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Queer Baristas Locked Out of Coffee Competition in Dubai

Queer Coffee Community and Allies Furious Over World Coffee Competitions Scheduled in Dubai

Scheduling an event where LGBTQ people are criminalized is offensive and insensitive, writes RJ Joseph.

While everyday coffee drinkers may not know much about coffee competitions, they're one of the most popular and prestigious ways for baristas to network, skill-build, and gain notoriety, potentially landing them their next job. At the world competition level, ranking or judging in coffee competitions has helped to launch powerful companies and skyrocket baristas to international stardom.

That's why earlier this month, after global coffee trade organization Specialty Coffee Association and its subsidiary World Coffee Events released word that despite two months of protests and petitions from the coffee community, three of 2018's world coffee competitions would be held in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates -- a country with multiple well-documented human rights abuses, including the criminalization of queerness -- a whirlwind of town halls and rolling boycotts swept the coffee community.

The placement of three major world competitions in Dubai was initially announced in September, leading to mass protests, petitions, and promises to boycott if competitions were not moved in a decisive and timely fashion. Just one day after coffee news and opinion site Sprudge broke the story, Specialty Coffee Associationwas forced to suspend the planning of events and create a special council to assess itsoptions.

Two months later and not one day into 2017's World Barista Championship, the organization announced that competitions would remain in Dubai, aided by a policy that attempts to mitigate the decision but is so full of holes as to be outright antagonistic.

Called the Deferred Candidacy Policy, it asks competitors who can't safely compete in a location to defer their candidacy to the next year pending approval by World Coffee Events -- in other words, candidates have to out themselves and then have their queerness validated by a committee that has already proven itself ignorant at best, xenophobic at worst. Not only that, but competition participation is a grueling task that requires not only a high level of fiscal investment (estimated between $1,500 and $2,500), but also a huge investment of time and effort.

The decision to host events in Dubai doesn't just open up the queer coffee community to the possibility of arrest; tourists from the U.S. and U.K. have faced detention without access to legal representation, consular services, or even knowledge of their alleged crimes, for myriad activities that tourists regularly engage in, like drinking alcohol without a local license, sharing a hotel room with a non-spouse of a different sex, and even giving the middle finger in the car.

Dubai is in a process of trying to rebrand itself as a tourist and event destination, but with laws on the books that make it almost certain that some tourists will land in trouble, it is not a safe place to schedule events. Lawyer Radha Stirling told The New York Times, "You go there and its facade is that all of this is legal, everyone is doing it, you think it's OK. But you offend someone and you're the one who gets it."

Despite their status as nonprofit member-based trade organizations, SCA and WCE have been unwilling to share details of the contract they initially made with Dubai officials, which would no doubt help explicate why they were unwilling -- or unable -- to move these events after the widespread outcry. However, instead of apologizing and offering to refund competition fees for those who had already enrolled in regionals for the 2018 cycle, SCA implied that its decision was a values-based one, an embrace of multiculturalism, including Islam -- ignoring the fact that prominent Muslim activists argue that state-enforced fundamentalism is not synonymous with the traditions of Islam.

Without transparency on the incentives that led to SCA's selection of Dubai and the contract that continues to bind them, the coffee community can't know for sure why this country was selected over so many others, but we can nonetheless doubt that inclusivity was the primary motive.

Now that SCA/WCE have a contract that they're unlikely to break, what affect can these town halls and boycotts have? For one, current SCA board members are being sent a message that if they don't rectify the error and learn from it, their days are numbered; if they cannot admit their mistake and move forward with transparency and a clean apology, they will likely continue to shed huge numbers of individual members and growing numbers of member companies until they are voted out of their seats at the next election.

SCA/WCE need to own their mistake and apologize to the coffee community, especially its queer membership. They need to refund the money of anyone already enrolled who wants to back out of competitions this year, and they need to create a vetting system for host countries rather than doubling down on the antagonistic rhetoric that says we must choose between global inclusion and queer inclusion.

RJ JOSEPH is a nonbinary coffee roaster, staff writer for Sprudge, freelancer, and community organizer. Follow RJ on Twitter @RJ_Sproseph.

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RJ Joseph