West Hollywood is known as a progressive city, in part for its acceptance of gay men, who make up 40% of its population. In theory, the city also is accepting of lesbians, although there are few here. As for transgender people, well the city does have a Transgender Advisory Board. However, it’s not unusual to hear (older) gay men complain about the presence of women — gay or straight — in gay bars. And the recent experience at Catch restaurant of Ashlee Marie Preston, a transgender woman of color, suggests that even gay men in West Hollywood may be less accepting of transgender people than they think they are. Here is her story:
At 9:45 p.m. last Tuesday I arrived at Catch, the upscale seafood restaurant on Melrose Avenue at San Vicente Boulevard, where I had made a reservation for dinner for me and a friend. The attendant at the door stared at me with a confused expression and asked if he could help me. I told him I had a reservation. He asked my name, and I told him. Struggling whether to call me “ma’m” or “sir”, he said that I didn’t have one.
Then I showed him my email confirmation. His response: He couldn’t let me up without a reservation. I showed him the reservation confirmation again. He said that the system must be down and to check in with someone tomorrow. Meanwhile there were guests arriving, and he was allowing them up without checking for their names as I stood on the sideline with security staff.
I asked to speak with a manager. He said the manager wasn’t around but he would send him an email. In an attempt to seem helpful, he took a picture of my cell phone with the reservation email and said he would forward it. He apologized and told me he didn’t know what else he could do and that I should come back another time. After I continued to insist that he honor my reservation, he said “someone important” (verbatim) had bought out the space I had reserved, and that that was beyond his control.
After going back and forth an additional 10 minutes, I let him know “who I was” and assured him that if Catch didn’t honor my reservation I’d bring formal complaints against everyone responsible. The door attendant then told me he’d see what he could do, and within seconds he was magically able to find my reservation and allowed me to go to my table. Moments later, up came my friend Rachel, a gorgeous blue-eyed blonde girl, who had no problems getting to the table.
When we were seated, the first thing I noticed was that Catch was not packed. There was no “important person” who had bought up the place. That was a blatant lie. Along the wall there was a man in a blazer — the assistant manager — who spoke with other employees as they looked at our table. My server came over and introduced himself.
As I was looking at the menu, my server took it from me, explaining in a condescending way that “these places work a little different” and then explained how meal courses work and highlighted discounted items on the menu. I told him that I frequent Nobu, another stylish restaurant, and many other L.A. favorites, and that I knew what to expect at a restaurant. He looked surprised and “congratulated” me in what was his best impression of a Southern black woman.
I was annoyed when I began to order my meal. I even ordered more than I cared to eat (I really had no appetite anymore), to counter the notion that I could only afford the “discounted section.” My friend Rachel was upset. She said she didn’t feel we were welcome at Catch and that she had picked up on a lot of micro-aggression in the short time we were there.
So I told my server that I wanted to speak to a manager, and he said he’d ask the assistant manager to come over. We waited for that assistant manager, who, looking serious instead of welcoming, walked up to the table with his arms folded and simply said: ” Yes?”
I told him everything that had transpired, and he immediately gas lighted me and discredited everything I said. I said I felt I was being profiled. And although I didn’t say anything about my gender, he responded: “I don’t think that’s likely, Laverne Cox has eaten here before.” (To me, that’s like someone saying, “I can’t be racist; I have a black friend.”)
I told him that I had been patient with the horrendous experience but I wanted some accountability for the poor service I had received. He shrugged (as other patrons watched) and asked what I wanted him to do. He then disingenuously apologized as if to say, “Better??” I told him it wasn’t better, and that I would write about my experience at Catch.
“Do what makes you feel good,” he said. “If that’s what you feel you need to do, I won’t stop you.” He then excused himself and told the server “don’t mark anything off,” which I took to mean “make sure you don’t discount anything.” (As if the prices were why I had complained).
At that point, I asked that the meal be wrapped up to go. I couldn’t stay any longer because I felt embarrassed, humiliated and dehumanized. When the server brought the receipt, he said that he’d try to go to the back and get a discount because he knows “it’s a little pricey” (again, the implication that someone who looked like me wasn’t financially able to pay for my meal). But then he came back and apologized and said that he couldn’t give a discount, delivering the receipt to me as if it were a cancer diagnosis. I paid the bill and even made sure I left a tip just to debunk his obvious stereotype of me.
As a trans woman of color, I have learned that my visibility and my very existence is disruptive to our cis-hetero normative society. If I am a trans person in a hotel, a common perception is that I must be an escort. If I am walking down the street, the assumption is that I welcome men to approach me for sex. And because of the economic challenges that most trans people of color face, if I’m in a posh restaurant, my ability to pay is questioned. As trans people, our presence is always met with suspicion. There are those who make it their mission to erase trans people by denying us access and refusing to allow us to hold space.
What makes this experience especially interesting to me is that these Catch employees were gay men. That raises the issue about how some white cisgender gay men feel privileged to be accepted in hetero-centric environments such as Catch and feel threatened by trans women — especially those of color. I believe that gay men who struggle with internalized homophobia sometimes project onto trans women because they feel we reinforce the hetero-normative fears, stereotypes and criticisms they have faced. Some of these same men are the ones who state “no fats, no femmes, no Asians” on their online profiles — the type of gays who oppress other members of the LGBTQ community.
I’m sharing this experience in the hope that I can draw attention to the fact that racism, transphobia, homophobia and misogyny can and do exist in progressive cities such as West Hollywood. Most importantly, in sharing this experience, I want other trans people who experience acts of bias and discrimination to know that it is not okay. We all are worthy of being treated with dignity and respect, and speaking up and speaking out is an act of resistance that is necessary if we are to ever counter the injustices that limit us as a community.
Ashlee Marie Preston, a native of Louisville, Ky., is an openly trans person working in mainstream public relations. She is secretary, communications chair and a member of the executive committee for the Transgender Service Provider Network of Los Angeles. She also is a member of the board of the Trans Chorus of Los Angeles and the Imperial Court of Hollywood/Los Angeles, and is involved with organizations such as the Stonewall Democratic Club, the Human Rights Campaign and the Gender Odyssey Los Angeles Conference. She is on the board of directors for TransCanWork LLC and Mirror Memoirs.