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Starbucks Argues Trans Woman's Misgendering Isn't Bias

Maddie Wade

The company contradicts its own employee guidelines by arguing that calling someone by the wrong pronoun doesn't constitute harassment. 


Updated 6/5/19: A previous version of this story said that Starbucks filed a motion to dismiss. It was actually a motion for summary judgment.

The case of a former Starbucks employee suing the company for harassment and discrimination -- claiming she was bullied and targeted by her manager on a daily basis after coming out as transgender -- has taken a surprising turn.

According to a complaint filed at the Fresno Superior Court in California, Maddie Wade, a former barista at a Fresno Starbucks, alleges that upon beginning her transition, her ex-manager reduced her work hours, refused to call her by preferred pronouns, and posted transphobic material on social media.


Wade says the alleged mistreatment by her boss, Dustin Guthrie, became so unbearable that she had to transfer to another location, where harassment continued. She was encouraged by her new supervisor to take the matter to the district manager, but after she did so, the situation went unresolved.

And at the advice of her therapist, Wade ultimately left Starbucks after nine years of employment due to the mental stress and "intolerable conditions," according to the complaint.

Wade is now seeking general damages, special damages, punitive damages, and attorneys' fees from Starbucks, stating that the loss of health insurance has kept her from receiving the treatment and procedures she needs to complete her transition. Furthermore, Wade claims that the Facebook page "Starbucks Partners - Pride Alliance Network," which she describes as a "value marketing group" for its LGBTQ employees, continues to prevent her from posting on its wall.

However, as the company enters Pride Month, it is making moves that seem to run counter to its public record of LGBTQ acceptance. In the past, the company has scored 100 out of 100 on the Human Rights Campaign's 2018 Corporate Equality Index, released annual LGBTQ-focused products for Pride, and even rolled out trans inclusive health care within its insurance policy. But lawyers representing the coffee giant have now filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing there isn't enough evidence to show that Guthrie called Wade by incorrect pronouns intentionally. Therefore, it cannot constitute discrimination under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act.

Starbucks argues in its motion that Wade's particular case does not meet the "severe or pervasive" standard for harassment, stating, "Indeed, for harassment to be actionable, it must be sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim's employment and create an abusive working environment."

The motion adds, "With the exception of Guthrie's alleged failure to use female pronouns, none of Guthrie's conduct is linked or otherwise associated with Plaintiff's sex, gender, gender identity, and/or gender expression."

According to Wade's lawyer, Arnold Peter, if the court sides with Starbucks, the ruling could have far-reaching consequences for trans employees across the state. The hearing on the motion is set for June 11.

If Wade's allegations are true, Guthrie's actions go against the company's Workplace Guidelines for Supporting Transgender Partners (as the company calls its employees), obtained by The Advocate. According to the policy, which is required for all U.S. and Canada employees, the company states, "A refusal to respect a partner's request to be identified by the pronouns of choice is considered disrespectful (e.g., intentionally referring to a partner by a pronoun that does not correspond to the employee's gender identity), and not in alignment with Our Mission and Values."

Furthermore, a 2016 letter written by Lucy Helm, Law & Corporate Affairs and chair of the Starbucks Inclusion Council, affirms that sentiment: "Discrimination of any kind has no place in our company. As reflected in our Global Human Rights Statement, 'Starbucks is committed to support and uphold the provision of basic human rights and to eliminate discriminatory practices.'"

Starbucks has since provided a statement to The Advocate regarding Wade's case.

"Intentional misgendering is not acceptable conduct at Starbucks," a spokesperson states. "It does not align with our Mission and Values, nor with our employment policies regarding harassment and discrimination. In this particular case, we are not arguing that misgendering can't be the basis for a discrimination or harassment claim. We believe the case of the facts do not support an actionable claim for discrimination or harassment."

The statement continues, "We have no tolerance for discrimination of any kind, and we have clear avenues and processes in place for any partners who feel discriminated against or harassed. Starbucks has a long history of supporting the LGBTQ+ community and are proud to offer one of the most comprehensive trans health policies in the world."

The company has covered gender-confirmation surgery under its health insurance since 2012. In 2018, it made headlines when it expanded coverage of medical procedures for trans workers like Wade by adding breast and facial surgery, skin grafts, and hair transplants.

Wade began working at Starbucks nine years ago and had never experienced any form of harassment before her transition. In fact, according to a deposition of a former colleague obtained by The Advocate, she was "one of the hardest workers I have ever seen, and she would come into work even when she was sick, even when she was exhausted."

Having worked her way up to supervisor in 2014, Wade was transferred to the Milburn location in Fresno in 2016, where she ended up working under Guthrie. The two worked well together at first. As said in the deposition, her former colleague referred to them as "two peas in a pod" and "Dustin's favorite."

But their relationship soured when Wade came out as trans and decided to utilize Starbucks' health insurance to transition.

While the rest of the employees began using her preferred pronouns, Guthrie continued to marginalize Wade by only referring to her by her former name. He also used stigmatizing rhetoric like "bro" and "dude," even in front of customers. The Advocate made several attempts to reach Guthrie for comment, but received no reply.

The harassment intensified as Guthrie began cutting her hours. According to one former colleague's deposition, at one point Maddie confronted Guthrie about her hours getting cut. But instead of offering guidance, his solution was for her to "step down," to which she replied, "No, that's not what I want to do."

It was around this time that Guthrie would also routinely share his political and religious views on social media. According to the complaint, he was Christian and dreamed of a career in politics. The lawsuit includes various posts displaying Guthrie's malevolence towards trans people.

One such post by Guthrie from October 2014 reads: "Gender is not now, nor has it ever been a preference... Take your 'purple penguins' and shove it up your ass!"

Another, from September 2017 (around the time Wade came out to her coworkers), included a meme of John Wayne that reads: "CUTTING OFF YOUR PECKER DOES NOT MAKE YOU A WOMAN. IT JUST MAKES YOU A GUY THAT CUT OFF HIS DAMN PECKER."


Wade eventually confronted Guthrie about the harassment, saying that she felt "punished," but Guthrie assured her it was not a punishment. After leaving the Milburn location on March 11, 2018, to undergo facial feminization surgery, she ended up returning to work in May at a different location where, she says, customers continued to harass her.

Wade resigned in June 2018. Guthrie is still employed.

In May 2019, Wade wrote a formal letter to Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson explaining her situation and informing him that the company's attorneys have filed a motion to for summary judgment in her case based on arguments that contradict the company's own guidelines. She has not yet heard back from Johnson, and has not received any acknowledgment of the matter from her former district manager.

"This case matters because there are many transgender partners throughout Starbucks' stores that rely on the safety of corporate supportive policies," Wade recently told The Advocate when explaining why she continues to fight. "There seems to be a severe disconnect from the ideologies put forth by Starbucks Corporate and the policies applied on a local level."

"There are many people out there suffering in similar circumstances," she adds. "They need to know that this is a battle that can be won. We need to know that we don't have to just be quiet and move on -- which many believe is the only option."

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