Three mannequins stand in the front window at JQ Clothing on Commercial Drive. Two of them are female while one is male and wearing a polka dot dress.
Shop owner Corina Peterson is responsible for this idea. She’s trying to be inclusive, one dress at a time because she wants people in the beginning stages of gender transition to feel welcome in her store.
“I was racking my brain trying to think of a way … to tell men that this was a safe space,” said Peterson. “Then I thought, ‘Oh yeah, I can put a male mannequin in my window.’”
Peterson hopes that people in transition will identify with the mannequin and feel comfortable entering and shopping in her store. It’s her way of acknowledging a small, vulnerable and excluded part of Vancouver’s population.
It’s hard to tell how many people exactly are in this population because many people won’t acknowledge their identity publicly because of the stigma, says Elizabeth Saewyc, the executive director of the Stigma and Resilience Among Vulnerable Youth Centre.
Regardless of the low numbers, Peterson hopes Vancouverites will benefit in other ways by becoming more aware of gender diversity and expanding beyond gender dichotomies.
“One time a little boy came in with his mom. And he’s like ‘Hey, that boy has a dress on. Boys can’t wear dresses.’”
Her customers’ reactions, however, said otherwise. Before she knew it, her customers began to engage the little boy in a conversation about gender stereotypes.
“As he was leaving,” said Peterson. “I remember him saying: ‘Maybe I can wear a dress too.’”
Peterson said that these types of conversations are what she envisioned for the store. She said that in Vancouver she’s seen a lot of discrimination and hopes that the mannequin will shift perspectives and enable real and lasting change.
Welcoming environments signify safety for all genders
People who are living on the front line of change say a small gesture like the mannequin is the first step in signifying a welcoming and accepting space.
Morgane Oger is one of those people. As the vice-president of the B.C. NDP, a trans rights activist and an open trans woman, Oger notes that she appreciates when stores try to be inclusive.
However, Oger emphasised that stores need to push further and recognise there’s a difference between being trans inclusive and trans welcoming.
She described some of her own shopping experiences in other stores as an example.
“I’ve been noticing lately how I get followed around by security,” said Oger. “And I didn’t use to get followed. And I’m allowed to use the store, but I still get followed.”
People will often judge trans people by their appearance. Whether unconsciously or consciously, they might also treat them differently based on preconceived notions of trustworthiness.
Oger notes that this is one of the many challenges of shopping as a trans person. Although she has the right to be in the store, a store employee’s conduct or actions might demonstrate that they are not that open to having trans customers on the premises.
This sentiment was also iterated by frequent JQ clothing customer Katie. As a gender-nonconforming person, Katie recognises the positive impact that the mannequin can make for different gender identities and expressions, but also mentioned that store interactions with employees are what truly make a difference.
“Having the trans flag sticker on your storefront tells me that I can probably talk to your sales staff directly about what I am looking for and not have to try to hide as much.”
Katie also mentioned that staff training is also essential so that employees have a better understanding of how trans customers want to be approached. This type of training may enable stores to cater to customers who have been underserved in the past. It, however, can present new challenges as employees will now need to understand best practices of how to approach customers.
“If the salesperson outright asked whether I was shopping for myself or someone else, that may indicate that they are welcoming of me and willing to help,” Katie said. “If I went to a store that was open and welcoming that way, I would absolutely go back and support them with my business.”
At JQ Clothing, Peterson said that this is something she practices. Once a transitioning customer came into her store and asked if they could try on a bra.
“It kind of developed from there,” Peterson said. “And when men came in [after that], I didn’t assume anymore that they were shopping for their wives or their girlfriends. Now it’s just as simple as saying: ‘You can try that on if you want,’ and they get so excited.”
Gender inclusivity goes digital
JQ Clothing, however, is not alone. Other stores have made the leap to consciously be more inclusive by catering to the needs of trans people.
The Breast Form Store is a good example. Today it’s well known in the trans community for providing expert fittings and wardrobe makeovers, but it didn’t start that way.
“My mom used to have a mastectomy store in Vancouver, and she would have local guys call and would want to come in for a fitting and buy breast forms,” said store manager Tamar Jorssen.
“And slowly and slowly the word got out that she was a good, safe woman to come and talk to.”
Jorssen dad began to research what was available online. He discovered that some brands sold products for trans people but were not openly talking about it in their stores or online.
He felt that the lack of consideration was unfair and decided to post a 1-800 number online so that anyone could contact the store privately. Jorssen said that the business flourished after that.
“We became the place to go to, and we’ve now gone into manufacturing,” Jorssen said.
Manufacturing has allowed the Breast Form Store the opportunity to perform custom fittings. This in part should help to address the gendered sizing dilemma that most trans people face. For trans women, women’s clothing tends to be too small for them while for trans men, men’s clothing tends to be too large.
Jorssen notes that custom fittings have made a difference for people. In the past few years, they’ve done multiple makeovers for a number of clients.
“We’ve listened to our customers as to what they’ve wanted over the years to make sure they get the proper fit that suits them best and make[s] them look as natural as possible.”