Texas Bra Shop Humiliates Trans Woman, Despite 'Inclusive Policy'

In Depth

An Austin, Texas undergarments store is receiving quite the backlash over an allegation that it treated a trans Austinite very badly. According to the complainant, she was asked for ID stating she was female and told she needed to have had sex reassignment surgery in order to have the fitting.

Kylie Jack wrote on her Facebook page yesterday that she had experienced discrimination at Petticoat Fair, which says it specialises “in meeting the lingerie and intimate apparel needs of women in Austin Texas for over 45 years.” The store is in North Austin, near Northcross Mall (an area I know very well, having gone to junior high school practically across the street, and having learned how to skate on the Northcross Mall ice). It should be noted, I’ve vaguely heard of Petticoat Fair, and generally remember they had a positive reputation. They are something of an Austin institution.

In response to Jack’s claims, many angered transgender individuals and cisgender allies took to the Petticoat Fair Facebook page to vent their frustrations. An example comes from Melody Shifflet:

It has come to my attention that you refused service to a transwoman and asked that she verify her gender. I thought you specialized in meeting women’s needs? Being that you are in a position to do your best to make women feel safe and comfortable in your shop while trying to accommodate them as much as possible, I can’t believe you would go out of your way to aggressively degrade, humiliate and upset someone. This is completely disgusting and unacceptable. Get it together, Petticoat Fair. I encourage you to educate yourself and think about what a sincere apology looks like.

In response to reviews and messages like this, the owner, Kirk Andrews, posted an apology of his own. Here it is in its entirety, with my own comments as a trans Austinite myself:

Based on today’s posts to this page and elsewhere, there seems to be a misconception that Petticoat Fair has a policy of not working with the transgendered community. That is not the case. In fact, we have served the transgendered community for most of our 50 years in Austin. What we do have is a policy regarding who may or may not enter our fitting rooms.

Uh oh. This isn’t starting out well. Many commenters on the posted apology pointed out that use of the -ed as problematic. It is, but focusing on it in this initial paragraph really isn’t where we need to be putting our emphasis. It’s that last sentence “what we do have is a policy regarding who may or may not enter our fitting rooms.” If the answer is anything but “women,” we’re going to have an issue.

We regret and apologize for the unfortunate experience relayed here by Kylie Jack after visiting our store yesterday. We are reaching out directly, to find a time when we can work to accommodate Kylie’s needs.

Well, that’s good. That’s as it should be.

We have fitters who are experienced with fitting women in all stages of life, and we aim to make all women (transgendered and cisgendered) feel comfortable in our store. The dressing room area is a particularly private and vulnerable place for many women and girls, so it’s a protected area. For that reason, we also have a completely separate dressing area for women who have undergone mastectomies and need post-surgical care. (Our fitter invited Kylie and companion into this part of our store so they could have this delicate conversation privately.) Just as a gym won’t allow men in a women’s dressing room (and vice versa) for the comfort and safety of its patrons, we don’t allow men or boys above a certain age in our dressing area. Despite our otherwise inclusive approach, those who might be or who outwardly appear to be men (regardless of how they are dressed) pose a delicate challenge, and in the case of imposters, can pose a safety risk to the Petticoat Fair staff.

Oh. No. Dressing rooms are vulnerable places, sure. For women and girls, sure. Trans women and trans girls are, well, gee, women and girls. This is getting worse and not seeming very apology-like. The idea that men or boys above a certain age are not allowed into these dressing rooms is absolutely irrelevant. Kylie Jack and her girlfriend are both women. So the policy against men and boys shouldn’t need to be trotted out. Likewise, the fact that Andrews even felt the need to bring it up is implicitly suggesting that trans women aren’t women. This appears to be confirmed with the last sentence, where Andrews mentions that those who do not match up to whatever the staff’s idea of “woman” looks like is a “delicate situation” and could be an “imposter.” This is the same idea trotted out every time we try to discuss bathroom usage, and it’s false.

If it’s unclear whether a customer is a man or a woman, we err on the side of caution as a protocol, but never on the side of discrimination or intolerance. That’s just not who we are as a business. Our long-time customers, some of them transgendered, know this about us. We never want a customer—any customer—to feel unwelcome or uncomfortable in our store. Clearly, we fell down on that goal yesterday. But not due to any bigotry, narrow mindedness or judgment, as the conversation on the social channels and media outreach might have you believe. Again, that’s not who we are.

…erring on the side of caution for a problem which doesn’t exist is somehow not erring on the side of discrimination or intolerance? No, I’m not buying it. And if your long-time transgender customers know this about you, why aren’t they coming forward in the comments? Of all of the over 150 comments I read, I saw one by a cisgender woman who agreed that the current policy was acceptable and that the apology was sincere. One out of 150. I saw agreement across gender identity, sex, and race. Trans men spoke out, cis men spoke out, and plenty of women, trans and cis, white and of color, spoke out, incensed at both Jack’s description of her original ordeal and the apparent lack of understanding in the apology. This does not suggest that social media has it wrong. It suggests that Andrews has made a mistake which is identifiable to a large amount of Petticoat Fair’s customer base.

We offer solutions throughout the transition process, from showing and recommending product that can be taken home, tried on and returned if it doesn’t fit, all the way up to the full dressing room experience. Finding the right solution for the customer – and for our staff – requires an open dialogue about where the individual is in the transition process. This is something we achieve with a number of other customers and we are able to accommodate their needs in a manner that is respectful for all concerned.

Jack and her girlfriend have claimed on the shop’s Facebook page that none of these solutions were offered to Jack. She says she was presented with an impassable barrier: show ID with an F and have had SRS or services would be denied. According to the couple, there was no “open dialogue,” so even if this is actually the case as written into policy, it was not followed here, and there appears to be no recognition of that fact. However, the incident which has provoked a public review of the policy is almost irrelevant when we consider the problems with the policy itself. It is simply more of the same discrimination based on appearance. On deciding who appears female enough to be offered services. And that, like so many other parts of this “policy” is a problem.

Although I have not currently received a response, I have asked Andrews to explain to me what would happen if a cisgender woman who did not fit a staff member’s conceptualisation of “female appearance” were to refuse to submit to these restrictions? What bra fitting requires someone to show their genitals or prove they are in a certain configuration? What would happen if the documents were provided and offered as proof of cisgender-ness? I’m openly trans in most areas of my life, but not in my position as a school teacher. I am stealth. My documents all say F on them. What if I provided multiple forms of ID (I have them) which say F and insisted I was cisgender? What would I be told? “I’m sorry ma’am, but unless we have proof you are a card carrying vagina possessor, we can’t help you”? The logical conclusion of this so-called “inclusive policy” is anything but!

For years, we have served customers who are in transition with their pre- and post-surgical fitting needs, and will continue to do so. We’re also open to a sit–down meeting with leaders of the transgendered community or from the Transgender Education Network of Texas to discuss a better approach.

This may be true, but times have changed, and what used to be considered quite the accommodation for “those kind of people,” is now seen as inherently discriminatory. My breasts may be small, but they are natural not due to enlargement surgery, and they are in need of support. I can go bra-less a lot more than many of my cisgender friends (although not all of them, I know of at least two or three cisgender women with the same bra size as me, and I’m not yet finished with my growth), but that doesn’t mean I can do so the entire day, and I certainly can’t when teaching. My assignment at birth doesn’t change my need for the product for both physical and professional reasons. What the hell does surgery have to do with the body I actually own now?!

I’m pleased that Andrews is meeting with TENT. That’s an excellent start, but we will need to see some concrete changes to policy, and I hope TENT will be able to offer a convincing alternative to the currently discriminatory policy.

We respect our customers at Petticoat Fair. All of them. I hope that with this explanation, you have some helpful insight to who we are, how we do business, and that we are open to a productive dialogue.

Please forgive me for not responding more quickly. Since I saw the first post late last night, I have been getting facts together and reading your comments all day and I wanted to be able to provide a thoughtful response to your concerns and address them in a meaningful way.

Kirk Andrews
Petticoat Fair
[email protected]

While I appreciate that Andrews appears to be sincere, I (like many of Petticoat Fair’s customers) am not satisfied with the “thoughtful response” to the concerns mentioned by the store’s customer base. While Andrews’ claim of thoughtfulness shouldn’t be discounted as false or insincere, the language throughout the response shows that it is uneducated. Maybe this is another issue which TENT can address in a more general sense, in a grander scope than just the policy under review.

I reached out on behalf of ROYGBIV/Jezebel to both Kylie Jack and Kirk Andrews asking for statements and for an explanation of where they are now in resolving this issue. Jack has had a meeting with Andrews, and I have obtained a statement from Jack regarding the results of their meeting.

Kirk is sincere in his efforts to do better, but only time and actual action will tell. I’ll consider the issue resolved when a formal public apology is issued to the Austin trans community along with the steps they’re taking to update their policies to be trans-friendly and trans-inclusive.

This bodes well, I think, but I agree with Jack that a formal public apology, and one that specifically deals with the issues with the original social media post (whether it was intended as an apology or merely a policy clarification) and its reflection of the flaws inherent in Petticoat Fair’s policy towards transgender individuals, is absolutely necessary to resolving the issue.

Only time and action will tell, indeed.

Image via Shutterstock.

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