Dropping Gender Norms Can Make the Drinks Industry More Inclusive

These basic steps can benefit LGBTQ+ guests and workers alike—they’re also at the heart of hospitality

As bartenders, we’ve redeveloped our verbiage on cocktails and gender over the past five years or so. We’ve removed that patronizing tone that dictates who drinks what. We no longer think of our brown-and-stirred’s as “manly” or describe anything served in a coupe, or tinted pink, as “girly.”

We’ve come to largely accept, thankfully, that drinks are, in fact, without gender. Drinks are drinks. This is true whether they’ve been flourished with a paper umbrella and an orchid, or subtly poured over a single large cube of crystal-clear ice. Our language for describing cocktails has crept into the way our guests think about drinks as well.

And as drinks are drinks, people are people—and people have all kinds of different genders and gender identities. If our industry and businesses hope to be inclusive of everyone under the LGBTQ+ umbrella, one easy step we all could take would be to respect and celebrate those various gender expressions.

We know that inclusion is a key component to practicing good hospitality, yet we often alienate trans and gender-nonconforming folks by casually reinforcing rigid gender roles. It can be through seemingly harmless gestures, like the language we use when greeting guests. We can make assumptions about people’s gender based on how we perceive them, greeting a table with “Good evening, ladies,” or taking an order by asking, “Sir, what would you like?” These conventional greetings, no matter how well intentioned, fail many of our guests.

Habitually gendering (and by extension, guessing the gender of) all customers will inevitably lead to misgendering someone, making that person feel uncomfortable at best and, at worst, that their identity has been rejected. We need to reconsider some of the practices we’ve come to accept as industry standards. Learning to employ gender-neutral language when addressing people you don’t know can help you avoid misgendering. (Some bars and restaurants have taken things a step further by asking patrons to employ such language when addressing staff.)

As transgender individuals’ access to restrooms has been politicized in recent years, another easy step bars can take is to implement gender-neutral restrooms. Not only does this ensure that all guests in your establishment feel comfortable, but on a crowded weekend night—where a gendered bathroom may have a line while the other goes unused—gender-neutral restrooms can prove to be an efficient business decision.

Taking these steps helps to ensure a safe and welcoming environment not just to guests but to staff as well. Respecting an individual’s preferred pronouns (she/her, he/him, they/them), refraining from making assumptions about gender, and providing an inclusive restroom environment are all keys to retaining LGBTQ+ and other gender-nonconforming employees. And when your staff represents a cross-section of genders, sexualities, races, and cultural backgrounds, you’re also sending a signal to the patrons who visit your bar: You’re telling your guests that their representation and visibility are important.

What these policies are not about is erasing or neutralizing individuals’ identities. Adapting gender-neutral practices allows us to celebrate and recognize different gender expressions along a spectrum and helps us be open to doing the same with race, ability, and class. We can hold tightly—and wrongly—on to what we have known, or we can work to create environments that are ready to greet the future. We have an opportunity to push bars forward, and we can help to push the larger hospitality culture forward too. To this day, bars are significant spaces for LGBTQ+ people—and historically, bars have been one of the few public spaces where trans and gender-nonconforming people could feel affirmed. There’s no reason that all bars can’t work toward achieving that same feeling today.

At its core, the mission of Chicago Style, the gathering we’ve organized in Chicago this May, is to address social problems, including sexism, substance abuse, and a lack of diversity in bartending. Our goal is to create spaces that are hospitable to all, from those who work behind our bars to those who sit at them. Adapting gender-neutral language and restrooms are just two ways of saying, “You are welcome here”—which can be a more radical act than we often give it credit for.

Organized by Caitlin Laman (Ace Hotel Chicago), Sharon Bronstein (The 86 Co., Chicago), and Shelby Allison (Lost Lake, Chicago), Chicago Style is a gathering and dialogue centered on the state of our cocktail community. It takes place in Chicago, from May 7 through 10.