Grayson Petty's no stranger to cars and their drivers: He serviced Toyotas and Hyundais for years. But until he became the service manager at the Autobarn Fiat of Evanston, he hadn't known about the LGBTQ community's clear affection for Fiats. "I think it's because they're tiny and cute," Petty said about the brand's models. "You see a lot of gay guys who come in here, but you also see a lot of trans people. That's a first for me. It's really fantastic."
Seeing Autobarn's diverse customer base made Petty, a transman, feel incredibly at home. In his previous jobs, Petty sensed that though his queerness might be tolerated, his trans identity might not. But in the 8 months he's worked at Autobarn, both coworkers and customers have been supportive, particularly through his recent name change.
"I got new business cards, I got a new email, I got new everything within like a week," Petty said. "I think it only took three weeks or so for people to start using proper pronouns. I've had a couple of customers call and ask for me by one name, and the advisers are great enough to just say, 'Oh, no; this is Grayson, and if they're confused, they're like, oh no, this is what's going on. Nobody is upset about it. A few people will even use the wrong name and they're like, oh, I'm sorry, and I'm like, you don't need to apologize."
Petty admitted he'd been "terrified" to change his name as work, but instead found he had nothing to fear. "I'm a manager here: I work with all men," he said. "Some of my guys used to be at Toyota with me, and they've known me as a different person. It's fantastic how everyone's just embraced it."
At Petty's previous job, he could sense coworkers' unease when he wore more masculine outfits. "Even though people said, "oh, you're queer, that's fine", they didn't care about that because I dressed girly," he recalled. "But as soon as I dressed masculine, it was more of a threat."
He started dressing in a more feminine style, but that led to internal discomfort, which he felt impacted his customer relations. Therefore, Petty understands why people hesitate to be open in a car dealership, but thinks that dealerships can do a lot to encourage people's openness.
"I think if you drive a Fiat and you know that it's a gay brand, then you feel comfortable just coming in here and being yourself," he said. "I have a couple of trans people who are customers, and they'll sit down with me, they'll have a conversation, and they can talk about whatever they want. You don't feel like you have to act some sort of way just because you're getting your car serviced."
While Fiat's gay-friendly reputation contributes to Petty's comfort with Autobarn, he also knows the business itself sends a strong message by employing him in such a high-level position.
"By Autobarn accepting me, it's a way to relay that to a customer without saying, hey, you're accepted," Petty explained. "From our technicians to our advisers, we represent everyone here. We're real people, and we really want to see you and know you. It's been a game changer for me. People might not know I'm trans right away, but they definitely [know I'm queer]. They see my relationship with the technicians, and they can feel that this is accepting."
Building personal relationships is an on-the-job priority for Petty: he will drop off cars for customers who live in his neighborhood, and some even text him about their diets. "You gravitate towards the people that you feel the most comfortable with," he said about working with LGBTQ customers. "If you have to go on a test drive with someone, you want to feel comfortable. I love coming to my job because I love my customers now, and I love getting to know them. There's quite a few customers that come in just because they feel comfortable here, and I love that so much. If your car is here for more than a day, I'm going to give you a call. I just want you to understand that your car is safe, and i want you to understand what's going on with it. "
Petty gave up pharmacy school to work in car dealerships: He likes the combination of working with both people and machines. He feels uniquely gifted to explain even the knottiest car situation to his customers, and credits being raised by a family of teachers and his single mom for his abilities.
"I have literally taken apart every single thing that's ever broken in my life, because I am that curious." Petty said with a laugh. [My mom] would teach me how to do stuff, and she'd be like, I don't know what's wrong with it but I know it's like this. My special gift is that I can put any car thing into layman's terms. I just want it to be clear and clean and cohesive. You don't need to understand the workings of an engine. Let me relate it to an oven and how it gets dirty. But, I have to get to know people to be able to explain it."
Seeing car mechanics swindle his mom instilled a strong sense of ethics in Petty. "I pride myself on this service center," he said. "I specifically picked my advisors and technicians because I know their integrity. I think authenticity and integrity are the number one factors in a dealership. Customers come in here and think they're getting ripped off, but you're paying for something that you're not doing yourself or you can't do yourself. Our whole business here is getting you to come back again. And if you feel like I [ripped you off], you're not going to come back here again, so it just doesn't make any sense to do it. "
He also wants customers to feel empowered and knowledgeable about their vehicle. "We want you to understand, and we don't want you to feel ripped off, so we'll teach you," he said. "We'll say, 'this is what we're going to do to your brakes. This is exactly how it comes apart.' If you want to learn, I want to teach you, and I have no problem taking a half hour to show you exactly what I'm about to do. I think a lot of people come in and they don't expect that, or they feel weird about asking. I just want people to know, "come in, ask me!"
The Autobarn service center isn't just for Fiats: Petty said they can work on any Chrysler brand. "I really want to service every kind of car because I want the gay community here," he said. "I really want to get to know more gay people. I'm just one of those people who wants to know everybody."
He specifically wanted to let trans people know they're welcome at Autobarn, although he finds sharing that message challenging on a personal level. "What does [trans-friendly] even mean?" he asked rhetorically. "I don't know how to say, hey, we're trans friendly. I'd like to bring in trans people. I'm not entirely sure on how to do that, but I'd love it."
Inclusive reputation aside, why does Petty recommend Fiat? "It's not a really expensive car," he explained. "You're looking at most, $20,000. It is literally the tinest car on the outside and the biggest on the inside. It's great for the city."
His advice for deciding on a car: take it to a service center, have them do a demo, and get to know it for a day or two. "You let it sit, you drive it again, you get to actually know it like it's your car, and usually if you're interested in it, I"m not going to be like, hey come back immediately. If you want to test drive it, I'm really not upset about it. That's what the car is here for. Try it out. Try it out five times, we don't care, because we want you to feel comfortable in it and want you to come back."
It's the total Autobarn package that has Petty madly in love with his job. "In my experience, this is the best dealership," he said. "I have a lot of customers here who were at other dealerships, and they didn't like what was going on there. They came to us because there aren't a lot of other Fiat dealerships out there, and it just breaks my heart. I know it's silly, because a lot of people don't spend time with their car dealership, but I live and breathe cars. I just want people to want to come here, if for no other reason than to get a cup of coffee and say hey."
Learn more at FiatUSAOfEvanston.com or RF2K.com .