'I'm a Trans Handy Ma'am—I Share DIY Tips On TikTok'

I grew up on a farm in northern Wisconsin and my dad was a truck driver and farm hand, so he taught me a lot about how to troubleshoot. I worked with him for many years and then I went to college to study theater and became a cabaret performer. I worked in a lot of gay bars across America in the late 2000s, so on the weekends I was travelling around the country, but during the week I was back home in Wisconsin and needed income.

Someone reached out to me and asked if I was interested in a job as a maintenance intern. I took the job, but the first couple of years were really tough because I was constantly treated like I didn't know anything. If you were a new intern you'd get harassed before you moved up to the next level, that's just the way it worked. I have always inhabited a very queer, feminine space in my mind, even if I wasn't presenting in that way, so my ideas were often outside of the box and I constantly got bullied.

I chose my name, Mercury Stardust, in 2014 before I came out as trans. At the time, I hated everything about myself, and then burlesque became a big part of my life and became a saviour for me. Burlesque has become very queer, trans and empowering, and in a lot of ways, maintenance is the polar opposite. The rules are set in stone and it's predominantly cisgender heterosexual men that dominate that world.

My spouse and I had started toying with the idea that our genders did not align with what we were being perceived as when we were in our late 20s and once I started transitioning around age 30, I quickly realized that I was a woman in a male dominated field and I had always felt this way. I was never out as a trans woman in that maintenance job, the unfortunate truth is that I worked with men who did not have positive views about trans people. However, once I understood who I was, the confidence came, and that's when I started excelling in maintenance. I had the confidence to say, "this is what I want to do and how I'm going to go about it."

But I can count on one hand how many trans people I have met in this industry over the course of the past 14 years. And when I do meet them, it is older, white trans women. I have never met a younger trans woman or a trans woman of color working in maintenance.

Unfortunately, I lost that job in July 2020 because of COVID, but I went directly into a role as a maintenance technician. I call myself a "Jane of all trades." I had also stopped performing burlesque because of the pandemic, but I started my show back up online in March 2021, because I needed an outlet to embrace my queer community. I was doing the online show for a few weeks, and then one of my friends who is an "accountant" on TikTok—which is slang for sex worker—started telling me I should create a page there.

I shared my first video at the end of March and my very first upload as a trans maintenance lady was April 4. I was responding to a woman who didn't know how to use a ratchet strap and in the video I said "Hi, my name is Mercury and I'm the intersectional feminist trans maintenance lady." It was a bit of a mouthful!

Mercury Stardust shares DIY tips as 'TransHandyMa'am'
Mercury Stardust has worked in maintenance for 14 years and recently gained almost a million TikTok followers when she started sharing DIY tips on the social media platform. Mercury Stardust

Then I just explained how to use a ratchet strap in a simple way. People who were stitching her video were laughing at her and giving her a hard time for not knowing how to use one. What bothered me was that I could see my 21-year-old self in this woman, going to the bathroom to cry because the guys at work were being a******** to me.

Three days after posting my response I had 20,000 followers. What made me continue posting DIY tips was seeing that 92 percent of the people who were following at the time were women. I started producing two or three "how to" videos a week next to a bunch of goofy posts, and my following started growing. I was at 430,000 followers on July 1 and then I shared my video explaining a simple way to find a wall stud. I doubled my followers in less than two weeks after that and I'm now staring at 1million followers.

I try to make sure my tips are aimed at renters, because renters come first for me. I'm a renter and very few people who rent understand that we are allowed to do things in our home if we get permission. A lot of us also have landlords who will take two or three weeks to do anything. There are also trans people, queer people or single moms who are afraid of strange men coming into our homes. These are real concerns for real people. The homeowners mean a lot to me and I love that they support me, but the people that I really want to help are the 30 percent of Americans who are renting. I've given tips on everything from ceiling collapses to hanging a tv, broken bulbs and shower handles, unclogging a drain and leaking faucets.

I believe that if you put out nothing but positivity you get 90 percent positivity back, and I pick and choose the negative comments I will reply to. If I feel I can teach people or establish a boundary I might respond. But if someone is saying that I'll never be a woman, I'm not going to waste my time. I know my reality, I know who I am and I know my skills. I am a trans person who has broken teeth, who has a big nose and an Adam's apple and who goes on the internet every single day and talks to people about things they can fix in their homes. I have 980,000 followers because these people trust my opinion.

Mercury Stardust also performs burlesque
Mercury Stardust has performed burlesque in 126 cities in 20 U.S. states. Mercury Stardust

I've taught 120 burlesque students over the past seven years, and that influences how I teach maintenance. The parallels are simple. All bodies are burlesque bodies. Anyone can do it and the more representation we have in burlesque, the better, more vibrant and beautiful the art form will become. Everybody, regardless of limitations —although I understand disability can be a factor—size, gender identity and color can do some form of maintenance. We can all learn and grow, and the more rich diversity we have in that industry, the better the solutions to these problems will become.

My hope and my dream is that I will be allowed to do a maintenance show where I am interacting with drag queens, trans people and single moms and solving problems and teaching them how to do maintenance. My goal is to give them skills, because skills are much more valuable in our world than any type of material possession.

This can be hard sometimes, you read all the comments and not every day is as positive as the day before, or I'll have tenants refuse to let me come into their home because I'm trans—that does happen. They say they don't want "it" in their home.

Then I'll come home to my spouse; their name is Ari and they are non-binary. They look at me like I'm a hero, in their eyes, every single day. They constantly encourage me and they are very grounded. I also have a pod of six friends who I call my chosen family, we are very close. They are the people who keep me smiling, because the world is not nearly as friendly as I think I want it to be.

My mom died 12 years ago, she was 56 and she died of stomach cancer, but before that she said to me, "I don't know who you're going to be after I pass, but I know it's going to matter to a lot of people."

I wish she was here to see me as a woman, I wish she was here to wrap her arms around me, but what keeps me smiling are those words. Now, after 12 years, I think I have finally understood what she meant.

Mercury Stardust is a burlesque performer and property manager living and working in Wisconsin. You can see her as Trans Handy Ma'am on TikTok at @mercurystardust and find out more about her burlesque work at mercurystardust.com.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Jenny Haward.