SAN FRANCISCO – Before Goodwill Industries opened its newest retail outlet here, no one would have argued that San Francisco had a shortage of thrift stores for its avid recyclers and trendy hipsters. What the city did lack was enough jobs for its transgender population, a group with an unemployment rate thought to be twice the California average.
So when a prime piece of commercial real estate languished vacant in the predominantly gay Castro district, activists and city officials saw an opportunity to put a dent in the problem. The result is the nation's first Goodwill, and perhaps the first store of any kind, designed as a jobs program for workers whose genders are different from the ones they had at birth.
Seven of the shop's nine employees are transgender, most of them women who used to be men. Like the donated merchandise they collect and sell, all are looking for new lives. They were referred to Goodwill by the Transgender Economic Empowerment Initiative, a nonprofit training and employment service that also places workers with Macy's, Trader Joe's, Bank of America and other supportive companies.
"I guess it's fitting that we're working in a place that's based on the concept of 'recycle and reuse,'" said Alexie Scanlon, 38, who was just promoted to assistant manager at the Castro Goodwill. "If you are born in the wrong body, you learn to make use of what you have."
In advance of the store's October opening, the job trainees had to spend a week working at another San Francisco Goodwill, while area Goodwill staff underwent transgender anti-bias training to minimize misunderstandings over pronoun and restroom usage.
For example, an employee presenting herself as a woman was to be addressed as "she" and directed to the women's room, no questions asked.
Like other thrift stores, the Castro donation center carries an eclectic mix of schlocky tschotskes, cast-off clutter, used clothing and priceless bargains. In a nod to the neighborhood clientele, the inventory includes a large selection of framed art, an array of blue jeans thoughtfully arranged with the waist sizes showing and a section devoted to pet wear, but no children's clothes. On Black Friday, the business was steady in holiday mugs and candle holders.
"I do most of our window displays, and I go out of my way to put men's slacks and dress shirts on a female mannequin and put the real fancy sequin dresses on a male body just because it is a gay neighborhood and I want to show people there is way more to gender than male and female," says a 20-year-old sales associate who goes by the name Mia TuMutch.
The Castro location is a temporary "pop-up" store that will close when the landlord, who has been letting Goodwill use the space for free, finds a paying tenant. Danielle Simmons, a spokeswoman for Goodwill Industries of San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin Counties, said the nonprofit hopes to use it as a model elsewhere both for employing transgender workers and occupying retail spaces that might otherwise sit empty and invite crime.
TuMutch hopes to find a public relations job when her stint with Goodwill ends. She says the contacts and interviewing skills she has gained in the meantime have been valuable.
"Having a reference I can use is a huge thing," she said. "When I moved to San Francisco, only one out of the 20 places I had worked before knew who I was now. The rest of my references are worthless because they are from people who may not support who I am."
The Transgender Economic Empowerment Initiative was launched as a joint project of the San Francisco LGBT Community Center, Jewish Vocational Services and the Transgender Law Center after a survey of nearly 650 transgender adults in California.
It found that despite being twice as likely to hold college degrees as state residents as a whole, the respondents also were twice as likely to be unemployed. Seventy percent of those surveyed reported having been discriminated against or harassed on the job.
Initiative coordinator Clair Farley said the barriers transgender people face in finding stable work can be both personal and political. California is one of only 12 states where it is illegal to fire someone based on his or her gender identity, meaning that workers may be vulnerable if they transition while on the job. Years of hormones and surgeries can cause health problems, and the decision to switch sexes can leave individuals estranged from their families, Farley said.
"If you've experienced that rejection and discrimination, you may go into a job interview assuming that's going to happen, which often reads to employers as lack of confidence," she said.
Scanlon's story is illustrative of such employment challenges. A college graduate, her resume includes stints as an Army mechanic, a horticulturist, a produce manager in a grocery store and as a sales clerk for a national clothing chain.
She said that after she started living as a woman in March 2008, a clothing chain colleague in South Carolina brought a sexual harassment complaint against her. The conflict arose after the colleague asked her if her breasts were real, she said. Rather than complain herself, Scanlon said she took the question as an invitation to discuss her gender transition honestly.
When her best friend and roommate lost her job, Scanlon moved to San Francisco earlier this year because of the city's reputation for being a welcoming place. She lived in homeless shelters until she received her first Goodwill paycheck.
"We live in such a disposable world, and a lot of what is disposed of is people," Scanlon said. "This girl in front of me, whether she is wearing pants or a dress, shouldn't make a difference."
While she mostly welcomes her new role as a community "ambassador" who enlarges the image of transgender people "by being competent," being a thrift store trailblazer is not without challenges. When she was learning the ropes at another store, a few co-workers made the mistake of calling Scanlon "sir" or "him." Tourists have pulled out their cameras and tried to snap her picture.
She tries to sound professional when she refuses to pose.
"I tell them, 'I'm not a joke. This is my life. Thanks for shopping at Goodwill.'"