Anatomy of an Understanding
How an unfortunate fitting room encounter brought Petticoat Fair to a session called 'Trans 101'
When Kylie Jack headed out to shop with her girlfriend on Saturday, June 28, she wasn't thinking about the social media shitstorm that would consume her next few weeks. The tech and start-up consultant was about to go on vacation and was hoping to pick up a few nice bras. She knew exactly where she wanted to go. She'd visited this place in the past with a friend and said, "We had a great experience." Jack has a few recognizable Austin start-ups under her belt (Front Gate Tickets, for one), so of course she checked the Web. "Reddit has a SubReddit called 'A Bra That Fits,' and [this place had] gotten good reviews. I thought, 'This is the place to go.'"
When the sales staff of Petticoat Fair opened the store that Saturday, they weren't thinking about having to defend the reputation of their popular and respected women's foundation garments store – a place, declares their website, where original "owners Bob and Betty Andrews' concept was to provide a service to all women in need of intimate apparel." It was just another Saturday. "Busy ... slammed," according to one of the 10 women working that day, and "the fitting rooms were packed." Petticoat Fair's three main fitting areas house 18 fitting rooms. That day, the crew would ring up sales for more than 145 clients.
Unfortunately, Kylie Jack was not one of them. Jack is a transgender woman, and her account of what occurred when she went in to get fitted for a new bra sparked an Internet conflagration that quickly spread out of control. Jack says she was denied a fitting for being trans but not yet having sex reassignment surgery. "I [was] asked, 'Are you an anatomical female?'" She and the saleswoman exchanged further words – a frustrating back-and-forth, says Jack.
The meeting ended with her leaving the store in tears.
"I typically write about all my experiences with discrimination or misgendering and just put it out there," says Jack. So later that afternoon, she put it out there. She took to social media with a series of posts, including this Facebook message: "Hello Austinites: today I went for a bra fitting at Petticoat Fair, where an employee humiliated me by asking for ID stating I was female and saying I needed bottom surgery in order to get a fitting. If you are in solidarity with trans women, please boycott Petticoat Fair until they remove their transphobic and cissexist policies. Please feel free to share this post." and tweet: "Apparently if you are a trans woman you need two forms of id & letter from a surgeon for SRS to get a fucking bra fitting at Petticoat Fair."
"Surprisingly," she says, the messages "got a lot of traction." All evening and into the next day, the posts triggered the dry heave of social media, hacking up furballs of indignation, anecdotes, and calls to action, as commenters lined up behind Petticoat Fair or Jack, for and against, hurling insults and rage at the insensitivities and aggressions committed by whichever side set them off – all this, while only one version of the story had circulated.
The next evening, after the full brunt of a day's worth of Internet kangaroo court, Petticoat Fair owner Kirk Andrews also posted on Facebook – something the 54-year-old store owner doesn't often do – issuing a public statement clarifying what he called the "misconception that Petticoat Fair has a policy of not working with the transgendered community." The 595-word post included an apology to Kylie Jack, explanations of the store's protocol in handling customers and concerns for women's safety, and a statement that the shop was "open to a meeting with leaders of the transgendered community to discuss a better approach."
Loyal customers and some outside observers reacted positively (though some could not resist hateful comments encouraging trans-exclusion), but skeptics of Andrews' intent called him out for using of the term "transgendered" (instead of "transgender" – see "Trans 101 Glossary"), for the Facebook post reading like a nonapology, and for assertions which some characterized as transphobic.
The blogosphere lit up with more boycott calls and random copycat weigh-ins, bearing headlines intended to titillate, like: "Texas Bra Shop Humiliates Trans Woman, Despite 'Inclusive Policy'" and "How to sell a transgender woman a bra without being a total jerk." That's all well and good for hits and giggles, but bad for stoking an already heated flamewar – where real people are in the fire. Jack and the store began to share something in common – both were receiving threats of continued harassment and, in some cases, implied violence.
Meanwhile, as keyboard activists continued to spontaneously combust, some constructive efforts were in the works behind the scenes. Some friends informed Jack about the city of Austin's Public Accommodations Ordinance, which essentially states that a retail establishment that sells goods or services cannot discriminate based on gender identity. But before Jack could seek assistance from the city, Petticoat Fair's Andrews reached out, and the two agreed to turn off Facebook – and instead meet face-to-face that Monday morning.
"My concern at that point was the bad experience that Kylie had," insists Andrews. And while the Internet peanut gallery might have felt more satisfied with a full she-said/she-said transcript from the initial fitting-room fracas, Andrews was not interested. From the outset, despite flubs of language insensitivity, Andrews has accepted full responsibility for Jack's bad customer experience. "We had a very cordial initial visit. I laid out where I was coming from, what my concern was – not what was going on in social media. I don't care about that. This was my customer: What are her needs, and how can I do this better?"
After the meeting, once she felt convinced that Petticoat Fair was indeed earnest about implementing policies to better comply with the city ordinance, Jack felt compelled to go online and, as she says, "call off the dogs."
Unfortunately, those dogs would not heel. Some posters called her out for turning down the heat: "A few people said, 'Why did you kick up this big shitstorm if you're just going to let it go now?'" she said. "I knew that Kirk was meeting with the Transgender Education Network, and I didn't feel like it's my place to comment until they had a chance to talk. Some people pushed back, saying, 'Well, you don't know that it's true. You're having the wool pulled over your eyes.'
"You can't win," says Jack. "If you let up and give people breathing room when they're showing positive progress, someone will accuse you of playing 'respectability politics.' Now if you keep the screws on, then you're accused of being [one of] those angry and outraged transwomen."
"After I'd visited Kylie," says Andrews, "I got an email from TENT offering support, your name [this writer's] came up, and it was at this point that things started rolling."
The Right Fit
My name. Right. That's another story.
My personal experience with Petticoat Fair goes back to the mid-Nineties. Hanging out in my newly minted status as actual dyke at Downtown gay bar Charlie's, the topic of boobs percolated in the group of mostly (what we now call) "ciswomen" (see "Glossary") plus two (what we now call) transwomen, one of whom was in the process of transition, while the other ID'd as drag queen – in this case, a gay man who performed as female and colloquially referred to herself as "she," de rigueur for the era of voguing queens and sashaying shantés, who threw around the word "tranny" like it was acceptable, which, in that insular historical context, it was. Then again, so was indoor smoking, dial-up Internet, and the Macarena.
Boobs were the topic of the table, and I remember complaining about mine becoming increasingly back-achy. "Girl, head over to Petticoat Fair; they'll take good care of you." This testament was shared across the gender skew. Personal testimonies of stellar service abounded. I protested. My head was shaved, and I might as well have had the word "bulldagger" branded into my forehead. "It don't matter," said one of the transwomen. "They're very nice and understanding." Miss Betty, the store owner, was known for caring for those for whom gender necessitated a sensitive approach. It was a sentiment I began to hear regularly.
It took me a while to muster the courage to go, but I finally decided to take the plunge. What was the worst that could happen? Passing as my own birth gender? What the hell. My first fitting was marred only by the 10 tons of personal baggage I carried, thinking I was not fit for this exclusively women's space. A wonderful clerk named Magda forever changed my relationship to caring for my girls, and for more than 15 years, I've been a loyal Petticoater.
(It was also around that time that I first became aware of the musician and tech wizard I would later come to know as Kylie Jack. Jack began her process of transitioning in August 2013.)
Petticoat Fair has grown considerably since my first visit. The back fitting-room section was especially enhanced in two major expansions in 2003 and 2010.
The anatomy of the back fitting areas is like a pair of lungs, one section flanking either side of the store's stockroom heart. In each of the fitting areas, a number of ample personal fitting rooms, each with a fully closing door, ring the center, where a large three-way mirror is available, intended for customers – brides, especially – wanting to see how an undergarment looks under clothing. Unlike in most retail outlets, customers here are brought back by fitters who work intimately with them until a fit is found. It starts with a hands-on tape measure, proceeds into recommendations and numerous try-ons, and wraps up with demonstrations of how best to put the dang thing on (different styles, different body types) and care for it.
Young Kirk Andrews was the receptionist for his parents' business. "Until my voice changed," he laughs. He took over the store following Bob and Betty's retirement, and he remembers how his dad and mom ran Petticoat Fair. "It was about working one-on-one with every woman as an individual, understanding her needs. It was a different time back in the Sixties, but it was very open [here with transwomen] coming in, saying, 'Betty, I've heard that you're willing to help. Here's what I'm going through.' And Mom would do it. So, that's the story, with [Petticoat Fair and the trans] community."
"It's intimate. It's the nature of our business. We have to ask questions that would otherwise be thought inappropriate," relates one fitter. Andrews would only endorse my talking to his staff about this matter if I agreed to leave their names off the record. Most of them have worked with transgender clients, and some have regular transgender clients. The woman who met with Jack that Saturday is regarded as having experience and sensitivity with trans customers. What happened in the room between the two women has only been shared publicly from Jack's perspective; where their accounts agree is that there was a heated back-and-forth that felt like it was going nowhere. But ultimately, says Andrews, "that's not relevant moving forward. It's my responsibility to make sure my clients are comfortable."
When Lisa Scheps, a founder of the Transgender Education Network of Texas, first read Andrews' post, she says, "I saw someone who wanted to do the right thing, his heart was clearly in the right place. He certainly was in need of some education." After their first meeting, it was agreed that the TENT rep would facilitate a 'Trans 101' sensitivity training for Andrews and his staff.
The staff was receptive, learning "basic things: gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation," says Scheps. The group reviewed how terms have evolved over the years. "Language trips us up more than anything else. Even within our own community, we don't agree." They learned, for example, that the term "transgender" has become an umbrella term to replace terms that have slipped out of favor, such as "transvestite." They discussed how best to work with trans clients and offer solutions without treating those clients as "others."
Some painful topics were broached as well, including the fitting-room equivalent of "bathroom panic," the card that is played when arguments ensue about trans access to public restrooms. That is, the assertion that there are men with nefarious intentions who try to access women's spaces dressed as women. In the case of Petticoat Fair, however, according to Andrews and his staff, that is a situation they actually do confront. "It is not trans women who frighten us or put us on guard," insists Andrews. "We're not scared of anybody who's authentic. And it's up to us – on a moment's notice, often in a store packed with customers – to determine the authenticity of who that person is," and that takes judgment calls, contingencies, sometimes mind-reading, and now, he realizes, a lot more sensitivity.
Andrews expressed to Scheps that he felt dismissed when he tried to address the store's reality of "creepers" to her. Scheps off-handedly, but earnestly joked, "Yeah, how many times does that really happen? When an impostor tries to come in here?" "In unison," says Andrews, "the whole staff said, 'All the time.' We deal with it all the time." Additionally, fitters are tasked with navigating fluid crowds of customers that sometimes include a disruptive ciswoman or two, or husbands and boyfriends – whether controlling or well-meaning – who want to access the dressing-room areas that are same-gendered space by design. "That's counterproductive to [the environment] we want to create here. That is still our biggest challenge – how to accommodate everybody."
Scheps listened and concurred, "Creepers gonna creep."
A Delicate Balance
Scheps also spoke candidly and anecdotally, relating her own experiences to clarify that "there is no one way to be transgender. My truth is my truth, and other people's are other people's." She shared how vulnerable it feels walking into a place like Petticoat Fair as a woman who was not raised as a woman. At that point, the tables turned as the women began piping up with bra solutions to help her overcome her fears and to look good. "It happened very organically," says Scheps, and by the time they wrapped, she "felt very encouraged for the transgender community to find this room full of 13 or 14 mentors. Big sisters, if you will. Where transgender women can come and get a lot of information that's not just about foundations."
Austinite Meghan Stabler, a national LGBT activist who served on Obama's national LGBT Policy Committee, also met with Andrews and agrees with Scheps: "We're vulnerable. I never had a sister around me to show me how to dress. 'My god, you look awful in that. Do you seriously want to go out in that thing?' Yeah we probably mess up, we probably don't wear the right things. We've gone to enough lobby days where the Thirties flapper dress is probably not the right thing to wear. But these are common mistakes because, remember, this is a second puberty that we're going through. We need that guidance. We need help; our community is one of the most vulnerable out there."
"I made a decision very early on in transition," shares Kylie Jack, "that I was not going to be closeted or stealth. That I would be very open about everything because it was a chance to help educate people and bring understanding." Her willingness to shut out the outside chatter and keep the doors of conversation open despite very real hurt and humiliation are exactly what made the chance of an accord possible. "The thing about social media," she tweeted back on July 3, "is it's my biggest support network and also my biggest source of shittiness."
"Kirk [Andrews] has a challenge," offers Scheps, "to make all of his clients comfortable – even the ones that say, 'I don't want to be with that woman who looks like a man,' which is basically what people are saying. So he's walking a tightrope, which is very, very difficult but very important. I think we all agree here, that Petticoat Fair is taking the right steps to learn how to walk that tightrope in a way that we can honor same-gendered spaces and honor all of his customers, and at the same time, keep our heads high."