It’s time for more airlines to recognize trans crew members
When ‘Qantana’ and her entourage of air hostesses took to the Sydney cricket ground for the gay and lesbian Mardi Gras parade in March, she wore a sparkling, sequined version of the familiar Qantas uniform designed by Paris-based Australian Martin Grant.
Male flight attendants wore silver shorts.
I wished for a fleeting moment that all Qantas crew were dressed the same. It would certainly make long-haul flights less boring. But the attendants themselves wouldn’t thank me.
I have it from a good source, it won’t happen any time soon.
But it wouldn’t be the first time in history that cabin crew have worn clothes more suited to the disco than the cockpit. In 1965, the American airline Braniff hired Italian designer Emilio Pucci to create futuristic uniforms for its flight attendants, which reflected a youthful and funky image.
The uniform included miniskirts in trippy colors, bright green calfskin boots with orange stripes, and a domed helmet, which was removed in the cabin. The attendants also did an “Air Strip” mid-flight, stripping off their outer uniforms to reveal the sexy mini.
I can’t imagine that happening today, thankfully. But it does make the idea of sequined Qantas uniforms less outrageous.
The first flight attendants of the 1930s were nurses and dressed in crisp white uniforms, capes and flat brogues. During World War II, uniforms became more military to reflect authority. Throughout 1950s domestic life, flight attendants played the perfect housewife, fluffing pillows, pouring martinis and soothing babies. In the 60s they were groovy Jet Set dolls and in the 70s they were sexy cocktail waitresses, “with geisha instructions”, as Gloria Steinem put it. In the 1980s, uniforms reverted to the company skirt or pantsuit, and not much has changed since.
Men only make up about 15% of flight attendants worldwide, so we tend to think of women’s outfits when we talk about cabin crew uniforms. But what about those who don’t align with traditional gender norms?
Trans people are not yet well represented in airline hiring policies, although most Western airlines have declared anti-discrimination policies.
In 2012, private Thai airline PC Air made headlines when it hired four kathoey, or “ladyboys”, as cabin crew for its international flights. Skip a few years and Kayleigh Scott became United Airline’s first trans flight attendant in 2019. Cebu Pacific Air of the Philippines hired two transgender flight attendants the same year. It is possible that trans people are quietly working on other airlines without fanfare.
However, you won’t find them in the cabins of airlines based in the Middle East and some in Asia. Countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar, and the United Arab Emirates specifically ban transgender identity.
Airlines that accept transgender cabin crew have protections in place when flying into countries where they may face discrimination and where their passport shows a different gender than how they present themselves.
When it comes to uniforms, trans women and trans men don’t really have a problem because they wear the uniform of their chosen gender. But there are a growing number of gender non-binary people who don’t want the choices to be limited to either men or women and are uncomfortable with both.
Last year, non-binary Alaskan Airlines attendant Justin Wetherell filed a human rights complaint against his employer, arguing that it was discriminatory for the airline to require all agents board conform to a “female” or “male” category. The American Civil Liberties Union supported their claim.
Just last week, the airline announced that it had updated its guidelines “to provide more freedom and flexibility in individual and gender expression”. This involves more gender-neutral clothing choices. Nail polish, make-up, two earrings per ear, one nose piercing and tattoos are now allowed as “expression options” available to all employees.
Icelandic airline PLAY also dresses officers in a gender-neutral uniform consisting of pants, t-shirts, Nike sneakers and puffer jackets, not so different from their “civilian” clothes.
This seems to be progress. After all, some airlines still have a strict culture on the weight of flight attendants, weighing them randomly and forcing them to diet. Just two years ago, Virgin Atlantic flight attendants won a battle to be makeup-free at work. Currently, flight attendants are asking Iberia to drop “sexist” uniform requirements, including high heels.
I suspect Qantana and its crew may want a conversation about keeping heels.
See also: Push for Qantas to drop ‘uniform gender-based requirements’