Good Beer Hunting

Humanity in Hospitality

From Both Sides — A Transgender Experience in the Beer Industry

In the past couple weeks, the important discussion of inclusivity in the beer industry has once again reared its ugly head, after an article published on Good Beer Hunting outlining problematic actions in the U.S. industry drew fire from many readers. It was ugly, not due to the subject (which has been increasing in visibility in the UK steadily), but due to many of the responses on social media. Some have buried their heads in the sand, claiming that, since they don’t see it, the problem doesn’t exist. (Unsurprisingly, these are almost entirely men.) But others have outright challenged the notion that the beer industry is a male-dominated one, often at fault of perpetuating homophobia, sexism, and more.

Illustration by Cooper Foszcz

Illustration by Cooper Foszcz

[Editor’s note: Some names have been changed to protect the identities of our sources.]

For reasons unknown to myself, they see this call-to-arms against prejudice as a personal attack. It’s possible they simply hate women, queer people, and people of color—that they’re simply bigots. Or maybe they’re so entrenched in the “beer is a boys club” mentality that they feel threatened. Regardless, this mindset is both damaging and toxic to our industry.

Being a woman in a male-dominated industry is often a challenge at best, and demeaning, degrading, and enraging at worst. But being a trans woman in the beer industry throws a whole different set of issues—transmisogyny, transphobia, erasure, to name a few—on top of the cocktail of sexism and misogyny my cis sisters also face on a day-to-day basis. I’m not merely trying to raise awareness of other queer and trans people who work in the beer industry. I’m also trying to point out that I’m in a somewhat unique position to comment on sexism: I lived for just shy of two decades of my life being perceived as male before transition.

The article that sparked this iteration of the debate was focused on U.S. breweries and their pretty appalling use of social media via “unofficial” accounts. In response to the idea that a few sexist, misogynistic, and homophobic posts on a few unofficial Instagram accounts isn’t symptomatic or representative of the wider industry, I’d argue that it absolutely is. If high-profile breweries such as these can create open Instagram accounts, with clear links to the breweries themselves, and either not receive a backlash necessary enough to dissuade them from continuing, or not be given instructions to stop by their superiors, then I would argue that there’s a pervasive issue at play.

One of the most alarming parts of articles like this one has been the response. As opposed to recognizing the issue at hand and accepting responsibility, many of the responders’ instincts have been to react aggressively, lashing out like guilty children having a tantrum. Nothing is more symptomatic of a problem than such a vehement defense of the perpetrator or perpetrators without addressing the actual issue.

I can only speak for the British industry and only from my own experience when I say that the beer industry is one rife with sexism. From day-to-day microaggressions to blatant misogyny, I’d be amazed to find any woman working in our industry who hasn’t dealt with these issues. Lack of trust in knowledge or recommendations, ignorance, exclusion, unwanted sexual advances, lechery, harassment, even assault: the list of what women not only deal with—but have to deflect, ignore, or even smile in response to, sometimes being told “it’s not worth it”—goes on, often internalizing the idea that it “comes with the territory” and is simply “part of the job.” It doesn’t, it isn’t, it should never be.

It should also not be the sole responsibility of women, queer people, or people of color to educate those who offend and oppress them. In order for sexism to be dealt with, men need to educate themselves, begin to unlearn internalized misogyny (which is, itself, a difficult task), and then act on it. Seeing and experiencing this kind of behavior near-constantly is exhausting. Someone else should shoulder some of the responsibility.

Since living “as a woman,” the difference in how I’ve been treated has been hugely noticeable. When I was read as male, my opinions were worth more than those of my female colleagues. I was trusted more, I was given more respect, and I was rarely spoken over. Whilst I was in a position in which I was acutely aware of my male privilege, others are not. I believe privilege is one of the starting points at which to begin to combat sexism (amongst myriad other social issues).

However, since being read as female (and when not, transphobic comments and misgendering are all too common), it’s a similar experience to that of my former female colleagues.

“During my time at [London Bar/Distributor chain] The Bottle Shop, I was frequently given preference above my female coworkers when customers wanted to ask about a beer,” Alecks, a duty manager at various BrewDog bars who identifies as non-binary, says. “Even if I was just sitting at the edge, off-shift and drinking, even if I wasn’t being asked, I would be looked to for validation of said coworkers ‘recommendation’ as if we hadn’t employed this person who loves beer to sell beer.” 

When this happened, Alecks would respond that their colleague was as knowledgeable as them, quickly resolving an uncomfortable situation whilst undermining that act of sexism.

Gender is not the only issue at play, either. I’ve never been exposed to as much homophobia as I have when working behind a bar. I used to identify as a queer male. I was bullied at secondary school for my sexuality and I felt less disgusted by that as I do the amount of homophobia I’ve experienced working in pubs and bars. It’s rarely outright homophobic hate speech, or verbal attacks, but the “harmless banter” from both behind the bar and in front.

Little do its perpetrators realize that these seemingly innocuous comments (for example: referring to anything as “gay” in a derogatory way, or asking for a “girly” beer) normalize homophobia, transphobia, sexism, and racism. Others see no consequence to a hateful comment and the lack of reaction is internalized as acceptable. This is damaging; it perpetuates a culture in which these behaviors are not only ok, but one where the victim is taught that they are worth less, which in turn can lead to mental health issues and lower employability due to lack of self-esteem and emotional energy. This behavior is internalized by bystanders as acceptable, as well as being internalized by the people it victimizes as normal, in turn damaging their sense of self. No one, in any industry (especially one that self-describes as friendly and caring), should be subjected to anything that negatively impacts their view of self.

It hurts to hear it, but the beer industry is sexist and queerphobic. 

“[Queer and transphobia] is 100% linked with the industry’s sexism. Femme people are viewed as unknowledgeable,” Jules, who works in a London based bottle shop, says. “BrewDog famously released an advert a few years back which managed to be transphobic, sexist, and shame sex workers simultaneously. While they attempted to make up for it with their ‘label-less beers,’ it is symptomatic of the type of ignorance that manifests when marginalized people are under-represented within an industry.” 

Many who would deny the occurrence of these injustices may well be the same who perpetuate them. At the very least, they have not been exposed to their painful effects. The answer to this imbalance of power lies with the individual. Following #boyzgate, Paul Jones of Manchester Brewery Cloudwater sent out a series of tweets, including, “Please call out everything that shuts doors instead of opens them, and encourage those [that] didn’t ride the first wave of progress towards inclusivity and the end of demeaning bias and ignorance.”

Too often, the responsibility and labor of initiating change is left to those who need it most. Too often do we have to fight until exhaustion. If everyone in the beer industry—an industry that could be so much more inclusive (and benefit from that exponentially)—worked toward a common goal of not alienating the already marginalized, then we would truly begin to see a craft beer industry that is actually as welcoming and egalitarian as the majority—cis, straight men—within it think it currently is.

“[We must] encourage marginalized people to pursue careers in beer, [and] offer jobs specifically for women, queer people, and also people of color,” Jules says. “Men in the industry must be better allies and call out problematic behavior.”

It’s not my intent to ignore the good work many are doing. Groups like Ladies That Beer in Liverpool and The Crafty Beer Girls in London work hard to foster a community of any female-identifying beer drinkers, creating a space in which they can enjoy beer without fear of sexist nonsense. Gender neutral toilets are becoming more and more common, with more venues cottoning on to the fact that these are important, and offering them alongside the familiar separate toilets. (Toilets can be an absolute minefield for trans folk, and the specification of gender-neutral toilets shows that the venue in question has at least considered trans inclusion.)

In his tweets, Cloudwater’s Jones made it clear that if we’re not currently in the midst of a tipping point regarding these issues, one is on the horizon: “Even trad circles are waking up to the sound of the death gargle of sexism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and white CIS centric beer culture.”

Whilst there is, indeed, a strong collective force for good—to call it a movement would be disparaging—based around the above issues, is it enough?

“I’ve found that many bars and breweries are making a concerted effort to be more inclusive to trans and queer people,” Alecks says. “But the social issue of trans/queerphobia runs so deep that it varies on a person by person basis.”

The same can be said about sexism, that whilst there might be major players in the industry fighting for equality, the hardest part will be challenging the deep-rooted, societal misogyny, including amongst their own ranks. As Facebook user Rachel Auty wrote in response to a post of one of J. Wakefield Brewing’s recently criticised and unnecessarily sexualized beer labels, “the reality is, tackling sexism ([and] other forms of discrimination) is so much more about action taken than words spoken. Values, statements and policies are all fine and well, but when it comes to the crunch, the ones who act and take a stand are the ones who are the real influencers and drivers of change.”

Many may well dismiss this article as “leftist identity politics,” as one Twitter user wrote in response to the GBH boyz article. Again, by focusing solely on attempting to demean the argument with dismissive terms as opposed to taking note and addressing the issue at hand, it’s further proof of how deep-rooted and pervasive this issue is. To those who claim sexism in our industry doesn’t exist (and it’s a surprising number!), please, know that it very much does. I’ve experienced both sides of the coin, and as many other trans women and female-identifying people can attest, the difference in attitude to the individual pre- and post- social transition is staggering.

Giving up one’s male privilege ushers in a stark paradigm shift that only greater illustrates the appalling attitudes that many people within this industry are subject to, often backed up by squalling claims of “banter,” that “it was just a joke.” Beer is confusingly synonymous with masculinity to many people, and it’s time to change that. It’s been time to change that for years, but with breweries and organizations seemingly waking up to this inequality, perhaps 2018 is the year in which we do force change. Beer cares not for gender, race, sexuality, or any identity—nor should those who spend their time, care, and effort within its universe.

It’s time to shoulder some responsibility. Time to relieve those in the minority of the labor of change. It will never be as a progressive and inclusive an industry as it is believed to be until the majority work toward progress and include the marginalized. If sexism, misogyny, queer- and transphobia are the work of cis straight men, so too must the solution be.

“Adopt an open mind and realize that your experience of life is but a small slice of the pie. Be nice to people,” Alecks says. “It doesn’t cost anything.”


Words by Lily Waite