Restaurants are rethinking the role of gender in service

LOS ANGELES — Here, as Anaelia Ovalle stood outside a restaurant debating whether to go in, the host greeted her kindly, “Hello, sir.” But the phrase didn’t feel as inviting to Ovalle, 27, who identified as a non- identified in binary and used the pronouns “they” and “they”.

Ovalle has an androgynous appearance. And when they asked for a menu, they could see the wheels turning in the host’s head, register the tone of their voice, and notice details like their eyeliner and painted nails. The host quickly backed off and called her “Ma’am”.

“It’s just funny that they resort to flipping it,” said Ovalle, a machine learning researcher. “The assumption is that gender is binary. It’s like, ‘Oh wait, don’t sir, ma’am!’ It points to the need to have more ways to target people in a gender-neutral way.”

People with gender identities different from the gender they were assigned at birth (including transgender and non-binary people) — known to be gender-expansive — have long faced discrimination and violence. In the hospitality industry, they were harassed in kitchens, denied service, or forbidden to use the restroom.

In comparison to such obstacles, the misgendering of guests by restaurateurs or waiters may seem like a small thing. But those on the receiving end say being outed publicly can be painful or even dangerous. And as gender recognition increases (this Thursday is being celebrated globally as Transgender Day of Visibility), some restaurateurs and organizations across the United States are pushing to make these guests and employees feel more welcome.

In Los Angeles, chef Sara Kramer has been working to redefine restaurant etiquette since she and Sarah Hymanson opened Kismet in 2017. She’d seen guests shy away from a greeting like “Hello, ladies!”

At Kismet and the Kismet Rotisserie, every employee is trained to use gender-neutral language like “hey guys” or “hey everyone” when greeting guests, and the gender-neutral “they” and “them” when a customer arrives Pronouns are unknown. Such protocols are part of the restaurant’s training manual and are regularly discussed at staff meetings, Ms Kramer said.

“It’s just a little training to make sure your employees understand the importance of not making and sticking to assumptions about someone’s identity and/or bluntly asking how someone would like to be mentioned in any way.” “, she said. “So I guess it’s not a big burden.”

Gender stereotypes are built into traditional restaurant service. Chairs are often pulled out for arriving women, who are then served first. Many restaurants have abandoned such practices, but in Europe this type of service is old guard is still common.

Some restaurateurs may be reluctant to change entrenched practices or reskill staff, especially as they grapple with the challenges of the pandemic and the difficulty of finding workers.

Yasemin Smallens, who identifies as a butch lesbian and has worked in restaurants in Brooklyn and Poughkeepsie, NY, said she’s all for gender awareness training but thinks it’ll only be embraced by owners whose viewpoints align with the idea .

“The problems go so far beyond the workplace,” she said. “I think it’s a bit narrow-minded to think there’s a way to approach it — like just do this thing or just include pronouns when you’re hiring people — and it gets better.”

Many restaurants base their online reservations on the identity of a guest. But services like Resy, OpenTable, and Yelp don’t offer a pronoun field that allows guests to identify their gender.

Yelp has signaled its support for inclusion by adding labels highlighting LGBTQ-owned businesses on the platform, and this past June — Pride Month — those businesses have been highlighted on maps with rainbow pins. When asked if the platform would add a pronoun field to their reservation system, Miriam Warren, Chief Diversity Officer, said, “They’re bringing the question to the table right now and make me think this is something we could certainly bring to the product team.” “

A Resy spokeswoman confirmed that the service doesn’t have a pronoun field, “which doesn’t mean we won’t add the field in the future.” OpenTable did not respond to questions about this article.

Restaurants also identify customers by the names on their credit cards, which often include what many gender-segregated people refer to as their dead name, the name they were given at birth before the transition. Some beauty or fitness businesses allow guests to register their pronoun preferences and easily update names in their account information, but restaurants are lagging behind.

The Panera Bread restaurant chain has promoted the inclusion of its workforce. It uses gender-neutral language in training materials, and its internal employee portal allows for separate designations for legal sex and gender identity, a spokesman said. But the company hasn’t trained its employees to use gender-neutral language with customers.

The owners of HAGS, a self-proclaimed “queer fine-dining restaurant” set to open this year in Manhattan’s East Village, have come up with a number of practical ways to welcome gender-biased customers.

Employees wear gender-neutral garments that can be pulled together at various points to alter the shape to appear more masculine or feminine if desired. Pronoun pins will be available for both guests and staff. Guests are served in an order determined by their seat at the table. More than half of the people hired for the opening are gender biased, said chef Telly Justice, who co-owns the restaurant with sommelier Camille Lindsley.

“We’re building a space where not just the guests, but everyone who enters the space is welcomed as they are,” she added. “If you can’t hire a gendered person, you can’t nurture a gendered person.”

Some non-profit groups are stepping in to help restaurants navigate what may be unfamiliar territory.

Since its inception in Los Angeles in 2016, TransCanWork has provided training to 500 employers and 2,500 job seekers across the country to ensure all guests feel welcome and tools to create comfortable work environments for gender-balanced workers.

This training includes open conversations about what it’s like to be a TGI person—the term the organization uses for transgender, gender-balanced, and intersex people. “We’re taking a hyper-vigilant approach in all areas,” said Sydney Rogers, her education and training manager, who uses the pronouns “they” and “they.”

Even gay-friendly businesses can be off-putting to gender biased people, they said. “Many people don’t even realize that if a TGI person acts in an all-gay and lesbian world, they are automatically exposed to that world.”

TransCanWork was founded in 2016 by Michaela Mendelsohn, a transgender woman who owns and manages six El Pollo Loco franchises in Southern California. She transitioned while managing the restaurants and recognized the need to help gender biased employees.

Over several years, Ms. Mendelsohn hired 50 transgender employees, most of them black women. One of them, Jessye Zambrano, said she switched while working at a Los Angeles fast-food restaurant, but a supervisor forbade her from wearing makeup or dresses to work. She now works as general manager at one of Mrs. Mendelsohn’s busiest El Pollo locos and is free to present herself as she pleases.

Ms. Mendelsohn also worked to get a 2017 California law passed that would require employers to train supervisors to recognize and prevent harassment based on gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation.

In West Oakland, California, Ginger Espice takes it a step further to welcome gender-biased guests. Since Espice founded the vegan restaurant Gay4U in 2019, they have been inviting transgender people of color to a free meal. When ordering, the guest simply enters their identity at the checkout.

Inspired by Gay4U, restaurants Mis Tacones in Portland, Oregon and Moon Cherry Sweets in Milwaukee have started similar programs. For the next six months, Epice will be taking Gay4U to the streets and popping up in other restaurants across the country.

Espice says some customers who come for a free meal come across as transgender for the first time. The restaurant next to a supermarket in a block of Victorian houses has no sign. But a trans flag in the door proclaims, “To be queer is to be holy.”

“If I could feed 100 people in a month, or whatever, let that be a meal we all make together,” Espice said. “We all come together.” Restaurants are rethinking the role of gender in service

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