Lee Initiative Lunch Break: Grabbing coffee with Dee Thornton

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by Taylor Cochran
she/her
contact@queerkentucky.com
Queer Kentucky is a proud partner of the Lee Initiative. This is the first part of a series of stories uplifting Queer voices within the hospitality industry in partnership with the Lee Initiative.

“We started The LEE Initiative in Louisville, KY in 2018 after we saw a need for more diversity, more training, and more equality in our own industry. We wanted to redefine what it means to give back to our local community based on our research, our experiences and most of all, our instincts. We are in the business of hospitality, helping people, and solving problems. We put the needs of our guests first. So why should it be any different when we approach the complex social issues that arise in the restaurant industry?”

If you’ve ventured down to Feast BBQ in the NuLu District of Louisville in recent years, you’ve almost certainly encountered Dee. Starting in a kitchen position in 2017, Dee now works up front, greeting and serving guests with a face full of freckles and the kind of warm demeanor you’d expect from a bbq restaurant in The South. 

I recently caught Dee between a double shift at Feast where, full disclosure, I used to work the exact same job and I still produce media for the restaurant currently. It’s a familiar place for me and Dee has become one of its most familiar faces.  

They have stayed here for so many years for one simple reason: they can be themselves here. Dee was originally hired by a queer general manager, Duncan Cherry or DJ Spring Break for those of you who like to dance, which Dee fully recognizes is an integral part of the reason that working at Feast just feels different from other service jobs they’ve held in the past.  

“The most important thing to me as a manager was to create a safe space for people to be themselves and express themselves authentically,” reflected Cherry. “As queer people, we are not always given the same opportunities because we’re seen as different or weird or, often times, difficult. I curated a restaurant and culture where anyone could walk in and feel like it was for them, that they saw someone like them and the staff could be who they are inside and outside of work with no censorship.” Cherry left the restaurant last year, but Dee says that the culture he created remains. “Our current GM, Levi, isn’t a part of the queer community but he’s corrected other people on my behalf when they’ve misgendered me before and I don’t know that it’s the kind of thing that management would have known how to navigate so well without the blueprint Duncan created.” 

SIR? MA’AM? THEY? THEM? 

Dee grew up in Louisville’s south and west ends and got their first service industry job when they were 16 at the Arby’s on 3rd St., one of the last in the country with one of those giant neon hat signs out front. At the same time, they were taking culinary classes at Western High School and coming to terms with their identity.

Dee says that coming out was a long process for them, expedited socially by a coworker at Arby’s who outed them to the entire staff after a casual smoke break conversation. One of their coworkers was a friend of Dee’s father, who still didn’t know. I asked if that was terrifying for them, if the family friend followed suit and outed them to their father. “As far as I know, my dad didn’t find out until I came out to him in my early 20’s. But that’s a good question. Maybe I was terrified. If I was, I don’t remember it that way anymore.”

Even though Dee now works in a specific restaurant environment where they feel comfortable being themselves, customers are always a wild card. They said that, by and large, their interactions with customers are incredibly positive. Feast is located in a district that is a magnet for tourists or locals out for a weekend stroll and everyone is generally really excited to be there. Dee says that these interactions keep them going, the moments when they get to be part of providing a great experience for someone and they seem to genuinely appreciate it. That’s really what hospitality is all about, after-all. 

It’s a blessing to have these moments in this career because the rough ones can be really rough. Dee’s least favorite thing about moving from a role in the kitchen to a customer facing role on the floor is a widespread point of pain throughout the entire industry. “It really hurts when I greet someone and they can’t even take a moment to greet me back. Like, just take a second to acknowledge that I’m a human being standing here and you’re not placing an online order. Just say hi. It makes me feel invisible.”  

Dee is 25 now and has a certainty of self that can scarcely be rocked, even amidst the interpersonal communication pitfalls that come with customer service. Their gender identity was a second coming out in a way, a more recent realization of something they had known all along. Dee said they were always more drawn to toys and activities that were considered “girly” in their youth and never saw themselves in the trappings of traditional masculinity as they grew older. Having another option, a place to rest in between, felt like a relief and an answer all at once. 

But, of course, you can’t tell someone’s pronouns from a glance over a lunch counter and Dee acknowledges that while their pronouns changed, their physical appearance has stayed the same so getting misgendered by guests is a somewhat common occurrence. Dee says that they only take the time to correct a customer if their interaction is deeper than a brief question at the register, like someone sitting alone at the bar and making genuine conversation. Those kinds of customers feel safe and worthy of knowing them the way that they see themselves. As for the others? If growing up in the south taught them anything, it was to assume ignorance before malice. “Some people were just taught to say ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ for their whole lives when talking to strangers, I can’t take every single one of those personally.” But even those interactions are on the lighter sides of the burden Dee must bear every day when they clock in to face the public. 

“It’s hard not to take some things personally. When people really go out of their way to talk down to me, I’m like, ‘Wow. Did I do something wrong? Are they racist? Or do I look gayer than normal today?’ There are just extra layers to being visibly queer and black that are constant,” they said before recalling a particularly ugly interaction with a regular customer during a lunch shift one day. The man came in with a group of friends or coworkers, all male as well, and greeted Dee with some flippant remark like “Oh, cute pink hat. Pink is my favorite color too, right guys?” before turning back to receive a laugh from his friends at Dee’s expense. Dee laughed while telling this story because none of his friends thought it was funny either and they at least got that fraction of satisfaction back from the interaction. 

But imagine serving someone so many times you recognize them as soon as they walk through the door and they immediately slap you in the face with that. For the first time ever. They show themselves to you. It makes you question every interaction before. How many times were you the butt of a joke that you didn’t happen to be present for? Was it actually an inside joke with his friends that had nothing to do with you? Are you overthinking this? Or should you be even more careful with your interactions? Should you start assuming malice? 

For Dee, the answer to that last question is still a firm no. “I really believe that the people who want to hurt you will make themselves known.” 

We talked more about all the nuances of these interactions, the microaggressions, the culture change happening at large and within the industry. “It’s always a mixed bag. Sometimes you have a guy going out of his way to make you a joke and then sometimes you have a mother come in and you hear her just default to they/them pronouns and normalize it for her kid. We see it all.” 

And that’s a sentiment that really unifies anyone making a career in hospitality. You see it all. And for those who really love this kind of work, the good moments will always outweigh the bad. The camaraderie you form with your coworkers under a flurry of tickets during the dinner rush, the sigh you can share when you fight your way out of the weeds together, the inside jokes about customers who stole the keys from the beverage machine or the coworker who fell backwards out of the walk-in and landed on a pile of sandwich buns. They’re all elements that call to a certain kind of person that can’t see themselves sitting at a desk forever. 

We talked about how much things have changed since I worked at Feast, both internally and in the world at large. Food costs are through the roof along with gas, rent, plastic and just about everything else that makes this fractured world go ‘round. Mask mandates have brought out a level of aggression and self-righteousness in some people that would have sounded insane a few years ago. Online ordering is cutting into tips and overwhelming short staffed kitchens. All of these anxieties sit resting at the forefront of Dee’s mind and they let out a sigh before returning to that silver lining they see in everything, their gratitude for being in a place in life where they know themselves and being in a service job where they can be themselves without fear. 

Before we parted ways and Dee returned to Feast for their second shift of the day, I asked them where they see themselves in the future. “I would love nothing more than for the service industry to be a place where I could make a viable living until I retired from it. But some days, it feels impossible.”  

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