalia.’ I quickly said I wasn’t comfortable discussing that and slowly eased my way out of the conversation.”

Many trans people also have to deal with being completely invalidated by customers. Kaiden is a 17-year-old transgender man who works as a cashier in another national retail chain. He wears a nametag with his pronouns, but, “People just blatantly ignore it. They’ll ask me, ‘Are you a boy or girl?’ ... And then they’re like, ‘Oh that’s a girl,’ or ‘Oh, didn’t you hear her voice?’ It’s like being frozen in time. I recognize I’m there, but right between my belly and heart it gets kind of tight like a spring, and I have a moment frozen in time where I wonder if I should correct you or just let you live your life, and it is so draining.”

Many trans people, like 24-year-old nonbinary former market vendor Lukey, don’t even come out at work. “Most of the time at work I was just closeted, or camouflaged. I never did fully femme presentation out in the suburbs, but I would have people ask me if I was a boy or a girl. It was always older men. It would make me feel really unsafe at these markets in rural Indiana, especially when the other vendors have Nazi shit on their cars.” One of the other vendors on the farmers market circuit, Schooner Creek Farm of Nashville, Indiana, was recently exposed as members of the white supremacist group American Identity Movement, formerly Identity Evropa.

Despite the challenges posed by customers, many trans people report supportive workplaces, and not all customer interactions are terrible. “While I was helping a customer one day, they asked me ‘What’s it like being transgender at work?’” recounts Kaiden. “I was a little surprised at first, but they told me they had a transgender son who was just starting high school, and I could really help them, so I gave them some advice about high school. They ended up telling my manager ... [that] it was really nice to have someone to ask questions to.”

Despite the support of corporations and co-workers, the constant barrage of transphobia takes its toll. “I’ve been thinking more and more about going into forestry or some other position that doesn’t require me to interact with customers all day,” says Charlotte. “People are always the variable I can’t account for, so I’d rather just leave, even though I love this field and believe it’s my purpose on this planet.”

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