By: Audrey Larcher
“I fell into pedicabbing by accident,” Sara Hughes laughs. Hughes, a self-proclaimed cycling-nut, is revered as one of the strongest pedicabbers in Austin, regularly covering 16 miles in just four hours of work. She also consistently ranks among the city’s top ten percent of bicyclists on the app Strava. Her athletic ability is so phenomenal that it’s difficult to imagine her as anything but intentional — especially when considering her identity as a transgender woman in an overtly masculine field.
But it’s true — Hughes only wandered into the pedicabbing community after close to ten years of work in landscaping, computer science and various other odd-jobs. Six years ago, Hughes faced family issues and a mid-life crisis, both of which encouraged her to give up her landscaping business and start over. “I had been living part-time, working as a boy and living as a girl, and it grew to be too much… I left everything I had behind,” Hughes explains.
In the first six weeks following this decision, Hughes worked as a professional job applicant, submitting 20 applications in addition to at least one call-back interview every day. Not a single employer could offer her work. Whether the rejections were a result of her past 10 years of self-employment, or of others’ transphobia, Hughes did not know.
What she did know was that she needed some cash. So she picked up a gig as a South by Southwest product promoter, showing off an add-on bicycle seat fixture by offering pedestrians free rides. Her job undercut pedicabs’ business and one of them directly challenged her on it.
A gruff, muscular man confronted her, asking how she expected him to make any money if Sara was cutting pedicabs out of the door with free rides. She bluntly responded that he could find another corner. Thugging up, he asked if it was really going to be “like that,” to which Sarah responded, resting on her heels and crossing her arms, “Yeah, it’s like that.” She looked him in the eyes and flexed her muscles.
But two weeks after SXSW, the ill-encounter didn’t stop Hughes from responding to a pedicab ad in hopes of earning some extra money until she found a ‘real’ job. She met with a shop owner for an interview, which went as expected until he asked Hughes if she remembered him. Hughes asked if they had met, and in fact, they had quite recently. The owner had lost the beard he was sporting during SXSW when Hughes told him to pick pedestrians up somewhere else.
Hughes defended herself, but she didn’t need to. The owner remarked that their first encounter proved she had what it took to pedicab — confidence, people skills, strength. She started the following Wednesday.
Her boss seemed to think Hughes possessed some natural affinity to pedicabbing. She disagrees. In addition to facing a steep learning curve and high physical endurance standards, she had to adapt socially. “I was very timid, had moderate social and crowd anxiety. I was very meek and feminine, and dressed like a mom in her thirties. So being in this rough and tumble, male dominated industry, dealing with drunk people all night, I quickly learned to speak out and not be taken advantage of,” Hughes says.
Sometimes, the mental strength that allows her to survive as a full-time pedicabber ends up costing her some business. “I am discriminated against on a nightly basis because of my appearance. I see it. Every single night, without fail, whether it be people pointing and laughing or sneers,” she says. “People saying ‘Hey, let’s go get a pedi…’ seeing me, and then turning to the next pedicab asking how much it is.”
Hughes feels comfortable shouldering negativity and outright hate because she knows the pedicab community has her back. There is a camaraderie amongst pedicabbers, who Hughes describes as social outcasts that tend to fall through the cracks. When customers hesitate to ask her for a ride and turn to other cabs, Hughes’ friends don’t hesitate to tell them they’ll have to go with Sara. “My shop rallied around me and supported me, and told other people to take a walk. I felt safe downtown in public view with all these drunk people doing random, crazy unpredictable shit that can hurt you. But I knew I was never a block away from a friend or a cop,” Hughes says.
In the future, Hughes would like to continue living out her purpose of promoting trans awareness with other projects. Ideally, she wants to continue cycling and filming vlogs as she travels across the nation on bike. Hughes also sees the need to expand on resources that offer young trans people housing, education and emotional support networks. “I want to leave a legacy, and I want to help people. I’m not very good at it, but I am good at bicycling. So I’m trying to get from here to there.”