Transgender Partners Share Stories of ‘Unconditional Acceptance’ at Starbucks

As the rainbow Pride Flag is raised this week on Starbucks headquarters in Seattle, three transgender partners from across the country share their stories.

‘I finally knew where I belonged’

Sam Martin never felt like Samantha.

“I always felt different from the other kids, but I didn’t have any language to describe just why,” he said. “I remember being upset inside when people would identify me as a little girl. I honestly thought there was something very broken about me.”

Sam’s early childhood was “quite tumultuous” improved when, at the age of 10, he and his sister moved to Cape Cod, Massachusetts. As a kid he recalls being bullied a lot and turned to reading and writing to escape his sad, lonely feelings.

In his early 20s, Sam was browsing in a Boston bookstore when an image of a shirtless man on a book cover caught his eye. Inside were side-by-side pictures of young men and young women. Realizing each set of male and female images were of the same people, and that there was a word they all identified with – transgender – Sam fell to the floor and began to cry. “I finally knew where I belonged.”

Sam said he was “thrilled” to get a job as a Starbucks barista in 1998 because of the company’s acceptance of LGBT partners. When he began to transition, Sam’s store manager was “phenomenal.” As the process continued, Sam said fellow partners were “respectful and supportive” even though they didn’t always understand what he was going through.

Partners and customers might have spotted Sam recently in The New York Times, quoted in an article that featured transgender authors who are writing fiction for children and young adults, to fill the void to they felt as young readers. Sam’s contribution, “The Most Handsome” is a semi-autobiographical story of summer romance. He’s found real life romance too and will marry his partner, Wayne, in July.

“So often, transgender kids have only sad stories to read and are dealing with tough things like parents who don’t understand and peers who bully,” he said. “You are beautiful and loved just the way you are, LGBT, or not.”

Sam is feeling optimistic about life as he begins his 40s, and hopes his inclusion the anthology due out this month will be the beginning of a successful writing career. For now, he’s not quitting his day job – being a barista in a Washington D.C. Starbucks.

“I’m so grateful to be a part of a company that’s innovative, supportive and says ‘you’re all welcome here.'"

‘Unconditional acceptance at Starbucks’

Shawn describes his childhood as “pretty average.”  Growing up in a Baltimore, Maryland suburb as a girl, his mom, dad and sister were close and activities were typical – participating in team sports in school and playing with the neighborhood kids.

As a child, Shawn wanted to be a Boy Scout, learning how to survive in the wilderness, instead of being in the Girl Scouts selling cookies. And he remembers telling his parents he “wanted to be a boy when I grow up.”

He also recalls struggling with identity issues as a teen and being “immensely lonely.”

“I came out at age 18, but was unable to start testosterone until I was 23. Those five years felt like I was in a stagnant place that I would never get out of,” said Shawn Orchowski, now 25. “I knew who I was but no one recognized me. I chose very carefully which environments to come out in, but even people who were accepting would call me ‘she.’ Every time I heard that word it just felt like someone was punching me in the gut.”

Six months before starting male hormone therapy, Shawn told his parents he was transgender. He hasn’t spoken to his father for about a year and a half. His mother and sister “make an effort” to be accepting, he said. At Starbucks, he said he found "unconditional acceptance."

“One of the reasons I wanted to work for Starbucks is because it was one of only a few companies that I came across that had a nondiscrimination clause that included ‘gender identity and expression.’ At the time, my area had no county or state laws preventing discrimination due to this.”

Being open, inclusive and forward-thinking is at the core of what Starbucks is about. The company’s most vocal statement on diversity and equality came during a spontaneous exchange at the 2013 Starbucks Annual Meeting of Shareholders. During the question and answer portion of the meeting, a stockholder voiced his view that the company had lost customers because of its support for gay marriage.

“Not every decision is an economic decision,” responded Howard Schultz, Starbucks chairman, and ceo. “The lens in which we are making that decision is through the lens of our people.”

Cheers and applause interrupted Schultz, who continued, “If you feel, respectfully, that you can get a higher return than the 38% you got last year, it’s a free country. You can sell your shares in Starbucks and buy shares in another company. Thank you very much.”

Months later, in October of 2013, Starbucks added coverage of gender reassignment surgery to the company’s health benefits. It had already covered prescription drugs for hormone replacement therapy and mental health care. In 2014, a year later, Starbucks removed the financial cap on surgery benefits.

“I never really thought it was possible to transition in a workplace where I interact with many customers on a daily basis, but my Starbucks partners and customers have seen me transition, and many of my fears have been proven wrong - as people accept me for the man I’ve always known I was,” Shawn said. “I couldn’t be more blessed to have been given a chance to be content in my life and to see a familiar person in the mirror.”

‘Transitioning has made my life 100 percent better’

The highly-publicized transformation of reality TV star and former Olympian Bruce Jenner into Caitlyn Jenner, revealed via a glamourous portrait on the July cover of Vanity Fair, “made the change look easy,” observed Aaron Bear, a photo producer on Starbucks Global Digital Marketing team. The reality is, the transition can take years, decades and possibly a lifetime. 

For almost three years Bear, a filmmaker on his own time, has been documenting the life of a friend. “Finding Kim” follows the journey of a Seattle-area barista from the ordinary aspects of his daily life – work and playing with his beloved dog – to complex moments of gender re-assignment surgery and family dynamics.

The documentary’s subject, K.J., agreed to the project because there are “very few quality films on the topic,” in particular for those going through a female-to-male transition after the age of 40. He also thought it would give someone older the courage to become the person they really are, as he is doing now.

K.J. felt like a boy as early as age two or three, and said he looked like a boy even when he was wearing dresses as a child.

“Growing up as Kimberly was difficult,” he recalled. “I was spit on, kicked out of the girls’ bathroom in school in kindergarten, called ‘it,’ and made fun of constantly.”

He never told his parents about the bullying back then. He didn’t want them to worry and he was embarrassed. As an adult, K.J. is still concerned about what his parents might think and he hasn’t told them he’s transgender. One thing has changed from his childhood years. At the age of 51, he’s no longer ashamed to be on the outside the person he’s always felt like on the inside.

“I feel at home, mostly, in my body now,” said K.J. “My story does and will continue to have a happy ending, regardless of whether my family accepts me or not. Transitioning made my life 100 percent better.”

thumbnail for Starbucks college admission program helps partners bridge to a better future, no matter the road they take

Starbucks college admission program helps partners bridge to a better future, no matter the road they take