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Cleve Jones: Why I’ll Be at Starbucks' Shareholder Meeting


The coffee giant is failing its LGBTQ workers, says the longtime activist.

I moved to San Francisco and joined the movement for gay liberation in the 1970s. When I first came out, it was still illegal to be gay. Just as we were making progress, AIDS came. We acted up, we made quilts, we marched, we got arrested, we took on the government and pharmaceutical industry and we kept fighting. Over the decades, as the LGBTQ+ community has become more accepted and more mainstream, I have seen many examples of corporate hypocrisy, where carefully cultivated public images reflect the exact opposite of a company's actual behavior.

Starbucks recently launched its #whatsyourname advertising in the U.K. to celebrate Starbucks as a safe space for transgender and gender diverse people as they use their new names in public. But I've heard a much different story from Starbucks baristas.

Over the past several months, I have spent time with airport Starbucks workers from across the country who are employed by HMSHost. Their stories of suffering through offensive and transphobic comments from managers, misgendering, and refusal to use their names, are heartbreaking.

In Orlando and Portland, HMSHost managers refuse to print transgender employees' names on weekly work schedules, and only print their "dead" names. Many workers are also immigrants and people of color, and some have also struggled with homelessness and hunger while working at airport Starbucks.

On Tuesday, February 18 in Orlando, HMSHost fired two Starbucks workers who are organizing a union: Gabriel Ocasio Mejias, an LGBTQ+ activist, and Ilea Correa, a single mom. Gabriel had pushed back when he was not allowed to follow the dress code for his gender identity, and has fought for respect with his transgender co-workers. These are the people on the front lines, proving that corporations can't own our bodies and identities, showing corporate America what real LGBTQ+ pride looks like.

This week, over 45 organizations that fight for the rights of LGBTQ+ people, immigrants and people of color, including the Transgender Law Center, National Center for Transgender Equality, and the National LGBTQ Task Force, sent a letter to Starbucks demanding Starbucks take action to fix these problems at HMSHost-operated Starbucks stores across the country.

Unfortunately, Starbucks has stayed silent. Starbucks should know better. You can't show up for Pride but not stand up for your community the rest of the year.

To my LGBTQ+ friends in Seattle and beyond -- our movement for LGBTQ+ rights has grown step by step over time. When LGBTQ+ workers are speaking out and fighting back, we must stand with them and demand more from companies that claim to be our allies. The question I plan to ask the Starbucks CEO at this year's shareholder meeting is: Why hasn't Starbucks stood up for LGBTQ+ workers wearing its aprons at the Orlando Airport and other airports across the country?

Cleve Jones is a long-time labor and LGBTQ+ activist, mentored by Harvey Milk. Jones is the co-founder of the San Francisco AIDS coalition, founder of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, and author of When We Rise: My Life in the Movement.

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