Meet the queer mechanics working to fix a ‘toxic industry’
After eight years and almost twice as many jobs, El Scherker is done with the auto industry – or at least, that’s what they thought.
Scherker, who uses neutral pronouns, grew up with a grandmother who embodied the power of DIY. With her help, Scherker quickly learned how to repair an old Chevy van, fell in love with the process, and decided to pursue a career in auto repair. But store after store, their experience was largely characterized by transphobic harassment and confrontation, and it took its toll.
Scherker hit his breaking point in 2013. They sold most of their tools and found a job at a cafe in Seattle, where tips were good and cars were unimportant. But, like most detours, it didn’t last long. About a year later, after fixing a colleague’s car, they found themselves in an auto store again, and this time it was different – because the store that brought them back was owned by gay people.
“I walked in, talked to the owner, Eli, and was working on it the following week,” Scherker said. “Working there gave me the confidence to realize that I really wanted to stay in the industry. Eli was creating space for the people and customers who needed it, you know? And they’ve had a lot of patience with me from the start. Within a few weeks, I was working there full time.
This workshop was Repair Revolution, founded in Seattle in 2012 by mechanic Eli Allison. In an industry that Allison and Scherker both label as toxic masculinity and homophobia, Allison hopes Repair Revolution is an oasis – a place any kind of person, queer or not, can drive their cars without judgment. The space itself has an open layout for inviting people, and when it comes to staff, every mechanic who works there is female, queer, or both. For Scherker, it was a godsend, and the reason they are still in the industry today.
Scherker’s experience in the auto industry as a trans person is not unique. In their experience, on both sides of the counter, people who are visibly queer or who do not conform to traditional gender roles are not always welcome.
“I’ve been told if you want to be successful, put your head down, do well,” Allison, who uses neutral pronouns, said of their early days in the industry. “You have to work twice as hard. I was using a female name and feminine pronouns at the time, and it felt like I represented all women and queer people to them, so I had to prove that women can do this job. It was like you wanted to do that, you have to be okay with guys harassing you sexually in the tool room – just really crazy stuff. And every person I’ve interviewed for a female tech or queer job has had horrific stories of what they’ve gone through to be successful in this profession.
In 2017, a survey of 900 women working in the auto industry echoed Allison’s sentiments. Sixty-five percent of those surveyed said they had been subjected to unwanted sexual advances at some point in their career, and 80 percent of those surveyed said they had witnessed sexist behavior at least once at conferences outside of company or industry sites.
Jill Trotta, VP of Industry, Sales and Certification at RepairPal, an online network of repair shops, has been working with Women in Auto Care to address diversity and inclusion issues since 2013.
“The auto industry is really lacking in diversity in all its aspects,” she said. “I don’t think there has been any significant improvement over the past 30 years. With the climate in 2020, it has become very fashionable to talk about diversity and inclusion, but I’m interested to see if we can continue and lead this change.
Meanwhile, Allison’s decision to open her own store – instead of, say, just escaping the industry for good – was their way of answering a seemingly simple question: what if there was another way. ?
“Every day at least one customer tells us what an amazing experience it has been and how much they knew more about their car when they left this place than when they arrived,” they said. “That’s why we exist. It gives me hope that people are hungry for it.
After six years of working under Allison’s mentorship, Scherker moved south to Portland, Oregon, and opened his own store in 2020 called Stargazer Garage. They adopted Repair Revolution’s “people first” model, which emphasizes transparency, inclusiveness and accessibility above all else.
“We try from start to finish to build relationships with our customers,” Allison said. “I think as a gay owned business that exists to change this industry or at the very least disrupt it, we are for and by our community, you know? So that’s a whole different level of responsibility. This is my community that I work for. There is more at stake. ”
Every interaction with every customer is obviously different – in the same way every car is different. But Chaya Milchtein, a queer automotive educator, journalist and founder of Mechanic Shop Femme, said the guideline was education: allow customers to peek under the hood, literally. She sees this as a key ingredient to truly transforming the industry as a whole.
“Studies have shown that people who educate themselves on topics like cars are more self-sufficient and more willing to say ‘no’ when they walk into an auto repair shop and don’t feel respected,” a- she declared. “The most powerful way for us to make an impact is to say ‘no’ and refuse to give our business to people who intentionally disrespect us, or if they refuse to respect us after we have corrected them when ‘they do it unintentionally. “
Scherker said that at stores like Repair Revolution and Stargazer Garage, the power dynamic they had previously witnessed between mechanic and customer – which can leave an uneducated customer vulnerable to manipulation – is notably absent. Instead, they said that knowledge is freely exchanged between people, who all seem eager to learn.
Becca Houser started working at Stargazer Garage after buying a truck as a personal project and learning how to fix it. She said Scherker had taken her under their wing.
“El is very good at explaining things in a relatable way,” Houser said. “It’ll be like, here’s that intimidating thing, here’s this whole motor, and they’ll compare it to like… you make toast in the morning.” It’s just about taking the time to treat people with respect. We never want anyone to feel rejected.
Outside the walls of these decidedly non-traditional stores, mechanic Sarah Tilton says the industry as a whole has a long way to go.
Six years ago in Austin, Texas, Tilton founded Yes We Can Auto Repair, a mobile mechanic service, to bypass these environments. She’s the unofficial mechanic for the local dredging scene and sometimes gets calls at 2 or 3 a.m. from people who are stranded and don’t feel safe calling someone else.
“One of the [drag queens], he walked into a store and said it was like being back in high school, being bullied for being gay, ”Tilton said. “So I did a comparison quote and helped him, and it was a much better experience, a lot less traumatic. In an ideal world, it would be nice to see the industry change, for people to stop having these experiences. But I don’t see it changing anytime soon. “
Likewise, Milchtein does not recommend waiting for a change that may never come from mainstream and conservative stores.
“I think the most effective way to navigate the auto industry is not to hope that it will change to conform to our identities and needs,” she said.
As for Trotta, she says, little incremental advancements are already happening in the industry – if you know where to look. She cited the Center for Automotive Diversity, Inclusion and Advancement (often referred to as CADIA) as an example. The organization, which is the talk of Trotta at an upcoming panel, offers workshops, development training and certifications with the aim of doubling the number of diverse leaders in the automotive industry by 2030.
“There is certainly some resistance to changing the status quo,” she said. “But if we can continue these efforts, we will get there. Vote with your dollar. If there is a situation that you walk in and feel uncomfortable, think twice before spending your money there. “
Ultimately, the more environments that prioritize fairness and inclusiveness – within the auto industry and otherwise – the better, Trotta said. Operations like Repair Revolution, Stargazer Garage, and Yes We Can Auto Repair meet a need and eventually if other stores hope to attract LGBTQ customers, they will follow suit.
“I just wanna be ourselves, you know what I mean?” Scherker said. “And hopefully that radiates outward and people can see us running the store, being so weird and open and open and just who we are, and that draws other people in and lets them know who they are.” safe here. ”
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