Trans Oral Histories: Working Retail
The following appears in the July print issue of Pinko, a biannual magazine of gay communism. 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. Read a previous oral history here. Become a subscriber of Pinko or preorder a single issue of the magazine here.
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."
Toussaint: 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. Concealed 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.
TOHP: So did you apply with your birth name, like when you applied for the job?
Toussaint: 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?"
TOHP: They’re not trying to please you. [Laughter.]
Toussaint: My hours were getting cut. But then five new employees were hired. I was like, "what the fuck?"
TOHP: Is this around the time that—
Toussaint: I was transitioning.
TOHP: How did you learn about the Retail Action Project?
Toussaint: Well, I learned from a co-worker that was there, that was already going through RAP, and they would secretly was 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.
TOHP: And were they calling your name at work, or?
Toussaint: 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.
Toussaint: 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.
TOHP: They just didn’t want to deal with it, didn’t know how, didn’t want to.
Toussaint: 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.
TOHP: 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—
Toussaint: 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."
TOHP: And you’re wearing like, Banana clothes—
Toussaint: 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—
TOHP: So they tried to be like, "You’re not dress code" and you’re like, "Actually I am, you’re just saying this stuff."
Toussaint: Yeah, I’m not in dress code.
TOHP: You’re pissed that I’m trans.
Toussaint: 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.
TOHP: 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?
Toussaint: 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.
TOHP: 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?
Toussaint: 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.