This blog post is a little different in that it’s a blog post both intended for the Bluestockings community and for a specific subset of the lingerie industry: other retailers.
Bluestockings provides an important space for LGBTQIA+-identified people who buy underthings and lingerie, in that representation is at the forefront of my business model. So are ethics: ethical manufacturing, commitment to sustainability, a general awareness of how our business practices affect both the environment and the people in this world we live in.
But Bluestockings is not the end-all, be-all destination. Due to the fact that the business is brand new and growing slowly, I unfortunately can’t provide all things for all people. Moreover, I’ve heard from a small but vocal group of people who don’t want to shop at a place that is specifically reaching out to the LGBTQIA+ population. There are plenty of people in our communities who would prefer to shop at mainstream destinations alongside everyone else.
These needs are valid, and for those needs to be met, brands and stores needs to adapt. Transphobia and homophobia in this industry are rampant on a systemic level; I say this because they are rampant in our society on a systemic level.
Queers across the country have faced a significant uptick in discrimination and harassment in their personal lives since the SCOTUS marriage ruling. It’s common, after a marginalized group of people is awarded rights, for there to be a backlash. Personally, my partner and I are facing some of the worst harassment we’ve ever dealt with in the city of Boston, and it’s not just from tourists -- it’s in our own neighborhood. It's the kind that makes you feel unsafe walking home at night, that makes you seriously say to someone, "Please don't die today."
How is lingerie related to all of this? Making one place a safer space has an impact, a ripple effect. Many people want to reach out to their queer customers: they're just not sure how.
I recently put out a tumblr question -- “What was the worst thing that’s ever been said to you in a lingerie boutique?” -- and the responses are horrifying, covering a wide swath of sizeism, ageism, and racism. Predictably, there was also significant transphobia and homophobia. These are some of the responses from trans women and genderqueer people:
This is not how people should be treated: in a store or in life. The thing is, I think most people reading this probably agree! But somehow, this kind of thing be said -- by a fellow employee, for instance -- and we let it fly.
It can’t fly.
Stores have their own unique identities. This post isn’t asking anyone to change their branding or what they’re stocking; honestly, I hope that rudeness to customers isn't part of someone's branding practices. This is simply asking for a reconsideration in how we treat our customers. Comprehensive, respectful change is essential. It takes time. But it’s vitally important.
Plenty of stores have worked on reaching out to their LGBTQIA+ customers, to great effect. Just about every queer person I’ve talked to in Portland, Oregon recommends The Pencil Test, which is full bust heaven, and who I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with about how to better serve queer customers. Here in my own Boston, Massachusetts, the folks at Forty Winks are queer-friendly and have a legion of devout LGBT customers. Gazebo, a lingerie store in Northampton, Mass., has a Safe Space policy in place for their trans customers that other businesses could learn a lot from.
So, what can businesses do to both be more LGBTQIA+ friendly and reach out to queer communities? Here are five ideas. For more, check out this awesome article Rose Wednesday wrote over at The Lingerie Addict addressing a similar topic.
Make it a policy to greet everyone when they walk in the door
Things get busy. (Bluestockings might be online, but I've worked high end clothing retail. I hear you.) Sometimes you don't have the staff to cover a sudden rush, or a lot of people are in the dressing room and people who come in to the shop start slipping through the cracks.
But that's a bad day. You can always pop your head out to greet someone and explain that you're with a customer but will be with them shortly. Boutique owners know this. The best employees know this. Unfortunately, a lot of people don't know this and use it as an excuse to ignore customers who don't look like they "belong."
Even worse is when it's not busy and those customers walk through the door, only to be ignored or ridiculed.
Queer- and trans-identified customers repeatedly report that lingerie boutiques make them uncomfortable. The market research I did for Bluestockings prior to opening floored me. It wasn't just the shockingly rude comments already posted that we might attribute to the occasional bad apple employee. The persistently discriminatory behavior bore the same tenor across the United States, ranging from being fully ignored their whole time in a boutique to the kind of rude comment asking them to leave or telling them they didn't belong there. Whether in Boston or rural Iowa or Los Angeles or Texas, the experiences were markedly similar.
And a lot of it boiled down to being greeted at the door.
The easiest way to make customers feel welcome is to greet all of them the same. If they make it to the dressing room, be sure to tell them about your dressing room policies (e.g. are partners welcome to go in with them?).
Develop an inclusive policy for trans customers (And make sure all employees are on board)
The word "policy" can feel intimidating, but it can be as simple as stating, definitively, that you treat your trans customers the same as you treat your other customers. Unfortunately, this does need to be stated: prejudiced customers might challenge it, and LGBTQIA+ customers often do not assume that a space is safe for them.
Moreover, a number of your trans, genderqueer, non-binary, and otherwise gender non-conforming customers may not disclose to you that they are trans or genderqueer, and it's not okay to ask someone that question flat-out (or to ask prying questions if someone has self-disclosed). So what we are talking about here is having an inclusive policy for self-disclosing customers, such as determining whether you will also offer after-hours fitting appointments for those who may want more privacy and educating your employees about pronouns (or, bringing someone else in to do a training for the entire staff).
The second step is to post the shit out of it on your website and social media. Trans, genderqueer, and non-binary folks can sometimes avoid mainstream stores because they’re not sure if it’s safe or not. This kind of news travels via word of mouth, or if someone checks your website and you have a policy in place.
Ask questions about how prospective employees would approach LGBTQIA+ customers in the interview process
Rose Wednesday has suggested advertising in the hiring process that you’re looking for LGBTQIA+ employees. Just remember that it’s illegal to flat-out ask someone if they’re queer- or trans-identified. Even if they self-disclose, follow-up questions are shady ground, legally speaking. (Also: you can’t assume anything based on someone’s appearance, promise.)
The reason I recommend asking specific questions in an interview is not to try and suss out whether the candidate is queer, but rather, whether they’re queer-friendly and are open-minded. Plenty of queers have strong biases against other people within our own community -- say, for example, against trans folks. Just because you’re LGBTQIA+-identified doesn’t immediately make you down with all LGBTQIA+-identified people.
Ask thorough questions about fitting different kinds of people (trans women, lesbian couples who are in the dressing room together), and also about how someone would handle customers who may not be comfortable with your boutique's LGBTQIA+ friendliness. These are ways of seeking out strong allies (and possibly LGBTQIA+ folks!) for your team.
Advertise with local LGBTQIA+ organizations, Pride events, email lists, etc.
The cast of Orange is the New Black at NYC Pride 2014
One of the best, and simplest, ways to show that you’re a queer-friendly business. Also, even people who aren't into lingerie will pass this information along to those who are. I think every single LGBT-identified person I met on a recent trip to Portland, Oregon told me to go to The Pencil Test, even though maybe only 1/3 had actually been there. They knew it was a great boutique, and they knew it was queer-friendly. Good news travels fast among friends.
Make your support obvious
Do you feel strongly about being queer-friendly but aren’t sure how to do so? Jump in. Don’t look for the perfect way -- just look for a good way. Be the friend who is there rather than the one who doesn’t text or call because you’re worried about saying the wrong thing.
Whether this means posting your trans-inclusive policy for all to see in every dressing room, reblogging LGBTQIA+ stuff on social media, diversifying some of your inventory, or even publicizing that your staff is undergoing sensitivity training to better serve a deeply underserved population, make it obvious.
LGBTQIA+ people need to see it to believe it. I don’t want to speak for all queers for all time, but generally, I (and pretty much everyone I know) never assume that things are for me, or that retail stores are friendly towards me -- especially if I’m with my partner. Basically, places are hostile until proven otherwise. But when places are friendly? LGBTQIA+ customers are some of the loyalest customers you will ever have.
Are you a retailer who has enacted LGBTQIA+ friendly policies in your store, or do you have questions about how to do so? I'd love to hear from you! Share your story in the comments.
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