Navigating the Craft Cocktail World As a Trans Bartender

The best service you give ends up happening after you stop giving a bunch of fucks.

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Mar 2 2018, 11:00pm

Composite image; left image courtesy of Colin O'Neill; right courtesy of Oyster House's Instagram

Colin O’Neill is the rare bartender who is technically brilliant as he is witty and capable in conversation, and one of my favorite professionals in the industry. He's been a treasure to the Philadelphia cocktail scene since starting at the Franklin Mortgage and Investment Co., where we were colleagues, in 2010 (and more recently as bar manager at the Oyster House). He took the time to chat with MUNCHIES about his own personal experience of high-profile bartending in the craft cocktail movement as a trans person.

MUNCHIES: Hi, Colin. How did you end up in food and beverage?
Colin O’Neill: My first bar gig was barbacking at Sister’s Nightclub before I was 21. I needed to pay my bills, and it was a queer-friendly place for me to make fast cash part-time while I was in school—and I didn’t have to take my piercings out. I really liked the work, and after I graduated, I figured I could do more of the same while I looked for other work in the art world.

When I started at Franklin in 2010, it kind of broke my brain. I came from the gutter punk drinking culture of slugging 40s and drinking handles of Evan Williams, so seeing real bartenders take pride and care in their work changed the way I thought about drinking.

Photo courtesy of Colin O'Neill

Did you find it hard to find work after you transitioned?
No. I think that I have a lot of privilege in that I can fly under the radar. It’s interesting being a person who passes as female even though I don’t identify as female. I sort of live in this chameleon area when I get to pick how I want my gender to be presented day to day.

But I think it’s important to recognize that some people don’t have the privilege of being stealth. If you’re somebody who sort of blurs the line, particularly in a city like Philadelphia, you can move through without hitting any snags.

Before you worked at the Franklin you bar-backed at a very queer-friendly bar and then moved directly into a bar that was higher-profile in terms of press. Did you feel there was more pressure there in terms of being a trans person and having to deal with front-of-house?
There’s always an element in hospitality of just how much of yourself you want to give up to your guests. That part of my identity—my trans-ness—it’s precious in some ways. It can be perceived by some people who know what to look for but it can be totally missed by other people who have never met a trans person before. When I’m interacting with guests, there’s always a question about how important it is for them to know who I am as a person.

In four years at the Franklin, nobody asked?
You’d be surprised. It’s an interesting dynamic—you don’t actually ever know someone’s gender identity unless someone is talking to you about that person. I never refer to myself using gender-specific pronouns cause I talk in the first person. It isn’t until another coworker or guest refers to me with the “they” pronoun that things start to get complicated. In that way, my coworkers were more important to me than the guest interactions. Having a supportive staff made my job less stressful.

And I think that in Philadelphia, the kinds of people the craft cocktail culture attracted at the time were in general a bit more well-read and well-educated and more aware that trans people exist. The common denominator at [other bars] was lower.

Do you think hospitality is a more positive place for trans people now?
The world in general is general is a more positive place for queer and transgender people, and that has definitely trickled into hospitality. Any sort of exposure is good in terms of making it less alien to other people. Before 2010, I would never have been able to imagine a trans person of color like Laverne Cox being on the cover of Time magazine and now you can say “Laverne Cox” and people know what the hell you’re talking about. I feel more comfortable now, but I’m not sure if it’s a function of me not giving a shit anymore and feeling much more secure in my identity. I’m also not sure if I’m feeling more secure in my identity because other people are accepting me or I’m just getting more jaded.

It’s a funny paradox that the best service you give ends up happening after you stop giving a bunch of fucks.
I think the fact that I’m a bartender and not a server has a lot to do with how comfortable I feel because I’m in control of the situation behind the bar. I can cut you off. I have more power in my interactions than someone on the floor does. And I think that’s one of the reasons I have been bartending for as long as I have been—because it’s comfortable.

Advice for young trans people going into hospitality?
Try not to be afraid of standing up for yourself and correcting people. I think that one of the things that held me back for a long time was letting people use incorrect pronouns for me because I didn’t want to engage in an uncomfortable situation. Being your own advocate is the best way to teach other people. It’s not your responsibility to teach other people what it is to be trans—but I think if you can, you should.

Thanks for speaking with us.