My Call Center Job’s No-Uniform Policy Was a Dream, But for Who?
Though the person in the skirt and I weren’t the same, when I saw them, I felt something I never had before at work: like I could be totally, completely myself.
This isWerk., a monthly column from Edgar Gomez on what he’s learned about queerness and identity while navigating the US workforce.
In college, I got hired at a call center to caption phone conversations for people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. Our clients were mostly older folk who didn’t know how to use the internet and might need to call someone, for example, a doctor, to schedule an appointment. The company made special phones with monitors they could use to read what the person on the other end of the line was saying. The way it worked was simple: The phones wired the conversations over to the call center, where I repeated everything in a flat, robotic voice into a headset, and our patented vocal recognition software made the words appear on their screen. It was basically voice-to-text.
. . . SAID HE WAS NOT WELCOME IN MY HOME ANYMORE . . .
. . . SEE THAT LADY GAGA SHAKING HER BREASTS LIKE SOME KIND OF . . .
. . . IS NOT MY PRESIDENT THAT MAN IS NOT EVEN A REAL AMERICAN . . .
Then I got a notification on my screen from my supervisor: the poet the hiring manager had spoken about. It wasn’t unusual to get a notification from her. The job of supervisors was to monitor a couple hundred employees a day by eavesdropping on our calls at random and summoning us when they were over to provide feedback. Aside from that, once a week we had another meeting to discuss how much time we’d spent in the bathroom, which they were able to track down to the minute because we were required to swipe in and out every time we left the room. When I got to her desk, she set down the pretty leather notebook with a daisy on the cover she used to write her poems, and frowned.
“So I noticed you ended that last call early,” she said.
“Yeah, did you hear that dude trying to scam her? I felt so bad.”
“Listen,” she said. “I know you may feel uncomfortable when you get a call like that, but we still have a responsibility to caption them. It’s not our place to decide what clients hear or not.”
“I get that,” I said. “But it’s so messed up. I just couldn’t stop thinking, What if it was my grandma?”
She said she understood, but because I didn’t follow protocol, she had to write me up. It was my first write up. Two more, she warned, and I would be automatically dismissed. Company policy.
I got my next write up for being fifteen minutes late after getting into a car accident on the way to work.
“You’re still good,” she said that time. “You have one more. I know it seems unfair, but otherwise everyone would start showing up whenever and we’ll have all these ringing phones and no one to caption calls. We need the coverage.”
I would have stormed out, but the front light of my car was dangling out of its socket. All I could think of was how much that was going to cost to fix. “Can I at least borrow some tape?” I asked.
Over the course of the next few months, as I became friends with more of my fellow queer captionists, I became skeptical about the job. The only other times I’d seen so many of us gathered under one roof was at gay bars. While it was a relief to get to be around people like me, I couldn’t help but wonder why, of all places, Orlando queers were flocking here?
I only knew the reason I did. The hiring managers everywhere else I’d applied had looked at me sideways for my painted nails, my plucked eyebrows. Here, all that was asked of me was that I pass a basic spelling test.
Then it dawned on me: This wasn’t one of those tech startups that lure in yuppies with promises of kombucha bars and ping pong tournaments, but a business that used their no-uniform policy to attract people who had difficulty finding work elsewhere, in particular trans and gender nonconforming folk.
Perhaps that type of hiring prejudice sounds like a relic from the last century. I mean, RuPaul has one of the country’s most popular reality television shows. Yet even RuPaul famously made comments about not wanting trans women who’ve begun gender-affirming surgeries on the program—why would a regular hiring manager be any more progressive? To this day, there is still no statewide law in Florida protecting LGBTQ folk from employment discrimination.
The call center was baiting queers with the promise of freedom of self-expression, and once they had us hooked, leveraging that acceptance to keep us in an abusive environment. For the privilege of getting to be ourselves, we had to swallow the requirement to caption traumatic conversations under fear of dismissal, the no-tolerance policy for lateness without as much as an “Are you okay?” after I told my supervisor about my car accident, the childish no-cellphone rule, the creepy bathroom monitoring. The latter felt particularly cruel, since staying hydrated was necessary in order to talk into our headsets for eight hours a day. At orientation, the company gifted us free jugs.
I didn’t bother complaining when my supervisor told me I needed to go down from seventeen to fifteen minutes a day away from my desk. My coworkers all said that when they’d brought up how invasive it was to have our bathroom time logged, their own supervisors gave the same speech about needing coverage.
Most of them seemed resigned to the job. After all, what alternatives were there? I had some trans and gender nonconforming friends who were hired to do makeup; others did sex work, or drag, or cobbled together a living with a combination of all three. No shade to any of those occupations, but they can be unstable and dangerous. This place at the very least guaranteed forty hours a week of income, gave overtime pay, and provided access to medical insurance. I made myself forget the bad parts of the call center and focused on the good.
A couple of months after I’d been hired, I was sitting in my cubicle when my phone rang. The call began like most of the others. A warm greeting, a comment about the weather. But something shifted then, and the man who I was captioning started talking about their neighbors, a Puerto Rican family, how loud they played their music, that America needed to build a wall. By that point, I’d captioned thousands of conversations, and usually they were so boring that I shut my brain off and repeated everything unconsciously. It was for that reason that it didn’t hit me what I was saying for over a minute. When it did, my first thought wasn’t ethical. I didn’t ponder what my Puerto Rican father would think of me if he knew what I was doing. What immediately surfaced in my mind is that I had two write-ups and hadn’t been monitored yet that night. If my supervisor was listening, and I hung up, I’d be fired.
So I didn’t. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and captioned everything. I said immigrants are here to steal jobs as the image of my Nicaraguan mom preparing coffee at Starbucks flashed through my mind. I said the part about spics needing to learn English, ignoring the irony of me being the one helping him communicate. I said the part about how dumb we are, how dirty, how ghetto for parking our cars on our lawns, and when the call ended, I opened my eyes, stared at my computer screen, and waited for my supervisor to summon me, willing myself not to cry.
Then it happened: nothing. No notification popped up. No one had been listening. I could have hung up.
I didn’t have to do that, I realized. I wanted to burn the call center down.
I logged out of my computer to go to the bathroom to cool off. Staring at my colorful nails as I swiped my ID to leave the room, I was filled with a confusing mix of rage and gratitude. I hated this job and what it was doing to me, but I needed it and its no-uniform policy, and so did my brothers, sisters, and those who inhabit more polarizing ends of the gender spectrum.
What finally made me summon the nerve to quit was the day I took a nap in the break room. A supervisor I didn’t know tapped my shoulder and ordered me to stay awake. As soon as I clocked back in, my own supervisor called me to her desk and told me naps were not allowed anywhere in the building because I might make others sleepy. She said if I wanted to, I could sleep in my car. It was summer in the south. The year before, a woman not much older than me died from heat stroke doing the same thing.
Though my supervisor didn’t write me up, I assume because I was training in captioning Spanish phone calls and they were desperate for Spanish-speakers, I decided right then I was going to leave. If I wasn’t young, a digestible level of feminine, and conventionally attractive-ish, I would have swallowed that incident down with the rest.
My next day off, I printed a dozen resumes, wiped my nail polish off, put on khaki pants, and went to the mall. It pained me to have to remove markers of my queerness to make myself more palatable, but I knew it would hurt more to not be able to buy groceries. I walked past the stores where I wouldn’t have stood a chance no matter what I wore—Abercrombie, Sports Authority—until I stumbled upon a small boutique that sold flip flops. The manager offered me a job on the spot when I mentioned that I spoke a little Portuguese, which would come in handy in Florida because of all the Brazilian tourists. It was a lie, but I still hadn’t fixed my car.
As I drove out of the mall parking lot, I planned out the speech I would deliver to HR when I picked up my last check. I didn’t have a perfect solution to the problems of the call center, but I hoped if I let them know how their policies, intentionally or not, were predatory towards queer people, they’d do something. In that moment I was hopeful, though if I’d been able to look into the future, I’d have laughed at how naïve I was. The day I returned to the call center, instead of a meeting with HR, I was given a sheet of paper to write my complaints on. No one ever responded. Nothing, my friends who stayed told me, changed.
Still, I had gotten out, and as I drove home, I wondered whether my new job would turn out to be a nightmare like the call center had.
While interviewing me, I’d told the manager I loved the coral dress she had on, the way it complimented the turquoise rings on her fingers.
“Is there a uniform?” I’d asked.
“No,” she said, dropping her eyes to her feet. “You just have to wear flip-flops.”
The pay was minimum wage. I wasn’t really going to help anyone. But at least, from my ankles up, I might get to be totally, completely be myself.
I turned the dial on the radio until I landed on something loud and Puerto Rican, and when I made it to my house, I parked on my lawn.
Edgar Gomez (he/she/they) is a Florida-born writer with roots in Nicaragua and Puerto Rico. A graduate of University of California, Riverside’s MFA program, he is a recipient of the 2019 Marcia McQuern Award for nonfiction. His words have appeared in Poets & Writers, Narratively, Catapult, Lithub, The Rumpus, Electric Lit, Plus Magazine, and elsewhere online and in print. His memoir, High-Risk Homosexual, was named a Best LGBTQ Book by Harper’s Bazaar. He lives in New York and Puerto Rico. Find him on Twitter @OtroEdgarGomez.