Lesly Herrera Castillo. Photos by Alyza Enriquez.
Lesly Herrera Castillo has perfect, long blond hair and flawless, mascaraed eyelashes. She’s a beauty expert, but, she said, she has always faced challenges working at beauty salons. Castillo is trans, and when she first moved from Mexico to the United States in 1999, she was undocumented.
In Mexico, Castillo was rejected from job after job because she’s trans, before becoming a beautician. “I never wanted to be a cosmetologist or whatever, but there were no more options for me,” she told Broadly.
Castillo went to beauty school and worked at salons in the city of Hermosillo, but eventually fled due to police violence. When she moved to New York at 29, surviving day to day wasn’t easy, recalls Castillo, especially since her Mexican cosmetology license wasn’t recognized in the US. After a few months, she landed a job at a beauty salon in Brooklyn through a friend. She has worked in salons ever since, but not without issue.
Castillo said she has frequently been treated as lesser than her salon colleagues for being trans. She remembers clients dropping hints that she didn’t know anything about women’s hair, or making repeated comments about her having large hands. She also said that former bosses held her to higher standards than her coworkers, especially those who were documented.
“When I talked to my boss [about my coworkers], I said, ‘Why do you let these people work here? They come in late. They don’t help with the cleaning,” she recalled. “But they had [cosmetology] licenses. Those ladies were born here. They were citizens. It was different.”
In 2014, Castillo received asylum status. That same year, she was diagnosed with colon cancer, Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and breast cancer all at once. At various salon jobs she held in the following years, she says that she could never take a day off to see a doctor, was not allowed to leave early, and was constantly afraid she would be fired. “I never had time.”
Experiencing harsh working conditions and repeated two-fold discrimination has compelled Castillo to join two other trans immigrant women, Joselyn Mendoza and Linda Dominguez, to start a trans workers’ cosmetology cooperative, called the Mirror Trans Beauty Coop, in Queens, New York. Becoming a co-op will mean that the women will split pay equally and be their own bosses. The co-op is starting small, with just the three women working collectively in homes or at events. But when the women get together, their conversations quickly turn to expanding, welcoming more people of every gender, and inspiring other cooperatives like their own.
Discrimination in the workplace is one of the primary obstacles that transgender Americans face, especially immigrants and people of color. And it has the potential to worsen. The 2015 US Transgender Survey found that employment discrimination was higher for trans Latinx people than white trans people, reporting that 27 percent of trans Latinx people faced mistreatment at work due to their gender identity, and 29 percent were denied a job or a raise or fired because they were transgender.
Under Federal Title VII law, it is illegal to fire or deny employment to someone based on their sex. Since 2012, this has been interpreted by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as including gender identity and sexual orientation, meaning trans employees are protected under the law. Last October, however, the Trump administration’s Justice Department attempted to challenge this definition by filing a brief arguing that the Supreme Court should rule that discrimination on the basis of gender identity is different from discrimination on the basis of sex, and therefore legal. It was also reported that the Trump administration is pushing for a new understanding of gender under Title IX laws, which protect against gender discrimination in education programs, as defined solely by the genitalia one is born with.
Many cities and states have specific anti-discrimination laws in place to protect trans workers. Since 2015, New York City has had strict regulations to this effect: Employers must use someone’s expressed name and pronouns, they can’t enforce a dress code that has gendered differences, and they must let people use the bathroom that matches the gender with which they identify.
These laws aren’t always enough to protect trans workers. “In my many years of experience, what I’ve found is that the laws only prohibit the most overt kinds of discrimination,” Jill Weiss, an attorney who has worked on trans employment rights for 18 years, told Broadly.
Castillo and her colleagues hope a cooperative work structure, in which members equally own a business and split the earnings, will circumvent race- and gender-based inequities. The women meet once a week at the Queens LGBT Center (Q-Center) to collectively plan the co-op’s launch. Last September, they began a five-month training program given by Greenworkers Co-op Academy, which aims to teach people how to structure a business and fundraise, as well as offers networking opportunities.
“In my previous work, I was exploited; I worked overtime for minimum wage,” Joselyn Mendoza said at a meeting of the nascent collective, speaking in Spanish through translator and friend Daniel Puerto. Mendoza was previously employed as a dishwasher, a job at which, she says, she was always pressured to work more hours than her cisgender colleagues.
Mendoza rattles off the benefits of creating a co-op: They would be able to share wages fairly, determine their own schedules, and pick their own clients—meaning they wouldn’t have to serve people who are rude to them based on their identities. They would no longer have to miss English classes or doctor’s appointments, and could schedule around them. Maybe they could contract for weddings or quinceañeras, maybe, eventually, for television shows, she mused. “That’s why we must have this co-op. To give opportunities to trans women like us.”
Lesly Herrera Castillo.
LGBTQ and immigrant co-ops around the country are organizing with many of the same goals as Castillo, Mendoza, and Dominguez: taking control of their schedules and pay and fighting workplace discrimination. “A co-op should practice a more just economy, where everyone has the same value,” says Heloisa Maria Galvão, founder of the Vida Verde Brazilian domestic cleaners’ cooperative in Boston. “It’s different from enterprise, where the structure is a triangle with a CEO at the top.”
Vida Verde was founded in 2006 with the mission of raising awareness about the widespread exploitation of immigrant domestic workers. Every month, Vida Verde workers give 20 percent of their earnings to the co-op to pay for an office, a coordinator’s salary, babysitters for meetings, and, sometimes, a stipend if a member of the coop falls sick and cannot work. The co-op is not currently run by a domestic worker, but Galvão says she hopes it will be one day.
The Black and Brown Workers Cooperative in Philadelphia has similar goals, but a different model. Born in 2016 as a sort of union for workers at LGBTQ charities, the co-op creates campaigns to remove bosses accused of sexual harassment and raise awareness of racism in the workplace. “These co-ops are one way to be in charge of our means of production,” said one of the founders, Shani Akilah. “We’ve been socialized in a white supremacist society that works on an individualistic model. We need spaces we can create for ourselves.”
In search of such independence, Castillo stopped working at salons in 2014, and has since been working ad-hoc jobs, cutting hair and dyeing highlights in homes, making ends meet as she waits for the collective advertising and bargaining power of her future co-op.
In the past few weeks, the women came up with a mission statement for their project: “Mirror seeks to reflect a vision for a more inclusive and equitable world in which all people have the freedom to fully express all that which makes them beautiful inside and out.”
Next week, the Mirror Trans Beauty Coop will take their first step towards expanding: meeting with two other women who have applied to become members. They will soon discuss if they want to incorporate as a limited liability company, a corporation, or something else. They expect they will begin working as a coop by the summer of 2019.
Above all, Castillo wants this co-op to inspire other women like her: “We want this power for other transgender people to make a co-op for cleaning, or a co-op for—I don’t know what else.” Perhaps, Castillo says, co-ops are the way for all LGBTQ people to have “good options for a better future, and a better life.”