When ‘Sir’ and ‘Ma’am’ Miss the Mark: Restaurants Rethink Gender’s Role in Service

LOS ANGELES — As Anaelia Ovalle stood outside a restaurant here deciding whether to go in, the host extended a friendly greeting: “Hello, sir.” But the phrase didn’t feel all that welcoming to Ovalle, 27, who identifies as nonbinary and uses the pronouns “they” and “them.”

Ovalle has an androgynous appearance. And as they asked for a menu, they could see the wheels turning in the host’s head, registering the pitch of their voice and noticing details like their eyeliner and painted nails. The host quickly retreated, calling them “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, not sir, ma’am!’ It points to the need to have more ways of addressing people in a gender-neutral way.”

People with gender identities that differ from the sex they were assigned at birth (including transgender and nonbinary people) — known as gender-expansive — have long faced discrimination and violence. In the restaurant business, they have been harassed in kitchens, refused service or forbidden to choose which restroom to use.

Compared with barriers like these, the misgendering of guests by restaurant hosts or servers may seem like a small thing. But those on the receiving end say it can be painful, or even dangerous if they are publicly outed. And as recognition increases of gender-expansive people (this Thursday will be celebrated around the world as Transgender Day of Visibility), some restaurateurs and organizations in the United States are pushing for ways to make these diners and employees feel more welcome.

In Los Angeles, the chef Sara Kramer has been working on redefining restaurant etiquette since she and Sarah Hymanson opened Kismet in 2017. She had seen diners recoil from a greeting like “Hello, ladies!”

At Kismet and Kismet Rotisserie, every staff member is trained to use gender-neutral language such as “Hey, folks” or “Hey, everyone” when greeting guests, and use the gender-neutral “they” and “them” when a customer’s pronouns aren’t known. Such protocols are part of the restaurant’s training handbook and are regularly discussed during staff meetings, Ms. Kramer said.

“It’s simply just a small amount of training to make sure that your staff members understand the importance of not making any assumptions about someone’s identity, and defaulting to they/them and/or asking point-blank how, somehow, someone would like to be referred to,” she said. “So I think it’s not a huge 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 old-guard service is still common.

Some restaurateurs may be reluctant to change deep-seated practices or retrain employees, particularly while they struggle with the challenges of the pandemic and the difficulty of finding workers.

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

“The issues extend so far beyond the workplace,” she said. “I think it’s a little bit narrow to think that there is a way to address it — like just do this thing or just start including pronouns when you hire people — and it’ll get better.”

Many restaurants take their cue about a diner’s identity from online reservations. But services like Resy, OpenTable and Yelp don’t offer a pronoun field that allows diners to identify their gender.

Yelp has signaled its support for inclusion by adding labels that highlight L.G.B.T.Q.-owned businesses on the platform, and last June — Pride Month — those businesses were highlighted on maps with rainbow pins. Asked whether the platform would add a pronoun field to its reservation system, its chief diversity officer, Miriam Warren said, “You bringing up the question even now makes me think this is something we could certainly surface to the product team.”

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

Restaurants also identify customers by the names on their credit cards, which often feature what many gender-expansive people call their deadname, the name they were given at birth, before transition. Some beauty or fitness businesses allow guests to register their pronoun preferences and easily update names in their account information, yet restaurants lag behind.

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

The owners of HAGS, a self-described “queer fine-dining restaurant” scheduled to open this year in the East Village of Manhattan, have come up with a number of practical ways to welcome gender-expansive customers.

Staff members will wear gender-neutral garments that can be cinched in various places to alter the shape to appear more masculine or feminine if they wish. Pronoun pins will be available for both diners and employees to wear. Guests will be served in an order determined by their seat at the table. More than half of the people who have been hired for the opening are gender-expansive, said the chef Telly Justice, who co-owns the restaurant with the sommelier Camille Lindsley.

“We’re building a space in which not only the diners, but everybody that enters the space is welcome as they are,” she added. “If you can’t hire a gender-nonconforming person, you can’t feed a gender-nonconforming person.”

Some nonprofit groups are stepping up to help restaurants navigate what may be unfamiliar territory.

Since its founding in Los Angeles in 2016, TransCanWork has provided 500 employers and 2,500 job-seekers around the country with training to make sure all guests feel welcome, and with tools to create comfortable work environments for gender-expansive workers.

That training includes frank conversations about what it’s like to be a T.G.I. person — the term the organization uses, for transgender, gender-variant and intersex. “We go into all spaces hypervigilant,” said Sydney Rogers, its education and training manager, who uses the pronouns “they” and “she.”

Even businesses that are gay-friendly can be daunting for gender-expansive people, they said. “A lot of people don’t even realize that when you deal in a world that is all binary gay and lesbian, when a T.G.I. person comes in you’re automatically subjecting them 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 realized the need to help gender-expansive employees.

Over several years, Ms. Mendelsohn has hired 50 transgender employees, most of them women of color. One of them, Jessye Zambrano, said she was transitioning while working at a fast-food restaurant in Los Angeles, but a supervisor forbade her to wear makeup or dresses on the job. She now works as general manager at one of Ms. Mendelsohn’s busiest El Pollo Locos, and feels free to present the way she wants.

Ms. Mendelsohn also worked for the passage of a 2017 California law that requires employers to train supervisors how to recognize and prevent harassment based on gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation.

In West Oakland, Calif., Ginger Espice is going an extra mile to welcome gender-expansive diners. Since 2019, when Espice founded Gay4U, a vegan restaurant, they have invited transgender people of color to come in for a free meal. The diner simply states their identity at the register when ordering.

Inspired by Gay4U, the restaurants Mis Tacones in Portland, Ore., and Moon Cherry Sweets in Milwaukee — have started similar programs. For the next six months, Espice will take Gay4U on the road, popping up at other restaurants across the country.

Espice says some customers who arrive for a free meal are coming out for the first time as transgender. The restaurant, next to a convenience store on a block of Victorian homes, has no sign. But a trans flag in its doorway proclaims, “To be queer is to be holy.”

“If I could feed 100 people in a month, or whatever it is, then let that be one meal that we’re all doing together,” Espice said. “We’re all coming up together.”

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