Working while queer | Peepshow | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Working while queer

I am a genderfluid* queer person who works a full-time job at a small, queer-owned business with a largely queer staff. It’s a job that pays me a living wage, has benefits, and offers me a stable work and friend community. (Shout out to Pigeon Bagels!) 

*For me, genderfluidity means moving all around the gender binary — sometimes I’m a girly boy, sometimes I’m a boy, sometimes I’m a lady, sometimes I’m both or neither.

I’m in a rare situation, unfortunately. Service workers are grossly underpaid across the United States, and in the state of Pennsylvania, the minimum wage is an abysmal, embarrassing, and grossly exploitative $7.25 an hour. That’s about $13, 920 a year in earnings for full-time work. The Fight for $15 is important and would lift a lot of people above the poverty line. It is also just the bare minimum in moving towards paying people a sustainable wage for the work that they do.

Plenty of research shows LGBTQ people are much more likely to live in poverty or experience instability in their socioeconomic status. The American Psychological Association even recommends raising the federal minimum wage as a solution to LGBTQ folks’ disproportionate rates of poverty. 

It’s also important to remember that even finding a job as an LGBTQ person can be challenging, especially for transgender workers and LGBTQ workers of color, as they experience much higher levels of discrimination in the workplace and in hiring processes. Given that a damning report was released this year about the significantly lower quality of life for Black women in Pittsburgh, you can easily imagine how this would be exacerbated for queer women of color. 

Allegheny County and Pittsburgh have laws on the books that prevent LGBTQ discrimination in the workplace, but Pennsylvania is one of the only northeastern states to not have state laws that protect LGBTQ folks.

If you do find a job in the service industry, working a service job as a visibly queer person can be challenging for a plethora of reasons based on intersecting identities. Depending on your workplace, harassment within the business and from customers can be more common. As someone who works in an incredibly queer-friendly shop, customers still frequently misgender or broadly make assumptions about the staff members’ genders. 

While I do my best to be sympathetic and realize not everyone knows people who live outside the gender binary or are even gay or trans, it can be absolutely exhausting and dysphoric to be misgendered all day. You truly do not need to involve gender in every transaction you make for goods. Instead of a, ‘See ya, ladies!’ try ‘See y’all later’ or ‘Bye, yinz!’ Ma’am and sir are just kind of weird and too formal for most service interactions anyway, so avoid them altogether. 

But when you face this kind of misunderstanding all day or night from customers and potentially your coworkers at a job where you can barely make ends meet? That feels like absolute trash. It’s not emotionally or financially sustainable, and given that most service workers can’t afford or even have the free time for therapy, there’s no way to manage that extra stress.

In a strange twist, we’re also living and working in a bizarre time where having a visibly queer staff can be used to show how "cool" and "hip" a place is, virtue signaling that a business cares about and supports that community. That being said, if a business isn’t paying its LGBTQ employees (or any of their employees, for that matter) a living wage, it cannot be considered progressive at all. In fact, touting your business as progressive for having a diverse staff while underpaying your employees is pretty evil.

It’s 2020. I don’t want my ideal work situation to be an outlier. Everyone deserves a living wage, health insurance, and gainful employment from supportive employers, regardless of their identity. 

Meg Fair is a Pittsburgh journalist and this week's guest columnist for Peepshow. Follow them on Twitter at Jessie Sage will return next week.