By Don McIntosh
Be Marston is a union bartender who is active in UNITE HERE Local 8. She’s also president of the Oregon chapter of Pride At Work — the AFL-CIO’s organization for LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) union members and their allies.
Down-to-earth and quick to laugh, she’s an enthusiastic participant at union rallies — proud to be union, and proud to be transgender. Formerly known as Ben, she’s a 43-year-old native of Prattville, Alabama. She’s lived and worked in Portland 14 years, mixing and serving drinks at the arts venues now known as the Portland’5 (the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Keller Auditorium, and Newmark, Winningstad, and Brunish theaters).
On June 20, the day after Be led a large labor union contingent in the Portland Pride Parade, I spoke with her by phone.
You’re the president of the Oregon chapter of Pride at Work. What’s Pride At Work?
Pride At Work is a constituency group of the AFL-CIO [federation of unions]. Sort of like CBTU (the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists), or CLUW (the Coalition of Labor Union Women). Essentially the idea is that within labor it’s important to be able to highlight each specific identity so that they can speak directly to issues that affect their community and inform the leadership. So we can have a seat at the table at the AFL-CIO on the Executive Board, to say, “these are the issues that are important to us in this next electoral season.” It’s also a tool to help LGBTQ groups and individuals support and be allies to the labor community.
LGBTQ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer. Why should civil rights for LGBTQ individuals be an issue of concern for the labor movement?
Because their members are LGBTQ. If your members are LGBTQ, and an injury to one is an injury to all, then it is your problem by definition. Beyond that, I think there’s a lot of benefit to be had. When our union affirms our identities and supports us, that creates this connection and love for our union. That’s the kind of deep commitment that creates real activism, not this quid-pro-quo old-school unionism of like “the union gets this for me.” So it’s about building that bridge between the two communities, and education is how that happens primarily. A lot of labor people want to be an ally. Every convention I go to, I have some trade union guy come up to me and say, “Hey, you got a lot of guts. Good for you.” Those people want to be an ally, but they don’t have the tools, and the language, the respectful way of communicating. That’s an ask we have to raise at that moment. You don’t get anything you don’t ask for. We have to go into those rooms and say, you want to be an ally; This is what that looks like. And this is the language we prefer. This is the terminology you need to know if you want to be knowledgeable about this and not sound like an oaf when you talk to a room full of us.
On the other side, why should workers’ rights be a concern for the LGBTQ community?
Well, because there’s something like 28 states where you can be legally fired for being LGBTQ. And I’m not aware of too many groups that are working on that. That’s a workers right, and that’s dead-on our focus as a labor group. Being union as a queer person is huge, because of the job protections. We [LGBTQ people] are much more likely to be fired because of our identity, but [in the union] we’ve got job protections. What that means is: We can be our full selves, at work, at home. At the company picnic, our partner can be there. We don’t have to be closeted and hide. That’s huge. For me, coming out in my workplace and having somebody text me and be like, “I saw you using the women’s restroom, and it’s been reported.” And getting that, and kind of freaking out, but also knowing that there’s no way in hell that either Metro or the company I work for is going to say that I can’t use the restroom that corresponds with my gender identity. And I knew that if they did, me and my union rep would go down there and kick their asses.
I’d like to talk about your personal story – how you became who you are today. You’re from Alabama. Why did you move to Portland?
Alabama is a really oppressive environment in a lot of ways. Being queer and bisexual and gender-nonconforming, I was in the closet there, just for safety reasons. And I was in the closet in my own head too; I was very afraid to deal with all that stuff. But I heard that it was really progressive out here. I was really interested in being in a community that was more in line with my political views.
Were you right? Is it a welcoming community?
The community here gets that we are human beings and should be treated as equals and respected. We were one of the first municipalities that covered transgender health care for their workers.
Things have come a long way in a short time.
I get love every day from people that I feel is intentionally because of my identity. People perceive that I am a gender-nonconformist and say or do really nice things to say, “I’m an ally. I’m not one of these people who is hateful towards you.” But then, safety is always an illusion. I could walk out the door and get my head busted in today because of who I am. Particularly gender-nonconforming people who may be somewhere in the spectrum of transition — they’re very visible within the community. A gay man can always “pass” in a circle where he’s not known. We [transgender people] tend to be more visible, and that’s one of the reasons we get so much violence and hate.
Where exactly do you work?
If you come to a Broadway show, or opera, or a rock show at the Keller Auditorium, I would be up at the first balcony north. It’s called the Keller Martini Bar, and it’s the best bar in the house, so you should definitely come. I also work at the Art Bar and Bistro in Antoinette Hatfield Hall next to the Schnitzer.
You’re a member of UNITE HERE Local 8. Can you explain how you got involved in the union?
It’s been said that I organized my shop into the union. That’s not really true. [laughs] I was on the original committee. I signed a card. But I didn’t organize any of my coworkers to join the union. I knew about unions and figured it was a good thing. But honestly the main reason I signed that card was because my boss was a dick and I was like “this will really piss him off!” [laughs].
Yeah, I would say it probably did.
Is he still your boss?
Oh no, that guy is long gone.
So you were there before they were union, and then after they unionized in 2007.
Yeah, and then I was on the first bargaining committee — not because I was particularly into the labor movement at that time — but because I thought, “We’ll be negotiating my wages and benefits. Why wouldn’t I want to be there?” But it was a long progression for me, getting more and more involved with the union. I’m really lazy, and I like to play video games, so it took me a while to really commit in a more meaningful way.
Did the first contract change your life in any way?
In some ways it was kind of a disempowering experience, my first one, the first few ones actually. But I learned a lot from those experiences. … I was a member who saw things that our union could be doing better, and I decided to take action — to be the union, and make those things happen. And it was because of the need I saw, that I felt drawn into it. It’s almost like if I felt things were being handled the best they could be, I would have just left it alone. Then also I had a turning point around 2012, 2013, where I had a pretty big breakup in my life, and just decided I needed to get outside of myself, and give back, and start doing stuff that was about other people, where it wasn’t just me being bitter and sitting on the couch and complaining about things.
So that’s when you put on a union t-shirt and started being seen at rallies?
Well, I was always into rallies. My uncle worked for the AFL-CIO. He was an organizer on the docks — in Alabama. He was the real deal.
Are you still in touch with him?
He passed away. But he was a big influence on me. I was wearing a “boycott grapes” t-shirt when I was a kid. I never really knew what that meant, exactly, but I had that background. I attended the rallies when we boycotted the Hilton [UNITE HERE waged a boycott of the Portland Hilton in 2007 and 2008, which ended when the company agreed to an acceptable union contract.] Then I started to get more involved, and I was asked [by union leaders] to go out on leave and work on staff for a while as an organizer. I was the organizer for the Oregon Convention Center’s last contract campaign, which was a big turning point for us, because we got a major victory and made advances in several economic areas. I led a boycott petition, and we got 85 percent of the members to sign a petition saying they would support a boycott. And we had [longtime labor union activist] Jamie Partridge from the Letter Carriers come with our delegation and say, “We’re not going to have our events here if you don’t settle the contract.” So it was really powerful. That’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.
You mean organizing your fellow union members to get involved?
Yeah. The convention center is a tough shop. I had to deal with a lot of people’s complaints and negativity, people yelling and screaming at meetings and stuff. It was really hard. But I learned so much. And I came out of it a lot more confident, and tougher. And the victory we got there was just huge. I was really inspired.
Was there a particular win within that contract?
There was a lot. The health care thing was big. We expanded and reworked the health care eligibility that made it possible for many people to get really really good union health trust insurance. We also significantly expanded the percentage that the banquet workers get out of the service charge. At a lot of nonunion places, they’re charging a service charge, and you think that’s going to the workers, and it’s not. Meanwhile, the food and beverage people over at the convention center are making good money, the kind of money you can support a family on, and health care coverage for their entire family, including vision and dental. The people who’ve been there forever don’t even know how good they have it, they haven’t seen what the health insurance marketplace is like.
How did you get involved in Pride at Work?
Basically there was a re-formation of the Oregon chapter. There had been an Oregon chapter and then it had fallen apart. And some folks decided to bring it back. I had just seen Milk [a 2008 Academy-Award-winning film about San Francisco gay rights leader Harvey Milk, starring Sean Penn.] You know, that movie really changed my life. That one scene where he’s like, “You have to come out, right now! Call your parents right now.” That really inspired me. So I was talking to one of the organizers of the event, and they were like, “Oh, you just have to come. Cleve Jones is going to be there.” I had no idea who that was. I ended up coming because they kept urging me. So he comes, and I got to meet him. And he said, “Have you seen the movie Milk? I’m the guy that’s played by Emile Hirsch.” And I was like, “What? That’s you?” [laughs]. So I got to meet Cleve Jones, and he was just awesome, so inspiring. Then I got talked into being the president. [laughs]. [See a 2011 Labor Press interview with Jones here.]
And you’ve been president since then?
Yeah. We’d really love to have people get more involved. We’re asking people to join on the Pride at Work web site. It’s $30 a year. I know: It’s another organization asking you for dues. But the thing is: We’re not like the Human Rights Campaign, which gets all this corporate funding. We’re an LGBTQ advocacy organization that is funded by unions. So we really need the support of the community to be able to continue to have this national organization, that has a seat at the table.
You were Ben Marston. You’ve changed your name to Be. Why is that?
I haven’t legally changed it. I refer to it as how I prefer to be called. I’m going through a transition and I started hormone replacement therapy about a year and a half ago. And I do identify as female. Transgender is used as an umbrella term for a lot of kinds of identities. I identify as female but it’s weird to me to adhere to one gender or the other. I guess I reached a point in my life where I felt like I have to pick a lane. And I felt like that was the identity that summed it up. I was dating straight men at the time. And gay guys have never really been into me because I identify as female. That’s just the identity that seemed to fit me best.
So what do you identify as your gender and orientation at this point?
I identify as bisexual. I usually just identify as transgender, but gender-nonconforming or even gender-queer might be a better way of saying that. Gender-nonconforming is just like you don’t adhere to the binary. Or maybe you defy or don’t accept the binary.
Can you explain what you mean by gender-nonconforming? Maybe you could give an example from your life of what you do that’s nonconforming?
Well, I identify as female, but people often point out that sometimes my energy is really masculine, like often at work, I’m in a role that I’ve occupied even since before I came out as trans. Other things: I don’t try to feminize my voice really. In certain situations I do sometimes, just for fun because that’s how I’m feeling. I don’t want to be put in either box. I’m frustrated that society tries to put us in one box or the other. I don’t understand the need for the boxes in the first place, I guess. Things are way more complex and fluid than that, and should be. There’s a term my partner uses that she really likes, which is whole-gendered, where you’re just your full self, whatever that is. Maybe that evolves throughout your life through time.
Your partner is a woman?
Yes. She’s also a shop steward with UNITE HERE. Her name is Melody Jordan.
What kinds of reactions do you get when people see you and size you up?
In Portland, most people don’t really even pay too much notice. Those that do are usually very affirming. Maybe they just smile and quietly are affirming. Maybe they say “I like your hair,” or “that’s a cool dress,” just being affirming in a really small way. Lately it just seems like I’m just like this charmed queer. I stay in the downtown area, though. I’m in a very specific bubble. And I work in the theater — a very liberal environment. So I’m really lucky that I’m just surrounded by a lot of affirming people. But that’s not how I grew up at all. I grew up in a very hostile-feeling place where I stuffed my real self down so far that I couldn’t even recognize it.
Do you ever go back to Alabama?
I have to. My parents and everybody are still there.
So what happens? Do you have to go back in the closet, or do you brave it?
No, I’m out to everybody. Facebook is really helpful in that way. My family is pretty much universally really supportive. My dad has issues with it, so the biggest hump to me was coming out to him. But that was a really important step that I felt that I had to take. To me it’s a political act. I have aunts that probably think differently about transgender people because their darling little nephew is transgender. If we’re not brave enough to do that, then we’re kind of saying, “Yeah, you’re right, I am evil. I am dirty. I am menacing.” We have to just make that brave act of saying, “I’m just me, and I’m proud of it. I know you’ve got a big problem with it, but this is me. This is a part of me that i need you to understand.”
It’s been hard. I’m conscious enough to be pretty conservative in my dress when I’m down there, but I don’t go back in the closet. It’s a little scary, and I think it’s probably scarier for my family than it is for me because I kind of carry my Portland bubble around with me. I’m kind of unaware sometimes that I’m probably in danger.
What would you say to union members who might be curious about someone who is transgender? Is there a right way or wrong way to ask questions about it without coming off as ignorant or bigoted?
Well, as far as dos and don’ts, an important one is (and you’d think you wouldn’t have to say this) it’s considered impolite to ask a transgender person, “Hey, were you born as a man or a woman?” Because you’re basically asking them, “What kind of genitalia do you have?” And you wouldn’t ask that of anyone else. That’s one that we get a lot.
Personally, I’m not against political correctness, but I think sometimes it can overstep. I think at a certain point, it does begin to impair dialogue. And we need dialogue in order for change to happen. So I kind of take people where they are. If somebody is obviously intending to be a friend to my community but doesn’t have the right way to express it, I’m not going to make them feel like a piece of shit. But I get that there are a lot of people in my community that this is very hurtful to them, so it’s really hard for them to not react in a way that maybe pushes people away sometimes instead of bringing them in and educating them.
Besides asking someone what gender they were when they were born or what genitalia they have, what are some other things that are upsetting transgender people?
Well, to presume pronouns. Someone may appear to identify [as a certain gender.] It’s always better to ask a person’s pronoun preference. If they’re new there and they appear to be trans, that might be a good place to start. Say, “Hi, I’m so-and-so. I prefer male pronouns. What is your pronoun preference?” But those things can just kind of come out. I think it’s more important just to let people be. Because those kinds of things really don’t matter. They’re going to let you know their pronoun preferences if there’s an issue there. I think in union meetings, it’s a really cool thing to put that in the mix if you have trans folks in the audience, I’d say, “Okay, we’re going to say our name, where we work, and what our pronoun preference is.” That feels really inclusive to me. It kind of challenges our assumptions. I think that’s what trans people do just by our very existence: We challenge assumptions.
POSTSCRIPT: After our conversation, Marston emailed me to explain some of the evolving terminology describing trans individuals, and to suggest further actions that unions and union members can take.
- Instead of “transvestite,” use “crossdresser” to refer to someone who wears clothing typically associated with the opposite sex.
- Instead of “hermaphrodite,” use “intersex” to refer to someone who is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t appear to fit the typical definitions of female or male.
- Instead of “transsexual,” use “transgender” to refer to someone who identifies with or expresses a gender identity that differs from their sex at birth.
“It’s important that these communities not be lumped together, though there is some over-lap,” Marston writes. “Nor should gender identity and expression be confused with sexual orientation.”
Actions unions can take
- In your workplace or union hall, you should have a gender-neutral restroom, but you should also allow all transgender/gender non-conforming people to use whatever restroom suits them best. This also applies to locker rooms and dressing rooms. Gender-neutral spaces are great, but shouldn’t be mandatory.
- In union contracts, make sure non-discrimination language includes sexual orientation AND gender identity/expression. Also, make sure your health trust insurance plan covers transgender members and all the transition related care they need. Marston writes: “If it doesn’t, make it happen, and call me if you need help!”