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PINKO x VERSO: Trans Oral History Project 1

The first of three interviews with trans workers in retail in New York, conducted by Pinko, a biannual magazine of gay communism. 

Pinko Magazine, M.E. O'Brien29 June 2020

Image: Pinko

This week on the Blog, Verso has teamed up with Pinko, a biannual magazine of gay communism, to bring you three extracts from their forthcoming July issue. The extracts are taken from the ongoing 'Trans Oral History Project', serialised in each issue of the magazine. 

The following appears in the July print issue of Pinko. Become a subscriber or preorder a single issue of the magazine here

Trans Oral Histories: Working Retail

In each issue of Pinko, we offer edited excerpts from the New York City Trans Oral History Project (NYC TOHP), 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 Pheonix 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.

– M. E. O’Brien

Shannon Harrington

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. 

TOHP: And this was at Lee’s Mardi Gras. 

Harrington: 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. 

TOHP: And when did he open? When did he start the boutique? 

Harrington: 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. Tony Stevens was no one that I worked with that was good friends of Lee's, and they all knew Lee in the earlier days. 

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.