February 23, 2024

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The Trans Handy Ma’am: the home repair TikToker championing renters | Renting property

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In April 2021, Mercury Stardust, a Wisconsin maintenance technician, was “cleaning someone else’s poop off myself” after a clogged toilet came apart. She happened to see a video of someone asking how to use a ratchet strap, one of those complicated-looking thingummies often used to tie down cargo. As soon as she tidied up, the 33-year-old responded as digital natives often do: she recorded an instructional video, wearing a (clean) flannel shirt and overalls while skillfully handling the tool in question.

The minute-long video introduced her signature enthusiastic and encouraging patter, ending with: “Learning something new is a triumph, and I’m proud of you.”

It was TikTok that launched a burgeoning media empire. Today, as the Trans Handy Ma’am, Stardust has more than 2 million TikTok followers of her DIY home repair videos and a New York Times bestseller, Safe and Sound: A Renter-Friendly Guide to Home Repair. The book is a unique hybrid: part unconventional trans memoir, part renters’ manifesto and part self-help guide.

When we sat down on an October evening at the anarchist Firestorm Books co-op in Asheville, North Carolina, she was on stop 24 of a 52-city tour – and driving across the country to make every date. Stardust, whose name is a mashup of the queer icons Freddie Mercury and David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust alter ego, was tired. Very tired, but also very, very surprised that giving advice about fixing a stripped screw hole with toothpicks could go viral.

When first approached about doing a book, she recalled: “The first thing I said is ‘I want it to be for renters,’ and it was such a big pushback for that. Everyone was like, ‘I don’t know. Is there really a market for it?’”

This despite the fact that millions of Americans rent (even the US Census Bureau can’t say how many; the best guess is a third of US residents at any given time). All those people need to know whether painting is allowed and who’s responsible for what repairs.

Stardust went on to tell her potential publishing collaborators: “My problem is if you believe in me or not; that’s what it comes down to. If you want to work with me, we’re gonna [center renters and her expertise]. And we’re gonna do it because trans people are not allowed most of the time to exist outside of their transness, right?”

Viewers of Stardust’s home repair videos are not only getting effective repair advice, they’re getting it from someone who clearly is more than her trans identity. In the comments section of her videos she’s frequently asked: “Why does it matter that you’re trans? Can’t you just do the work without bringing all that up?”

In an October 2021 TikTok, she explained that her home repair videos are also conscious advocacy for the trans community. “When you learn from a trans woman, then you are taking knowledge from me and using it in your everyday life; that’s a lot of power,” she said. “So, in turn, when you use the knowledge I’m giving you, and someone asks you, ‘Oh, my God, who’d you learn that from?’ You have to say: the Trans Handy Ma’am. That helps a lot.”

Growing up in rural Wisconsin, Stardust learned home repair from her father, a farmhand and truck driver. She has never viewed such tasks as gendered, especially as she was equally drawn to feminine-identified things such as makeup and playing with dolls. She became involved in theater while in college, going on to become a cabaret and burlesque performer and teacher on weekends, first as a man in a woman’s world, then as a woman in a woman’s world. To pay the bills, she worked during the week as a maintenance technician.

Stardust has found notable similarities between these two important elements of her life. She mused that people often had difficulties learning both home repair and burlesque, in dealing with stripped screw holes and stripping, if you will. In most cases, she feels this stems from a lack of confidence and the belief you can actually do something. So, as Stardust said, when you’re helping someone learn a new skill, you are “walking around emotional landmines and you have no idea where they are”.

Even as a renter, Stardust said repeatedly, your home is still your home. Writing Safe and Sound drew from her life as the longtime renter, sometimes squatter, home-maintenance expert and trans woman that she is or has been. Those identities and experiences, including having her own rented home broken into twice, mean that more than anything, Mercury Stardust wants you to feel safe.

She points out that renters often have the unique concern that lots of people have keys to their home: the owner, the building supervisor, the maintenance staff, the previous tenants. So she has advice on things such as how to add supplemental door locks that don’t require drilling or modifying the door frame – without endangering the security deposit.

What she saw as an overall disregard for renters led Stardust to leave her job as a maintenance technician after 15 years – just months after that first video – and become a full-time content creator. In August 2021, in a video message to her followers, she said: “I refuse to work for a workplace that sees tenants as animals, and who sees tenants as lesser-than, as if they’ve failed the system by being renters and not property owners.”

Landlords may complain that renters have all the power, but in the end, the landlords own the land, own the buildings and sit down with lawmakers to make policy. “I think renters should have a tenants’ union,” she told me. “Tenants’ unions to me are the kind of direction I would hope that we can go and the standard that we can set.”

Most of Stardust’s 1,600+ TikToks are about home repair, but a month or so after her breakout video, she looked straight into the camera and delivered what seems to be her raison d’etre: “I am a woman who walks into strangers’ homes and provides them help in moments of need. No matter how many times I’m called a freak, no matter how many times I’m called a slur, I do this service because it’s the right thing to do. And I care more about them than how they perceive me to be.”

This attitude pervades her book and videos, and it may be a large part of why she has yet to be banned anywhere or eviscerated by some rightwing talk-show host.

Not that it’s all rainbows and kittens, as anyone who puts themselves out on the internet knows full well. Stardust has received her share of death threats, suggestions that she would be better off dead and “encouragement” to commit suicide.

Still, she’s determined to double down on treating humans like humans. Following each section of Safe and Sound, there’s what Stardust calls the “Emotional Reset”, a couple of paragraphs that help put things in perspective, with a QR code that will take you to a video on her website.

Stardust’s compassionate DIY advice is all about affirmations and therefore is more about you than about the loose toilet seat jangling your nerves. You are worthy of a cosy home. You can learn how to do the repair. You can do a good job.

In fact, turning to a random page in Safe and Sound, the word “you” appears 18 times. Nearly all books written by transgender authors are first-person, post-transition memoir, written either as narrative or a series of essays; “I” is the word that appears most frequently. Stardust’s book stands out in that it is written in the second person, as a gift. In one of her Emotional Resets, Stardust says that the tools you acquire “should help you along on your hero’s quest, not prohibit you or make your task harder”.

The hero’s quest takes many forms in literature and folklore. Often, the at first reluctant hero goes on an adventure, is victorious in a crisis, and returns home transformed, with gifts to bestow on mankind. It’s hard to conceive of a more apt description of Stardust or of her work.

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