Last winter I sat around a square formed of folding tables pushed together, in an upstairs room at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center in New York. With me were 16 others: chefs, consultants, business owners, and other writers (some who’d started our working lives in restaurants, as I did), all of us queer, all of us there at the invitation of the James Beard Foundation to talk about the struggles of LGBTQ people in the industry, and advise the JBF on ways it could address the chronic homophobia in American food.
We talked about the stubborn culture in the kitchens many of us came up through. The places where we cooked or waited tables were hierarchical, dominated by men, intolerant of dissent, often either actively or casually racist, scornful of women and perceived weakness, and slow to change. Some of us revealed common scars—abuse and harassment, the ones particular to queer people: wounds frozen halfway through the process of closing up, perpetually short of healing. I described the experience of a pastry chef I know on Facebook, who told me his chef let the kitchen staff wear jeans in the kitchen. When my friend wore skinny jeans, he was teased, bullied, and even physically harassed for wearing “women’s pants.”
It was cathartic, hearing familiar stories of survival around the temporarily spliced-together big table, as if we were tracing pin drops of pain to reveal the silhouette of a community, to see its shape. We dreamed of a utopian restaurant culture, one where chefs and managers took gender out of the equation—made it irrelevant—and let workers stand as equals, in workplaces committed to inclusiveness. But I left feeling hopeless: If we trip up over skinny jeans, how the fuck are we ever going to survive? How can kitchens be anything but places where queer cooks have to barricade themselves in their own private sanctuaries, or else leave?
We all agreed that things are getting better in restaurants—that women are running more and more kitchens, in places where old intolerance has been scrubbed like mildew from the deepest corners of a walk-in cooler. But the burden of finding an enlightened workplace lies all on the worker. Like rebels in the dystopian wasteland of Mad Max: Fury Road, young queer cooks find themselves searching for their own Furiosa, with dreams of climbing aboard a war rig barreling through the desert of homophobes, harassers, and dicks to the Green Place, the land of Many Mothers.
But just as the Green Place turned out to be less than Furiosa hoped, working under a queer chef doesn’t guarantee you won’t find yourself in a place free from harassment. In their recent New York Times exposé of restaurateur Ken Friedman, authors Julia Moskin and Kim Severson quote Trish Nelson, an ex-server at The Spotted Pig, where an upstairs private party space had been dubbed the “rape room.” Nelson described the response to outraged employees from Friedman’s business partner, the queer chef April Bloomfield, as “That’s who he is. Get used to it. Or go work for someone else.” To LGBTQ people, that quote has a particularly sickening resonance: This is how the culture is; you’re free to work, or rent, or adopt, or buy your goddamn faggot rainbow wedding cake, somewhere else. It’s a denial of accommodation.
After the story broke, Bloomfield defended herself in a statement on Instagram, floating a broad apology that acknowledged she’d been aware of some complaints against Friedman and the culture of the restaurants they own together, but hadn’t done enough to make workers safe. For a woman seen as a hero to many queer cooks for her badassery, succeeding at the highest level in a sexist profession—and who has said she originally wanted to be a cop, after watching Cagney and Lacey as a girl in England— a tepid communiqué expressing regret is a clear, if disappointing, reminder of how even heroes can still be in thrall to classic structures of power.
For workers, restaurants are manifestations of power in the rawest sense. They use socially acceptable forms of coercion and domination to enforce certain standards of performance. They’re no different than a lot of other workplaces, except we’ve long expected restaurants—kitchens especially—to operate according to pirate rules, which means the socially acceptable threshold for conduct bores far beneath the corporate standard.
Restaurants, of course, are capitalist enterprises, and in our world, something as sweeping as protecting workers by challenging gender norms poses a threat to the basic machinery of capitalism. As long as the investors are making money, nobody really gives a fuck if you feel respected at the salad station on the cold line. As the foundational leader of LGBTQ liberation Harry Hay would have taught us long ago, if we didn’t all come up through an educational system that actively tried to erase our queer heroes, capitalism is the first enemy of queerness. Though my thinking wasn’t sufficiently woke last winter to be able to tell the James Beard Foundation, I’ll say it now: The best way to protect queer workers is the oldest one we know—by unionizing, and fighting discrimination like a bitch.