One former barista has only good things to say about his time at Starbucks.

Another endured nasty customer comments and a co-worker who intentionally misgendered him. 

A third wants guaranteed hours.

Three different trans individuals, different Starbucks, and unique experiences. They shared their stories with Qnotes at a time when Starbucks is in the news for allegations of union busting. However, Starbucks has become a haven for LGBTQ individuals thanks to its progressive health benefits and advocacy for LGBTQ people.

Walk into any Starbucks and it isn’t unusual to be greeted by a barista who is out and proud. 

Stephan, 33, a former Starbucks employee remembers the freedom he felt when he worked at a Charlotte store. After spending his high school years as a lesbian, Stephan embraced his identity when he began working at Starbucks. At first, it was just a job, but it quickly became life-changing. He met other LGBTQ people who were older, open, and out. 

“It was very new to me,” he said. “I was able to understand myself more.”

While working at different stores in the company, he transitioned to male. He met others who were transitioning, and he learned that he could change his name at the store.

“That was pretty neat,” he said.

Mikey, 20, wanted to join Starbucks because he thought it would be a cool place to work. They had pins so people could address employees by their preferred gender, and the pay was good.

“I had never had a job where I was comfortable being out before,” said the New York native.

He only worked at a Charlotte Starbucks for eight months after moving here. While there he endured nasty comments about his scars from self-harm and a co-worker that constantly misgendered him despite being corrected multiple times. Mikey felt helpless. His managers brushed off his co-workers misgendering, he said.

“People who aren’t trans or aren’t part of the LGBTQ community, they don’t understand that it does really hurt,” Mikey said.

Although some baristas may experience the harmful side of being out, the Seattle-based company has a long history of working with and advocating for the LGBTQ+ population. That allyship goes beyond Pride celebrations and has taken the company around the world as well as to the Supreme Court in support of civil rights protections. The company has consistently received top scores in the Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index.  

“Our culture has been built with a long line of partners (employees) who have contributed to making Starbucks a different kind of company. With each era, we’re proud of the contributions of our partners and the progress we’ve made together. We are continuing to improve the partner experience so our partners can thrive – at work, individually and together,” a spokesperson from the company told Qnotes. “Core to this is ensuring that Starbucks is an inclusive, diverse, equitable and accessible company – a place where all are welcome, and our partners feel a sense of belonging”.

The statement continues: “For more than three decades, Starbucks has stood as an ally for the LGBTQIA2+ community. Starbucks is proud of its long history of supporting LGBTQIA2+ partners, from advocating for LGBTQIA2+ rights to the Supreme Court to providing broader healthcare coverage for procedures and services that support gender affirmation.” 

Still, what happens on a corporate level doesn’t always translate to the retail stores as Mikey shared. And progressive health benefits don’t mitigate the need for other employee protections. Starbucks has experienced a rash of stores unionizing and last month the former CEO appeared before a Congressional committee to answer accusations of union busting.  

According to a Wall Street Journal article, employees at nearly 300 coffee shops have voted to join Starbucks Workers United, about 3% of the chain’s company-owned locations in the U.S. Starbucks has shuttered some unionized stores and fired some workers involved in organizing, citing misconduct.

Starbucks workers rally and march in Seattle, Wash. On April 23, 2022.  CREDIT: Photo by Elliot Stoller, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Ian Miller, 25, began working at Starbucks in Olney, MD in 2019. Miller, formerly of Wilson, NC, spearheaded the unionization of the Olney Starbucks store last year. He initially began working there because he needed a job and wanted the benefits.

“It started off as a good job,” he said. “It pushed me out of my comfort zone.”

He hasn’t endured mistreatment by colleagues, but he says the work is grueling and fast-paced especially because the stores are often understaffed. After, Miller’s store voted to join the union, tensions have decreased, but nothing has changed, he said. There’s high turnover and the company still has not provided employees with guaranteed hours, he said.

Unlike Stephan and Mikey, Miller still works for Starbucks, and he says the LGBTQ experience varies by location. 

During Stephan’s 14-year career at Starbucks, he transitioned from a woman to a man to a mentor.

He appreciates the support he received at Starbucks during the beginning stages of his transition. There was a private phone line to help employees navigate the process from insurance to surgery. His managers gave him time off for the surgery and were patient when he missed work due to his changing hormones. Transitioning isn’t easy. It’s a lifetime of getting checkups with blood work. 

“When it comes to insurance, that’s life or death,” he said.

Stephan eventually began helping other transitioning employees and he guided trans employees through the range of emotions that come with interacting with insensitive customers. 

“You gotta be sure and confident within yourself,” he said. “It’s not you, it’s not personal. It’s their unfortunate ignorance.”

Stephan left Starbucks after deciding that his career was stagnant. He works as a delivery driver now but knows eventually he’ll get another job. That’s worrisome.

“It’s always in the back of your mind: how are they going to understand my journey?” he asked. 

At Starbucks, Stephan wasn’t alone in his journey and was kind enough to assist others in their journeys. His time there created a stronger man than the high schooler who began working at the coffee chain more than a dozen years ago.

Due to the sensitive nature of this story, Qnotes did not fully identify Stephan and Mikey or the store locations they previously worked in Charlotte. Ian Miller has been featured in various news outlets.

Significant Starbuck policies that offer positive support for their LGBTQ employees  

  • Health insurance coverage to domestic partners for more than 30 years.  
  • Broadening health insurance options for transgender partners to not only include gender affirmation surgery (which has been covered since 2013), but also a host of procedures that were previously considered cosmetic, such as breast reduction or augmentation surgery, facial feminization, hair transplants and more. 
  • Ensuring our partners have access to quality healthcare, regardless of where they live or what they believe. In May 2022, we announced the expansion of our U.S. healthcare benefit to further protect the personal health decisions of our partners by offering reimbursement for eligible travel expenses when accessing abortion or gender-affirming procedures when those services are not available within 100 miles of a partner’s home.  
  • Creating Workplace Gender Transition Guidelines to support partners who are transgender or considering transitioning.  
  • Updating technology systems to ensure that documentation in stores reflects a partner’s known-as name to assist transitioning partners in self-identification.  
  • Starbucks has made donations to the Human Rights Campaign and the National Center for Transgender Equality to aid in their support for vulnerable members of the LGBTQIA2+ community. 

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