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 previous oral histories here and here. Become a subscriber of Pinko or preorder a single issue of the magazine here.
Interview by ME O’Brien.
Phoenix: I applied to Babeland, I got the job. I think that this was the beginning of me really wanting to be around more queer people, especially since I was using they and them pronouns, as well as she and her pronouns, but the use of she and her pronouns felt sort of coercive. So I just wanted to be somewhere I could be more authentically myself, and I wanted to sell sex toys. That seemed fun. I don’t remember if this was the case, but I think that I wanted to get out of food service, because the hours were really long. And particularly the hours that I was working at the coffee shop were long and difficult.
TOHP: What was your starting pay at Babeland?
Phoenix: The starting pay was $12, and then once you passed your 90-day review, it went up to $13.
TOHP: How were working conditions? What were some pluses and difficulties?
Phoenix: Being around the queer people thing was exactly what I expected. It was amazing and occasionally dramatic, and everyone had great style. The discount was fun, and toys were fun, and having this body of knowledge and returning to the communities that I was in, and having that be fun and sexy, was great. Those aren’t really working conditions, though. They are advantages. From the beginning it was a little bit difficult. The way that the shifts were structured was that you either were full-time, which was almost no one, you worked at least three shifts a week, or you worked two shifts a week and were required to pick up four shifts a month, or you were assigned zero permanent shifts and had to pick up six shifts a month, and that was me. I was scraping together $400 a month at this point, and I was living in a commune, which was really helpful, because it was okay that I was making $400 a month, and I was still being supported.
TOHP: Where was the commune?
Phoenix: The commune was in Bed-Stuy. It was called Casa Duende. It was a queer commune. There were, at any given time, between five to seven of us. We actually built a wall in the house to accommodate more people. I lived there for maybe a year, or a year and a half, but the commune in total went on for five or six years.
TOHP: Do you remember the first conversations around organizing?
Phoenix: I would see other things happening, like when someone would get fired. The way that you found out was that you got an email that said, "So-and-so is no longer with Babeland," or something like that. It was a one-line email. It was very ominous. And then of course everyone would immediately start gossiping afterwards, like, "What happened? What happened? What happened?" We were all, at the very least, friendly with each other, so it was like, you would get the information—whoever was closest to that person would get the information from the source, be like, "Is it okay if I share this?" We would find out. A lot of the times, you know, it was a lot of people getting fired over things like individually speaking up about workplace conditions that were universally disliked. For instance, one of my friends who had worked there for three years and who was a shift supervisor. We had to, every year, do feedback surveys, and they were specifically asking for feedback, and she was saying stuff along the lines of, "I feel like Babeland is kind of losing touch with its queer roots, and its queer customer base," whatever. Fired. For being too critical.
There was just other stuff that led to the organizing. We didn’t always feel safe at the store, and we felt like upper management was really out of touch with that. You know, as queer and trans people we are targets of violence, and we happen to be concentrated in this retail store, and that makes some people mad, particularly—I mean, particularly men. It makes men angry, and it maybe makes them angry that we sell dildos? I don’t know, whatever. And so particularly in the Lower East Side store, there—which actually still employs the most trans people, and in particular the most trans women—and so there would be incidents at that store in particular of verbally and physically violent transphobic harassment, transmisogynist harassment. It was so scary. Like, someone spit on another customer in the store and they had to close the store. Two guys joked about having a gun. People would shout slurs. We get prank phone calls where people are rude, or violent, or masturbating, just the whole spectrum of people taking out their feelings about sex and sexuality on us, which is often violent. We didn’t feel like we had enough support around that. We wanted phones that had caller ID. We wanted phones that we didn’t have to pick up, or something like that, or that would go to voicemail or something like that, or that would just go between the stores, because we do call each other a lot. Yeah. The policy was that if you really felt threatened, and people agreed on it—and usually if there wasn’t a manager around, because they would say no—you would close the store. But the problem was that you would lose wages. You had to choose between your physical and emotional safety, and your financial safety, which is violent. Yeah, and so I think safety was a big part of the conversation, and then wages were also part of the conversation. Those were the conversations that we were having around when we started organizing.
The turnover just got really high, and we were just losing people that we really cared about, because it was people who had been there for a long time who were getting fired or quitting. It’s almost like a curse. I’ve been there for three years, and I don’t know almost anyone who’s been there longer, for three and a half years. So I don’t know what’s going to happen to me in, like, six months. So, people were getting fired and quitting. The turnover was really high. We were losing people who we loved, and—so it was actually my partner, who had just been there for three years at that point, who was kind of like, "I can’t be at this job any longer, but I also can’t leave knowing that it’s just going to be like this unless we do something." And so she contacted an organizer at the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, the RWDSU, and we met with him and another organizer, and so we met with the two of them, and we were kind of like, "I don’t know, do you even organize stores like this? Do you want a sex toy store in your union? You know, a lot of these people are queer and trans. Can you handle that?" I will give them so much credit, because they were like, ‘Yes, everyone—retail stores have a place in our union. Big stores, small stores.’ They actually brought in someone to train not just the organizers, but the whole office, on gender and sexuality competence. It felt like we were really impacting each other, which was great. The conversations were basically, like, "Hey, it’s precarious to work here, it’s threatening to our safety, we’re not making enough money, people are fired or ignored if they say anything. So it seems like the thing to do now is to take collective action—Let’s get a union! Let’s get a union."
We would continue giving interviews, tabling outside the store, and just sticking up for each other, and that was really, really meaningful. It was really important to stay socially cohesive. We would spend time with each other and build on these real relationships, because now not only were we hanging out, but we were also doing something political together, which I think sort of tied us up in risk and made us want to protect each other more. Having a lot of those personal connections, I think were important. And then—yeah, I don’t know. I think that just feeling empowered to stand up for each other was a really big deal, and being tied up with each other politically was a really big deal. I would say that was probably, one of the things that made us most—that brought us closer. Because it brought us closer politically, in investing in each other’s protection, and it brought us together personally, because we had to take time to form those relationships…We got a really rad dress code, which is—I would never picture myself saying the words "rad dress code," because dress codes are often rooted in fucked up shit. But we felt like the dress code was being unfairly enforced, particularly with trans women, and so the workers drafted a new dress code that was like, "All right, whatever. We won’t show our genitals. Fine. Other than that, we’re going to wear whatever we want. You know, we will be respectful of people’s sensitivity to different scents. That’s fine. We want to do that. Like, there’s almost nothing that you can’t wear, except for something that advocates violence against an oppressed group, and this must be enforced, if you’re going to enforce it, across the board. And we are the ones who determine if that’s fucked up or not." So, yeah. I think those are some of my contract highlights.
TOHP: So, it sounds like overall that the culture there has been really profoundly transformed by the solidarity between people.
Phoenix: Yeah, absolutely. I guess this is pretty standard with unions: we went from being at-will employees, where we could be fired for any reason, up to no reason at all, to being just cause employees, where they have to have a reason that fits certain criteria to fire us, if they’re going to fire us. Yeah. So, yes, the culture has definitely changed for the better. Yeah, I don’t know. I just never thought that I was going to be a part of something like this. I think maybe a lot of people didn’t, also, and so this has just been transformative.
TOHP: How has it transformed you?
Phoenix: I mean, I’m really interested in labor now. Before a lot of my interests were around immigration, and queer people of color, and trans people. Obviously I’m still interested in those things, and I have a much stronger labor lens on that, and the underemployment of those communities, and just the way that employment and jobs are violent and oppressive, particularly towards those communities. I feel a sense of solidarity with my peers. I feel invested in anyone and everyone having a union. I feel more powerful at work.
After Babeland workers won their unionization drive, Phoenix became a shop steward and union leader. They continue to work as a receiver for Babeland.