Perfect Is Boring: What It’s Like to Be Trans in the Restaurant Industry
With threats of customer harassment and misogynist kitchen culture, hospitality can be tough on its trans and non-binary employees.
Photo by Liz Seabrook.
This month, the UK has a historic opportunity to improve trans rights. The Government is currently consulting the public on whether it should make it easier for trans people to have their gender legally recognised through the Gender Recognition Act.
When Jade Jones started wearing fake nails and hair extensions to her supermarket job, her manager was not supportive.
“My boss was so strict about it,” she remembers. “I wasn't allowed to wear nails, even though all the other girls were wearing them. When I worked in [a different branch] before I moved to London, I was victimised for wearing makeup—even though I wore the bare minimum.”
Being visibly trans in the workplace isn’t easy. According to a report from Stonewall last year, half of trans people in the UK hide their identity at work—and no wonder, when 12 percent of trans people have been physically attacked by colleagues or customers in the last year, and 21 percent don’t feel safe enough to report such abuse.
And as Jones discovered, trans people who work in food—an industry built on customer interaction—face even greater challenges.
It is now illegal to place trans people in less public roles because of how they identify, thanks to the Equality Act 2010, meaning more trans people than ever are working in restaurant, bar, and food retail jobs. As trans visibility increases—propelled by the current Government consultation on the Gender Recognition Act—trans issues are pushed further into the spotlight. In many ways, this can be a force for good, putting the legal rights of trans people at the forefront of the national conversation. In others, it exposes trans people to cruel and unnecessary harassment.
Jones grew up in Dover but moved to London at 19 to pursue her ambition of recording an EP. Looking for a flexible job to fund time in the recording studio, she turned to hospitality. She joined the front-of-house team at LGBTQ bar Dalston Superstore in East London before moving to Voodoo Ray’s, a pizza slice joint owned by the same group.
It’s at Voodoo Ray’s’ Shoreditch outpost that I first speak to Jones. We sit outside on the restaurant’s patio and have a cigarette in the sunshine. Across her chest is a tattoo that reads "Perfect Is Boring."
“When you work somewhere for 20-plus hours a week, you become aware that, typically, the drunker people get, the more aggressive they become,” Jones tells me. “You learn to become quicker with your service and to keep the exchanges to as little as possible.”
From the “sirs” and “madams” of fine dining to the “guy” or “girl” who takes your order in McDonald’s, restaurants are rife with gendered language. For trans workers, this increases the risk of being referred to as the wrong gender, delegitimising their identity and causing unnecessary stress.
“It always used to give me anxiety,” Jones says of being misgendered at work. “I always tried my hardest to avoid in-depth conversation [with customers], to avoid being hurt or humiliated.”
Misgendering is a common problem for trans people who work front-of-house in restaurants and bars, but it’s certainly not the worst. Unlike many service industry jobs, waitstaff and bartenders interact directly with their customers, and in environments where alcohol is consumed. Informing a rowdy table that the kitchen is out of steak Milanese or refusing to serve an intoxicated customer can quickly escalate into a personal attack on the staff member. And if you’re trans, the risk is much higher.
“I had a customer try and punch me in the face, just because I refused to serve him because he was too drunk,” Jones tells me. “He called me all sorts of disgusting things.”
“It was so quick and fucked up,” she continues. “I constantly feel like it’s just me who encounters these issues. I’m on the frontline—nobody else.”
“I constantly feel like it’s just me who encounters these issues. I’m on the frontline—nobody else.”
Dr. Ruth Pearce, a trans feminist scholar from the University of Leeds, agrees that trans hospitality workers can face undue difficulty from customers.
“If someone is visibly trans, and they're in a service job, they're more likely to get negative responses from customers—particularly if someone's got a problem anyway,” she tells me over the phone.
“[When] someone's got a problem, that's when being trans comes in,” Pearce continues. “That's the point where there might be some additional level of discrimination, inappropriate comments, or threats of violence. People, of course, experience this in the service industry all the time anyway. In a sense, being trans can be an exacerbating factor.”
And to make things worse, trans people are more likely to go into restaurant and bar jobs over many other industries.
“Trans people have huge problems with employability and getting jobs,” Pearce explains, “so they are more likely to be in the service industry, because it's harder to get a lot of other jobs.”
With the threat of abuse at work already so high for trans people, what dangers are there for those who serve us at our hungriest and drunkest?
Em Cameron (who uses they, them pronouns) moved to Bristol from Edinburgh to attend university. After graduating just over two years ago, they took a job at Cafe Kino, a vegan cafe and community space in Bristol’s Stokes Croft neighbourhood. I meet Cameron here during a busy Thursday lunch service, and the place is full of students revising for exams and young families enjoying plates of homemade falafel.
Cameron and I sit downstairs with two other trans and non-binary Cafe Kino employees, Jamz and Rae. I start by asking the trio how their gender identity has affected them at work.
“You're serving people who are making split-second judgements on ‘what’ you are,” Cameron says.
“When you're behind the [cafe] bar, you feel a lot safer—all you have to do is take a step back and you're relatively safe,” they continue. “But as soon as you have to go onto the cafe floor, and have to try and ask somebody to leave, or end up in a confrontation, you know [being in danger] is a possibility.”
Cameron explains that while they have never felt threatened at Cafe Kino, there have been instances of people entering the cafe and aggressively questioning their gender.
“You look around you and think, ‘Right, everyone else is busy, I have to deal with this,’” Cameron tells me. “You know that it's a possibility. You're out there in a confrontational situation.”
Like Jones and Cameron, many trans and non-binary people have experienced abuse at work. But reporting incidents to the police isn't always simple.
MUNCHIES requested information on the number of transphobic incidents and offences in restaurants and bars over the last three years from the Metropolitan Police, Greater Manchester Police, Greater Glasgow Police, and West Yorkshire Police. Although two out of the four police forces did not record the locations of such incidents, all reported low numbers of transphobic hate crimes relative to their size. Greater Glasgow Police, for example, reported 12 transphobic hate crimes in 2016—a tiny number for a force that covers almost 770,000 people.
The Metropolitan Police and West Yorkshire Police do record the locations of transphobic incidents. The Met is responsible for 8.6 million Londoners, and while the number of transphobic attacks it recorded was slightly higher compared to the other police forces, there were only eight transphobic attacks in bars and restaurants reported in 2015 and 2016, and only ten in 2017. Data for West Yorkshire Police, which covers 2.2 million people in cities including Leeds and Bradford, had similarly low results. In 2015, no transphobic incidents were reported in bars and restaurants here.
Considering that 41 percent of trans people have experienced a hate crime within the last year, the number of reported incidents in restaurants and bars seems worryingly low.
“What immediately jumps out to me is that the numbers [of reported transphobic incidents in restaurants and bars] are clearly really small,” says Pearce, when I show her the figures from the Metropolitan Police. “They're clearly underestimating what's happening, which isn't a surprise. Given that, that's a relatively high amount recorded in bars or restaurants.”
According to Pearce, trans people could be reluctant to report abuse due to a mistrust of the police, or a simple lack of knowledge around what defines a “transgender hate crime”—something that only became law in 2010.
“A lot of trans people don't think they'll be taken seriously [by the police],” says Pearce. “What will happen is that people will have bad experiences and then share their bad experiences. There ends up being this communally shared idea of what people might anticipate happening to them.”
While Cameron is yet to have reason to report a transphobic incident to the police, they say that approaching the authorities wouldn’t be their first response.
“Generally speaking, I wouldn’t even trust that, having phoned the police, they would be on my side or take it seriously,” they tell me. “Even more generally, any interactions with state or government institutions tends to be a lot of hard work, misgendering, and dead-naming for any trans person—and the police are no exception.”
I asked the Metropolitan Police about the policies it has in place to help trans people who work in public-facing roles. Detective Sergeant Anthony Forsyth told me: “The Met has specialist hate crime investigators working within the Borough Safeguarding Command Units and they will offer you support and give you practical assistance and advice to help you to decide what to do next.”
"Officers across London continue to raise awareness of hate crime and encourage victims to come forward. We are aware that hate crime is underreported, which is why we will continue to work hard to gain the trust and confidence of all communities so victims feel they can come forward"
On the other side of Bristol is Eat Your Greens, a vegan cafe opened by an ex-Cafe Kino staff member, Babs (they, them). Hywel (they, him), Babs’ partner and a cafe employee, tells me that being trans and working in the restaurant industry can be tough.
“I almost feel like I've got the worst to come in a lot of ways, because I haven't started to physically transition,” they say, after we discuss the laborious process of undergoing gender reassignment surgery on the NHS. “I'm not in that awkward phase. But I imagine that's pretty challenging in such a public-facing role.”
“With hospitality work, anyway, it feels like you do a lot of emotional labour,” Hywel continues. “Sometimes people will come in and they will throw all this stuff on the counter. They've had a bad day and they're gonna take that out on you.”
For Babs, who worked as a chef in restaurants across Bristol before opening Eat Your Greens, it was important for the cafe to be a safe space for LGBTQ workers and customers.
“If anyone made any transphobic comments to any of my staff or customers at Eat Your Greens, I wouldn't let it slide, not for a second,” they tell me. “Silence is complicity,”
This is a far cry from many of the kitchens Babs has previously cheffed in. They tell me, tentatively, about a fine dining restaurant they worked at in Bath.
“I was in this toxic environment and it was horrific,” they say. “I told them my pronoun is ‘they,’ and ‘my name is Babs’ and they saw that my name was Rebecca, and so they called me Becky. Nobody ever called me ‘they’ the whole time I was there.”
Despite having negative experiences in the hospitality industry, both Hywel and Babs see cafes and restaurants as vital spaces for increasing trans visibility and fostering communities.
“The more non-binary and trans people who are able to open places and be supported by the community, [the more they] can increase awareness,” Babs says.
Almost everyone I spoke to for this piece agreed that publicising a trans-inclusive policy to both customers and staff is a crucial first step in improving trans people’s safety and happiness at work.
Jones noticed a marked change in customer behaviour after Voodoo Ray’s took the simple initiative of displaying posters in their venues that read: “Voodoo Ray’s is an LGBTQ-friendly venue. Homophobia, transphobia, racism, misogyny, and any other bullshit will not be tolerated.”
“I’m definitely being understood better than I was before,” says Jones.
In a conversation we have later about the poster, she adds: “I don’t care about strangers’ opinions but I'm not going to lie—before, it wasn't easy.”
“Sometimes [I feel] this poster shouldn't be necessary, people should just have respect for others and they shouldn’t have to be reminded,” she continues.
Jones also recalls an incident in which a transphobic customer left a bad review of Voodoo Ray's, accusing Jones of calling their party “bitches.” Until this year, Jones would have to give a written account of such incidents to her manager “like a report book,” requiring her to painfully relive abuse from strangers.
“If I had my reports book and read through it, I'd probably cry,” she says.
“They explicitly told me I was damaging my brand by coming out as trans, so about two weeks before Christmas they pulled a £25,000 book deal from under my feet.”
Voodoo Ray’s no longer requires its workers to write down incidents, and has worked with Jones to develop new policies for reporting issues. She also clarifies that the pastoral care she’s received at Voodoo Ray’s has been immense: “My manager has supported me through some really dark times and I’m grateful for that.”
“Everyone who I work with supports me which is also such a big thing for me,” she adds. “This is how it should be for anyone who is transgender in a working environment: safe.”
Dan Beaumont, owner of Voodoo Ray’s and Dalston Superstore, explains how the company has worked to create a positive work environment for Jones and other trans employees.
“We are extremely lucky that we have a strong and supportive team alongside Jade, who worked with her to develop strategies to deal with the ongoing nonsense,” Beaumont tells me over email. “In terms of support, we have provided, the reality is that Jade has helped us far more than we have her, by opening our eyes to the daily fight that many trans people face just to be their authentic selves.”
Independent outlets like Voodoo Ray's aren't the only food businesses making changes to support trans workers. In the US, Starbucks recently announced that it would be expanding its employee healthcare benefits to cover “bottom” and “top” surgeries, while cafes and restaurants on both sides on the Atlantic are embracing gender-neutral toilets as the norm.
In food media, visible trans figures are less prominent, but individuals like food writer and campaigner Jack Monroe, who identifies as non-binary, marked one of the more public shifts towards trans visibility when they came out in 2016.
Monroe tells me that this wasn’t an easy decision.
“When I felt ready to come out, in 2016, I was just about to sign a book detail for what would be my third cookbook,” they say. “The publisher came across an article I'd written a few weeks before where I was coming out as trans non-binary, and they decided that they didn't want to publish my cookbook.”
“They explicitly told me I was damaging my brand by coming out as trans,” they continue, “so about two weeks before Christmas they pulled a £25,000 book deal from under my feet.”
While Monroe sees the food world as slowly becoming more tolerant, they still think it has a long way to go. Only recently, Monroe tweeted picture of an abusive comment they received on their blog, with an email address that calls for Monroe to “firstname.lastname@example.org.” It was posted on the bottom of a recipe for a chickpea salad.
“I think the food writing industry is so petrified anything that doesn't fit their nice little cookie-cutter homemaker mould,” Monroe says. “It needs to catch up with where the rest of the world is at on this.”
While certain areas of the food industry are unwelcoming for trans and non-binary people, with the right policies and management, restaurants and cafes can become home to those who have been ritually excluded. Cafe Kino was the first place that Cameron felt comfortable enough to come out in.
“I only came out after I started working here,” they tell me. “That was a big effect that Cafe Kino had on me. I started working here and [saw that] half the staff use they, them pronouns. When I saw the form with the pronouns box, I thought, ‘I can do it now.’”
While working in hospitality has exposed Jones to abuse, she finds strength in using her visibility to confront myths about being trans.
“Transphobia is not taken seriously a lot of the time. The least people could do is educate themselves and others before speaking. If people are genuinely interested, I will take the opportunity and time to show that [trans people] are no different than anyone else,” she says, defiantly, with a final gesture of her hand, nails glittering.
“We're not fucking monsters.”