“Why did you stay?” is a question survivors often hear after they leave their abuser. It’s a loaded question, whose bullets spell blame. I can tell by a person’s face when they are thinking it as I share what it was like transitioning in the workplace while working for a transphobic employer (let’s call him R). And it’s a question that I have been asked in reference to my last employer (let’s call him H) who is currently being sued for union busting and other unfair labor practices. Let me be very clear in stating that I was not abused by H, which is why I stayed for five years and why I remained so loyal: by the time R was done with me, the bar had been set so low I was essentially in hell.
In my experience, the question “Why did you stay?” says something about the person who is asking it: that they have likely never been ensnared in a relationship like the one I had with R. If they had, they would already know the answer(s): leaving for good takes money, resources, connections, community – things an abuser strips you of, just as they strip you of self esteem and dignity. R started out as just your typical bully restaurant owner. He was quick to accuse and blow up at workers, and almost never expressed gratitude or praise.
I was an easy target: was over-eager, a people-pleaser, and had low self worth. R knew this. For how incompetent he made me feel, R made sure I didn’t leave. He offered to make me a manager (for less than what the cooks made) pitching it as him doing me a favor. He was “giving me the opportunity to could jump start a career.” I accepted, knowing I’d be making less than I did as a bartender or server–role I’d continue to fill, along with cook and bar back, whenever we were short-staffed or when someone didn’t come to work. I had always struggled to maintain boundaries with jobs, but I couldn’t say no to R – not without feeling like I was putting him out, or like my job was on the line. Some of this was definitely me projecting, but R definitely did not encourage boundary setting.
When I mentioned that my partner and I were considering moving to another city that summer, R said I was just running away from my issues, that I’d just be exchanging one set of problems for another, that my mental health and my relationship would not survive the move, in short, that I was doomed to fail. I didn’t see it at the time, but this sort of manipulative behavior actually meant that I was an asset. If I wasn’t, he wouldn’t have put so much effort into controlling me.
The mistreatment escalated when I came out as trans. Now I felt doubly dependent on R: I already needed him to validate my work, and now I needed him to validate my gender. That was a losing battle, as I soon came to realize. I’d have to settle for tolerance, but even that wasn’t going to happen. The misgendering was constant, often occurring in front of coworkers and in earshot of customers. And it wasn’t just my pronouns. He regularly deadnamed me and referred to me with hyperfeminine terms including “ma’am,” “girl,” “girlfriend,” “lady,” and “miss.” On more than one occasion, R straight up told me he didn’t see me as a man. He used emasculation to keep me in line. “You’re letting your feelings interfere with your work again.” “If you want to be a man, you need to grow a thicker skin.” He’d make transphobic jokes, ask invasive questions, police my presentation, and even scrutinize my restroom choice. At some point I stopped using our restrooms altogether, sneaking out the back door to use the restrooms at the Speedway behind the restaurant. After top surgery, I was given a week and a half off (unpaid) to recover. When a week passed and I was experiencing a complication from surgery, I requested to extend the week and a half to a full two weeks (unpaid). You’d have thought I was asking for six months paid medical leave.
It’s taken me years to refer to R as an abuser. Part of my hesitation came from a bias about psychological abuse victims: that they are overreacting, that it’s all in their heads. (“They need to grow a thicker skin.”) But there was another reason I shied away from the word. Much like the words “ex-con” and “sex offender,” “abuser” is a word you can’t really come back from. And as a believer in restorative justice, how can I justify condemning someone like that? I’ve come to understand that calling a thing what it is is part of accountability. And just because R was an abuser back when I worked for him, doesn’t mean he is still one today. I hope that he isn’t.
In the context of intimate partner violence, the most dangerous time for the victim is when they are leaving, and after. 77% of domestic violence related homicides occur upon separation and there is a 75% increase of violence upon separation for at least two years. I experienced something similar with R.
When I’d finally had enough, and put in my notice, R’s hostility escalated. Now he was going out of his way to provoke me. He was doing it to punish me or push me to the breaking point, so that I’d snap and prove him right: I was an emotionally dysregulated idiot who couldn’t put my professional interests ahead of my feelings. It worked. I walked out, thereby fucking myself. Without a reference from R, I couldn’t prove that I had the work experience that I claimed to have. The promotions and titles I had earned working for R, the thousands of hours of experience I’d gained might as well have never happened. R had won yet again.
Abusers are master manipulators, sowing the seeds of self doubt and low self esteem early, and cultivating them throughout the relationship in order to maintain control over the victim. By the time I left R, I had very little faith in my ability to lead, problem solve, advocate, persuade, earn a living wage, regulate my emotions, distinguish feelings from reality, or even take care of myself. The next six months were a blur. I was depressed, dysphoric, and never not drunk, even at my two minimum wage paying jobs.
That summer my partner and I would move to Louisville where I could start from scratch. I didn’t have a car, so I’d walk the two miles to my job (working for H) that started at $8.50/hr. I was constantly worried about money, and about getting enough shifts. I was dry knuckling new sobriety, knowing that I could not afford to fuck up my relationship or my job. On top of all of this, I had decided to go stealth.
In the trans community, to “go stealth” means to actively conceal your status as a trans person by making your old life disappear. It’s essentially the witness protection program, but for trans people, all the way down to the stress, exhaustion, loneliness, fear, and paranoia it entails. It took somewhere between six and nine months to realize that the stealth lifestyle–while necessary to preserve my sense of safety at that time–was not sustainable. I disclosed my transness in a Facebook post, to get it over with.
To my surprise, none of my worst fears came true. There was some fallout at my job that ended in one transphobic coworker getting fired, but that was the worst of it. My bosses didn’t start misgendering or emasculating me. If they treated me differently, it was with a newfound respect – for my courage as well as my expertise. If the work environment changed, it was with people sharing their pronouns on their name tags and in team meetings. If I voiced a concern or made a proposal in the interest of inclusivity, H didn’t make fun of me, they actually heard me out.
Gradually the dread and paranoia began to lift, the tension in my shoulders, kneck, and jaw started to ease. I was having fewer nightmares. I was staying sober. I was promoted to manager and given my own store. I was told I was good at my job, that the company valued me. Each kind word was like a morsel of food placed in front of a famished rescue animal. I didn’t care where it came from or what it smelled like. I devoured it.
I was so relieved to be free from R that I could not relate to other employees when they complained about their jobs or the company. As I saw it, it was essentially the same job that I did for R, but H was paying us 1.50 more, and I wasn’t having daily panic attacks. I could not fathom their privilege, and I found their lack of perspective insulting.
My boss’s boss noticed my work ethic and positive attitude right away, and encouraged me to apply for a management position. I became assistant manager at a different location where they groomed me to become a store manager. Becoming store manager was a game changer. In addition to job security and mental stability, the position gave me a sense of purpose and the beginning of something that almost resembled self worth. To think: some good might actually come from those two years in hell.
And some good did come. Within a year or so, sharing and asking pronouns was a normal part of work culture. The company supplied all its stores with all kinds of pronoun buttons. Upper management attended my trans inclusivity workshop. Within two years, H was known for being one of the most trans-friendly places to work in Louisville. Unfortunately, their reputation was not so golden when it came to worker wages, or racial equity.
Summer 2020, H tried to take a middle-of-the-road approach and remain “apolitical” as Louisvillians mourned and protested Breonna Taylor’s unnecessary death and the corrupt institutions that protected her murderes. This did not go unnoticed by H’s BIPOC workers and their allies, who called out their lukewarm, performative allyship online. H defended, then redacted, then rewrote their public statement, apologizing and saying they were committed to eradicating racism. But by that time it was too late. The damage had been done. Anything they said now came across as performative and hollow.
Internally, there were still plenty of workers who would have happily assisted with that anti-racism work, but H had their own plans and their own timeline for executing them. Phase one was a mandatory six week DEI training for leadership. There, H’s all-white leadership learned about implicit bias, white fragility, the difference between “not racist” and “anti-racist.” They added new terms and concepts to the company vocabulary. On the last day of training, our bosses assured us that the next phase of the plan would soon be underway. They promised to keep the rest of us updated and encouraged us store managers to hold them accountable.
We tried to. We asked for an update at every manager meeting, and each time the response was the same: it’s on hold due to Covid, but we haven’t forgotten about it. We promise. My fellow managers and I hung tight and focused on advocating for the people in our stores. As the resident trans manager with some DEI background, my bosses often came to me for guidance when employees from other stores experienced microaggressions. As I saw it, I had a responsibility as a white person to help other white people identify and challenge their racial biases, so I never requested compensation. That said, I definitely should have been paid for the time and emotional labor I spent helping defensive cis people unpack their biases about trans people.
Looking back on it now, my mentality was that of a survivor who had entered yet another unhealthy relationship, wanting so badly to believe that this time was different. It was the mindset of someone desperately clinging to their husk of a life: someone for whom abuse is so normalized that exploitation is an upgrade.
It took me a long time to become as critical of capitalism as I am of white supremacy and cis/heteronormativity. Worker rights mattered, but not as much as becoming anti-racist. It sucked to make less than a fast food team member as a senior manager, but that was not my biggest problem. My biggest problem was being trans in a cisnormative world. I thought I understood intersectionality, but lacking class consciousness, or an awareness of how all these forms of oppression are sustained by capitalism, it didn’t occur to me that one of the best and most immediate things H could do to combat white supremacy and cis/heteronormativity in the workplace is pay their workers a living wage. Not even managers made a living wage working for H. When I was promoted in 2018, the starting rate for new managers was $13.50/hr. I didn’t even try to negotiate my rate. I was too busy worrying about proving that I was worth the $13.50.
One way to explain how capitalism sustains other forms of oppression is through examples. There is no point in denying it, these examples were drawn directly from experience. I was conflicted about whether to share real examples, and if I’m being honest, I was hesitant to write this piece at all. There are still people at H that I deeply care about, both in leadership and non-leadership positions. It pains me to think about them reading this essay and feeling personally attacked, betrayed, and/or discarded. Because the truth is I have no interest in hurting any of these people.
Under capitalism, anything that is not essential to “the health of the business” (anything that does not directly or indirectly increase profits) is necessarily eliminated. This fundamental rule applies to policies, practices, initiatives, store locations, and even people. Nothing is sacred, everything is permitted. Thus, BLM signs are prohibited if having them will cost us more business than not having them. If not having the signs will cost us more business then having them, then BLM signs are not just allowed, they’re mandated. By the same logic, companies change up their branading during Pride Month because it sells (during Pride Month), and all of the rainbows come down July 1st because being too queer alienates conservatives. Marginalized people are hired and promoted–Yaaasss diversity!–to the extent that it’s good for optics, and therefore profits (so long as they don’t look too weird, or ask for too many accommodations, or rock the boat too much).
Employee health and safety are not exempt from this rule. Even in a global pandemic, it’s not the workers who decide whether or not masks should be required for the hundreds of people they interface with each shift, but the owner, or whoever the owner entrusts with their finances. Sick leave policies are likewise driven, directly or indirectly, by profits, as with all other protocol, standards and expectations. Capitalism is rife with double standards and contradictory expectations. When half the staff quits and “no one wants to work,” workers get a raise just for showing up. Under normal circumstances, when workers are expendable, “just showing up” will get you fired. Hell, when workers are expendable, you can be the hardest worker on staff and still get fired over one too many bad reviews, even if that review is informed by the customer’s bias.
My loyalty to H didn’t crumble overnight. The first crack in the edifice appeared when my boss (a white cisgender woman) started questioning my hiring decisions, speculating that my “bleeding heart” was leading me to hire “unstable people” (unstable, I presume, in comparison to all the white cisgender workers who staffed the other stores). So I pulled out all of the applications from the last round of interviews. My hires were objectively more qualified than the other candidates. My boss then suggested that I was overlooking red flags in the interview. I said that in my honest opinion, my hires weren’t the problem, the problem was that H doesn’t do enough to listen to and support marginalized workers. We went around in circles for a while before finally arriving at a “compromise:” I could give the problem employee another chance, provided I spelled out the consequences of not meeting H’s expectations. In other words: I could give them a verbal warning before terminating them.
I can’t count the times I ended up in that same exact position, re-enacting the same arguments, before arriving at the same “compromise.” The bolder I became with my feedback, the less H sought it. When they did seek it, they cherry picked my suggestions, dismissing any that would negatively impact profits.
Two years later, H’s leadership team still consists entirely of white cishet folks. My fellow store managers (now my fellow worker co-op members) have done all the good we are going to do from within the system. I am tired, but also emboldened. The last five years have given me what I need to heal from R, including the awareness that the real abuser is not any particular person or entity, but the violent philosophy of wealth and accumulation that underlies all of it: that killing machine that, once turned on, cannot be turned off or returned to factory settings – it has to be demolished.
Note: Trauma activates some people, paralyzes others, and for some paralysis must happen first for activation to occur. As a socialist, I believe that acquiring class consciousness and becoming activated is key to escaping an abusive relationship with capitalism. But it’s not as simple as “just leaving.” As maddening or heartbreaking as it is to watch a person return to their abuser, victim blaming isn’t the answer. Blaming or shaming the victim for not “just leaving” when for that individual, stepping out of their comfort zone literally feels like stepping into a war zone, not only deprives that person their dignity, it also only prolongs their suffering. In other words: activists, don’t be a dick about it. Find out what you can do to help that person, and be there when they are ready to leave- whether that be again, or for good.