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Sis, the Closet Queen

Strong woman

We were really busy … doing a lot of kitchens, baths, and small house remodels. Dave was managing most of the ordering, layouts, and subcontractor organization and he needed someone on site to handle the day-to-day carpentry and supervision.

Agnes arrived in response to a Help Wanted ad.

“Sis,” as she called herself, was deep into the journeyman phase of the trade when she arrived at the office for the interview. Her work experience fit the bill for the type of mechanic we were looking for.

At this time in the construction world, women carpenters were rare. There was obvious sexism in the industry that prevented many women from entering and succeeding in a long apprenticeship. And, some of the tasks required a degree of physical strength that surpassed the average female. A ¾” sheet of plywood is ornery and heavy.

Our rapport was easy from the start as I asked the obvious questions, like “What type of work have you mastered?” and “Can you install a mortise lock?” Then I asked her another more pointed question… “How do you feel about working mostly with men?” This question applied to our own crew as well as the various subcontractors we interfaced with on site. Sis answered: “No problem.” Due to liberal and progressive company values, our carpenters were an open-hearted sort so I felt if Sis was comfortable and confident she would do just fine. Sis was direct and honest and her references were good, so I hired her and put her to work.

In some ways, Sis was the best of the bunch. Everyone she worked with, even the most sexist guys, liked and respected her. And her time sheets never charged for an hour she didn’t earn, even if she had to do something over, a rare quality indeed.

Uptight client

I received an interesting phone call one day from the wife of a very conservative client. She informed me that she wasn’t happy with “that woman carpenter” and would I please replace her with “a real carpenter.” In fact, she wanted Sis off the job immediately! Sis was on site, doing the type of detail work she loved: closet interiors, cabinet installations, trim work. I knew it wasn’t a quality issue … no way … as by that time I knew her work to be top drawer.

So when I drove to the job site to check out the circumstances, I found Sis outside beside her red Tercel waiting patiently for me.

“Hey Sis, what’s going on?” I asked.

The normally even-tempered Sis was clearly insulted by what had happened and said,

“I guess that woman has a problem with my lifestyle.”

Of course I knew that Sis was gay; her partner Natasha was at the company Christmas party that year. Sis had a likable, open personality. In fact, Sis often called herself the “Closet Queen” … a joke about her carpentry preferences as well as a self-effacing way of letting the world know and get comfortable with the obvious.

So that day I sent Sis off to work on another site and she dovetailed in her usual gracious way. Switching carpenters to satisfy the client was no big deal unless I made it one … and as Don Juan, the Yacqui sorcerer, said to Carlos in A Journey to Ixtlan,

“Never confront a human bluntly.”

At one point during one of Sis’ bigger projects, a tough tradesman working on the job pulled me aside. He wanted to tell me that he had never worked with a better site supervisor that Sis. I think this actually said more about him than her. In her own way, by just being herself, Sis was demonstrating that it’s not what we are, but rather who we are – that matters most.

Sis’ knees eventually got too tired to bear the daily load of carpentry. She went on to teach set design in a nearby public school system.

Oh, and, Sis and Natasha got “married” before civil ceremonies were legal in any state. Sis was a real pioneer.