Former Starbucks employee Maddie Wade is suing the coffee giant for harassment and discrimination she experienced after coming out as transgender. While Wade was transitioning, her boss constantly misgendered her and did nothing when others mirrored the behavior. He also cut her hours and posted transphobic messages on social media. His behavior became so unbearable that she needed to transfer to another location and, in the end, resigned at the advice of her therapist.
To add insult to injury, the Advocate reported that Starbucks has argued in court that misgendering an employee does not constitute bias, in direct contradiction with their own workplace guidelines. The internal policy with regards to trans employees 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.
Starbucks goes to great lengths to position itself as a “progressive” company. For example, in the wake of blatant racism by store employees who called the police on a Black customer, Starbucks closed thousands of stores in May 2018 for racial bias training. The company has also crafted an image as an LGTBQ+ ally, taking measures like expanding insurance benefits for transgender employees to include procedures previously considered cosmetic (such as facial feminization surgery, which is prohibitively expensive for many trans women). Stores also conspicuously sell rainbow pride merchandise like mugs and tee shirts.
Why, then, is there such a contradiction between the pro-LGBTQ+ image that Starbucks attempts to cultivate and its perpetuation of discrimination?
The answer lies in the fact that the very existence of corporations is predicated upon the exploitation of human labor and their domination over a stratified human race. Some companies may attempt to build a progressive cachet with LGTBQ+ people but their very survival as profit-making entities requires that they have a vested interest in continuing the forms of oppression they claim to oppose.
Oppression of Transgender People
The Trump Administration has shown a shocking amount of cruelty in its assault on transgender people. By removing protections for trans people in seeking relevant medical needs from insurance providers, and by removing protections from discrimination in homeless shelters, the administration has overburdened a community that is already plagued with poverty, poor health, and homelessness. Additionally, the ban on transgender people in the military constitutes overt discrimination by the country’s largest employer, and only further disenfranchises people for whom very few legal protections exist against employment discrimination. The Department of Health and Human services memo that was leaked in October revealed that these assaults are part of a deliberate political campaign to erase transgender people from legal existence.
However, the oppression of transgender people did not begin with Trump. And the Obama-era guidelines that it repealed without difficulty were offered by the previous Democratic administration in lieu of any new, substantive, federal legislation. They didn’t even pass the minimum protection by law: employment non-discrimination for LGBTQ+ people! Very little of what sustains the oppression of transgender people has even been addressed by Democratic presidents or legislators.
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Capitalism is a system that dominates the entire planet, and compels the majority of the world’s people to labor so that the class of bosses and investors may acquire profits. However, this system must be maintained by dividing up the working class in order to lower the price of labor and prevent collective action by the masses. A portion of the population therefore remains “surplus”, chronically unemployed or under-employed.
Transgender people in particular are forced into this reserve army of labor in huge numbers, especially Black, Brown and immigrant trans people. Discrimination in jobs and housing, family rejection, and struggles over healthcare all contribute to the unattainability of stable lives. Sex work is often the only work available, and encountering male violence and police violence is all too common.
The persistence of bigotries like racism and transphobia, and concurrent bigoted policing and imprisonment, ensure the continued existence of the reserve army. Liberal capitalists may voice their disapproval that many workers live in misery, but without a reserve army of labor that can be moved easily in and out of production, the gears of capital would grind to a halt.
Within the context of chronic structural oppression that remains untouched whether capitalism is managed by liberals or conservatives, the trend of corporations attempting to cultivate their “ally” status is mere spectacle.
Lockheed-Martin and Northrop Grumman both participate in Pride parades while their weapons prop up notorious anti-queer regimes like the Saudi Kingdom. Wells Fargo also shows up at Pride, despite their investments in prisons that cage the most vulnerable members of the LGTBQ+ community. The involvement of these companies in Pride activities led a group of activists in Washington, D.C. called “No Justice No Pride” to picket the official parade last year.
It’s certainly true that the expansion of insurance benefits improved the lives of some Starbucks employees, but it hasn’t addressed the many structural issues facing trans people in the U.S. or the behavior of Starbucks itself when dealing with its own mistreated workers. Instead, Starbucks reaffirms the kind of transphobic behavior that it ostensibly opposes.
Just as the fast food industry refuses to address the rampant sexual harassment of women workers by managers, companies like Starbucks refuse to address the bigoted behavior of their own managers. Harassment disciplines the workforce, and it assists in keeping the labor of certain oppressed peoples cheap. When women and queer people feel unsafe at work, they will be unlikely to fight for better wages and benefits. Neither will undocumented people or Black and Brown workers subjected to racism on the job. And keeping a portion of workers in precarious employment helps grease the wheels of capitalist production, allowing for devalued people to be moved in and out of work as demanded by profitability trends.
Additionally, there is nothing preventing a company like Starbucks from opposing its own internal guidelines or its own outward-facing propaganda statements. And the law is too often insufficient in changing the behavior of companies, who are able to purchase political power. The only real security working people have is based on our ability to organize, and to advance the conflict of our class with the boss class to our own benefit.
So while there is a liberal wing of capitalists who see the need to show support to a crucial LGTBQ+ demographic, they must also preserve their ability to make profits based on the system that keeps queer people oppressed. We are mistaken if we believe liberation is possible through allying with liberal capitalists as donors and political partners.
Instead, we must embrace a strategy of solidarity between working people, building our collective power on the job and therefore seeing the need to fight for the interests of fellow workers which we might not share ourselves. We must expand that struggle beyond the workplace for many reasons, but importantly for the reason that many oppressed people can’t even get hired! We will have to build our own party, independent from both capitalist parties, and base it on the organizations built by workers and oppressed people ourselves.