by Emmanuel David
Not long after I started fieldwork in Manila to learn more about gender relations at global call centers, I interviewed Dara, a Filipina manager who works for an account that serves wireless customers in the global North. As we sat at a Starbucks inside an air-conditioned megamall sheltered from the heat, traffic, and crowds outside, she told me that at the call center where she works, there were more men in technical support and more women in customer service, an observation fairly consistent with Philippine Census data about uneven gender ratios in the business process outsourcing industry. But 15 minutes into the hour-long interview, Dara said something that surprised me.
“Most men in call centers are gay,” she said with a laugh.
“Why do you think that is?” I asked.
“Because of the [call center] culture. We accept gay in this industry.” She continued by telling me that some of the gay men would take phone calls using women’s names and aliases, especially if they had high-pitched voices. Describing daily interactions with coworkers, Dara added that “they are the fun in the team.”
At the end of our conversation, Dara agreed to put me in touch with potential interviewees. One of those on the list was Angel. When Angel and I set up our meeting through a series of text messages, she disclosed, “well I’m a pre op transsexual.” I soon realized that the employees Dara had described as “gay” referred to themselves using quite different language. As I spoke with Angel about her call center experiences –– working the night shift, taking calls, chasing sales, managing emotion, making colleagues laugh –– she described herself repeatedly not as gay (a common English translation for the Filipino gender-sexuality category bakla, a term fraught with negative connotations), but as transsexual.
As my interviewee pool spiraled outwards, I met many more transgender Filipina women –– nearly forty –– working in call centers. They told a fairly consistent narrative about seeking call center employment because of the relatively high wages and the promise of more inclusive workplaces with corporate non-discrimination policies. I heard stories about how call centers provided “decent” alternatives to jobs typically available to trans women in the Philippines: parlorista, make-up artist, entertainer, or sex worker. Some interviewees told me that employment in other sectors they deemed respectable, such as banking or government, would require them to dress and act like men, and in some cases, to cut their long hair.
While my interviewees praised the global outsourcing industry for providing them new and respectable opportunities, I began to see another side to the story. The emerging concentration of transgender laborers in this industry seemed to be creating new, historically specific forms of gender inequality. Sometimes, these trans women were densely clustered in particular worksites; and sometimes, they were systematically dispersed across the operations floor or subjected to forms of job segregation justified by managers for surprising reasons. Interactionally, these workers were often expected to be fun –– that is, stereotypically comical and entertaining –– so as to put their coworkers and customers at ease. I began to conclude that by doing this unpaid gendered labor, itself a survival technique in an employment context where trans inclusion was conditional, trans women created a specific form of value for multi-national companies. They served as emotional shock absorbers whose cheerful gender performances cut through the nightshift’s drudgery and relieved tensions created by irate customers, who are sometimes racist and often just plain mean.
Because call centers are highly feminized workplaces where employees routinely perform emotional labor, I tried to make sense of my interviews using the “pink-collar” metaphor. But the concept didn’t fully capture the transgender dynamics taking shape. I came up with the “purple collar” concept to account for the trans-specific character of my respondents’ interactional work and their spatial distribution in the workplace. The purple collar concept focuses on how trans people become grouped, dispersed, or segregated in particular workplaces and how forms of value are produced and extracted from the practice of “doing transgender.” This research highlights the links between trans-inclusion and the expansion of global capital, and I hope that it also enriches our understanding of the emotional conditions and lived experiences of those on the other end of the line.
Emmanuel David is assistant professor of Women and Gender Studies and codirector of the LGBTQ Certificate Program at the University of Colorado Boulder. His article, “Purple-Collar Labor: Transgender Workers and Queer Value at Global Call Centers in the Philippines,” is forthcoming in Gender & Society and currently available through OnlineFirst. To read the article, click here.