Non-binary mechanic gives traditional garage culture a 21st-century tune-up

Mechanic Kai Dean of Merrickville, Ont., has started up a mobile garage offering not just automotive services, but also a space that's safe from bigotry, abuse and misgendering.

'I'm happy to be visible for those who can't be,' Merrickville's Kai Dean says

Mechanic Kai Dean, 36, is non-binary. Dean launched The Roaming Ratchet after hearing that some people in the queer community felt uncomfortable going to more traditional garages. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

A mechanic from Merrickville, Ont., has launched a mobile garage service with a twist: Along with tune-ups and oil changes, Kai Dean's business, The Roaming Ratchet, also promises a safe and welcoming space for the region's LGBT community. 

"I'm a non-binary human, so that means I don't identify as a man or a woman. Yes, we exist," said Dean, 36, who has worked in the automotive trade for more than a decade and knows that some people are ill at ease in a traditional garage setting.

"There are a lot of people in the queer community who find that a struggle," said Dean. "[They're] not … OK with being addressed as 'sir' or 'ma'am.' They're being gendered based on how they're presenting, and that's a very old way of looking at things."

'Pronouns, name and gender [will be] respected'

1 year ago
Non-binary mechanic Kai Dean offers a mobile garage service that's also a safe space for Ottawa's LGBT community. 2:00

Dean, who uses the pronoun they/them, has experienced sexism and misgendering from employers, colleagues and clients. Once, when Dean was sweeping the shop, they heard a co-worker say, "Oh, you'll make someone a great wife one day." Another time it was, "You lift pretty well for not being a guy."

"I've had people screaming at me from the waiting room," said Dean. "I've had older men angry that someone non-male is working on their vehicle."

I'm happy to be visible for those who can't be.- Kai Dean

Dean's pitch on The Roaming Ratchet Facebook page promises "pronouns, name and gender [will be] respected." 

"Some people who are non-binary are fine with using his or her pronouns. I personally go by they/them pronouns, so I get misgendered almost every single day of my life. But that's part of the world we live in right now," Dean said.

"Generally, if I call, I have a bit of a higher voice. So someone will say, 'How can I help you, ma'am?' Today I was picking up oil … to do the oil change. I was called 'sir' at the desk getting parts. I'm used to it."

Dean prepares to perform an oil change on a vehicle in Vanier. The Roaming Ratchet's Facebook post offering 'queer-focused' automotive service has gone viral. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

The idea for The Roaming Ratchet came to Dean after talking with friends in the queer community and realizing there was a need.

"I shared [the idea] on my personal Facebook page. I thought I might get 30 likes … and have a few jobs leading up to the winter," said Dean. Now, the page has more than 2,100 likes, and growing.

Dean finishes up after an oil and filter change on a car in Vanier. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

"People have reached out to me from all around North America. There are some folks who are hoping I am actually in Ottawa in the States, and not in Ottawa, Canada," Dean said.

"Some of their stories are about having negative experiences, whether being misgendered or … talked down to at a garage," said Dean. "A lot of younger trans and non-binary folks … are really grateful to see themselves represented in the community. That was the part that got me the most. I'm happy to be visible for those who can't be."

And it's not only non-binary or LGBT people who are reaching out. "A lot of cisgender folks [are] just being incredibly supportive, or [perhaps] have somebody in their life that is trans or queer," said Dean.

The Roaming Ratchet has been flooded with requests for work. Now there's a waiting list, and Dean is turning down business. 

"I'm so glad that I was on the right track," said Dean. "I was never in this to … make money. I just wanted to fill a niche.... This isn't a marketing ploy. I'm trying to help people who need it."

Dean is happy to work with allies who aren't transgender or non-binary, but reserves the right to refuse clients who disrespect the community. "I won't tolerate hate speech or bigotry. Anybody who is respectful, I am happy to help out."

And there were some hateful posts on The Roaming Ratchet page. "A handful," said Dean. "Small stuff. There's always some." 

'It's been a long journey of self discovery, and I've always identified with the phoenix,' Dean said of this tattoo. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Earlier this week, as Dean performed an oil and filter change on a small car in Vanier, the T-shirt they were wearing revealed a large, colourful phoenix tattooed across one arm.

"It's been a long journey of self-discovery, and I've always identified with the phoenix. A 10-years-in-the-making gift to myself," Dean said of the tattoo. "Hopefully I won't muck it up working on cars."

At a minimum, Dean hopes to help raise more awareness about gender neutral pronouns. 

"When you're … assumed to be something that you're not, it does take a toll psychologically," said Dean. "It depends on the day whether I feel like saying, 'Hey, I'm non-binary and I go by they/them,' or, 'Please don't call me ma'am.' Some days I'm up for it and some days I just don't have it in me. That's just life for a lot of folks."

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