Pride in solidarity: Starbucks LGBTQ+ partners stand against racism

Pride began as a rebellion – an uprising against police harassment and systemic discrimination. This Pride month, as protestors all over the world take to the streets to protest police brutality and systemic racism, three LGBTQ+ Starbucks partners share their thankfulness for allies and the importance of continuing to fight against inequality.

Pride began with people saying “enough.”

A spark of resistance at the Stonewall Inn in New York City one summer night in 1969 helped ignite the already long-burning gay rights movement. Riots led to marches, marches to parades, and all of it led to more widespread awareness, activism and change.

That change led countless LGBTQ+ people, including Starbucks partners Asher Martinez, Shauna McKenzie-Lee and Catlin Perrin, to live completely different lives than they might otherwise have led – lives in which they were free to be their truest selves.

Since Pride began on the first anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, it has evolved to mean many things to the LGBTQ+ community and its allies. Pride can be a party – a joyous celebration of individuality, freedom and love. Pride can be a parade – a rally of voices and colorful signs promoting inclusion, respect and equality. And sometimes, like it was in the beginning and like it is this year, Pride can be an uprising – a shoulder-to-shoulder march against injustice and discrimination.

This June, during Pride month, a new conversation about change has begun to unfold. People all over the world are now protesting institutional racism and police brutality. Pride revelers, many of whom were finding ways to celebrate Pride inside due to the COVID-19 pandemic, have taken to the streets to march for a different fight – the fight against racial inequality.

Early this month, Shauna McKenzie-Lee, managing director of the Starbucks Reserve Roastery Chicago and a Black member of the LGBTQ+ community, was inspired by her young leadership team to show up in person instead of watching the protests on television. They passed out water to protestors together, and McKenzie-Lee reflected on the convergence of these important moments.

“The world sees me as Black first, and then we get into being a woman and then we get into being LGBTQ. This has been my life as a Black person in this country,” McKenzie-Lee said. “There’s a set of assumptions that come with that – pay more attention, don’t mess up, be twice as good. Those are some of the things I heard growing up. Now it feels almost like there’s closed captioning on that experience – like there’s a way to make it more accessible to more people, a way to overlay more context and to invite more people into the outrage, the discussion, the fight – and hopefully the solution.”

For all the uncertainty and struggle the year has brought, McKenzie-Lee said COVID-19 also brought an environment that helped bring real awareness and change within closer reach.

“Things slowed way down, and suddenly we were taking a long look at what really matters. The pandemic asked us all these questions about ourselves, our lives, our resiliency and our role in the work ahead amidst the fast evolving new normal – it forced us to really think about things. I think it also allowed us to see the murders of people like Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd in a more collective way. Without our usual distractions, we have had more of a chance to think about how it impacts us, and about what we’re going to do about it, what role are we really going to play,” McKenzie-Lee said.

She said she’s inspired by seeing countless people coming together in solidarity around the world.

“That fills me with hope. And, like the joy that ended up being such a big part of Pride, you see these glimmers – ‘Black Lives Matter’ being painted onto streets, celebratory and peaceful moments happening amid the outrage, new courageous conversations opening up or lasting longer,” she said. “This will be hard, and uncomfortable, and we have a long way to go to make systemic change, and we can make space for beautiful moments as well.”

This Pride, McKenzie-Lee and two other LGBTQ+ Starbucks partners shared their stories of the journeys they took to becoming themselves, expressed gratitude for the allies who stood by them along the way and talked about the importance of continuing to fight for equality for all.

Asher Martinez: Like-minded people the best part of Pride

Asher Martinez came out twice – first as a lesbian and then, later, as a trans man.

“I was going through some stuff. I was really sad and definitely depressed, but I didn’t exactly know why.”

It was a long road, becoming who he is today. A first-generation American growing up in New York City and the son of Puerto Rican immigrants, his family was loving and tight-knit, but he remembers entering his teenage years in a dark cloud of confusing and undefined angst.

“I was going through some stuff. I was really sad and definitely depressed, but I didn’t exactly know why,” said Martinez, a store manager in St. Augustine, Fla., and six-month Starbucks partner.

Then he met Kelleyann Royce, a counselor at IS-123 middle school in the South Bronx.

“She knew. She definitely nailed that I was this closeted little gay kid who needed some guidance,” Martinez said. “You don’t always see the bigger picture, you just know what you know.”

“Royce,” as the kids affectionately call her, wasn’t overt, but repeatedly reminded her students that the most important thing you can be is yourself, and that love is love.

“Another thing she always told me is that the one thing you should always respect is time, because time is the one thing you can never get back. I hold that still to be true,” Martinez said. “Sharing who I am with people, and being able to start doing that so young, was because I knew I would never get that time back, so why should I hide and live in the shadows and be sad if I didn’t have to?”

As middle school came to a close, Martinez started to make some moves, first quietly, and then out loud. He applied to attend high school at Manhattan Village Academy, though his parents were perplexed as to why he’d chosen a school 45 minutes by train from the Bronx (they would later learn it was because the school is located in New York City’s ultra-gay-friendly Chelsea neighborhood).

At 16, Martinez came out as a lesbian – first to friends at school, where it was a “non-event.” Home was a different matter. Martinez was afraid coming out would stir cultural and religious tensions, particularly from a father who studied to be a priest when he was younger before becoming a Taekwondo instructor. His parents were surprisingly supportive. Four years later, with the addition of the “language and strength” to more fully understand and explain himself, he came out to them again, this time as a transgender man.

“First you have a gay kid, and then your girl turns into your son? I thought I was coming out to a religious and homophobic dad. But he surprised me. He’s evolved as a person, and as an ally,” Martinez said. “My story isn’t one riddled with sadness, loneliness and struggle. My story doesn’t happen enough.”

In addition to being embraced by his family and friends, Martinez said he feels supported at work too.

"(I work for Starbucks), because I am a person of color and I feel included. As a trans partner I feel seen,” he said, noting Starbucks comprehensive health benefits for transgender partners. "The Starbucks mission and values are so aligned with who I am. I’ve been blown away in my short time here."

Each year since moving to Florida, Martinez and his longtime girlfriend have returned to New York City for the Pride parade and festival. They won’t be making the trip this year; for the first time in half a century, the New York City pride parade is canceled. Still, Martinez said, there is plenty to celebrate.

“To some people, it might not seem like a big thing – like, it’s just a parade – but it’s a little sad, to be honest. I like feeling like I can hold hands, and that it’s OK to wear my rainbow Yankee hat. I like to take a folding chair, and sit down and just … be,” Martinez said. “I’m not a party person, I just want to be around like-minded people. For me, that’s the best way to celebrate Pride.”

Still, he said, there’s plenty to be thankful for this year.

“This Pride, and for the rest of my life, I will celebrate the fact that I’m able to be visible. There are people in our communities who are not able to be visible – it’s just not safe. Being visible is a privilege,” Martinez said. “I will be in awe that I work for a company where I’m celebrated as a Hispanic person, and as a trans person and as a queer person and honestly, just as a person. I will celebrate being able to share my story with people. And I will celebrate that I am proud, and able to be proud, to be a Hispanic queer transgender man from the South Bronx.”

Shauna McKenzie-Lee: ‘We have to be exactly who we are’

When Shauna McKenzie-Lee was younger, her mother, Sharon, attended a party where the entertainment was a psychic. When it was her turn to sit with the woman, the psychic told Shauna her daughter would have a star over her head.

“The world sees me as Black first, and then we get into being a woman and then we get into being LGBTQ. This has been my life as a Black person in this country.”

“My mom would tell me this story every five years or so,” said McKenzie-Lee. “I think the star, to my mom, the star probably came to represent me following my journey to be who I am.”

In November, the day before the Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Chicago opened its doors, McKenzie-Lee posed for pictures next to her mother on the building’s airy top floor. Both women beamed – the mother, who was watching her only child lead the opening of the largest Starbucks in the world, and the daughter, who was able to do so without hiding any part of who she is. Hovering above both of them? A large, neon star. Yes, it’s part of the Roastery logo, but still … whoa, right?

McKenzie-Lee laughed. “We both looked up and I reminded her of that story. It’s almost like reinforcement that I had made the right decisions to get to that moment. Everything kind of came full circle.”

She grew up in Cincinnati, part of a tightknit, spiritual family. Her parents divorced when she was young, though they stayed on positive terms, and McKenzie-Lee and her mother moved in with her grandmother.

“The influence of my mom’s mom in particular – she was born in 1919, widowed early, and had two kids to raise as a single, black woman. She just did it, and made it look easy, and rooted all of us in church and spirituality. As a child, I grew up knowing I could go out but no matter what had to have my butt in a chair for Sunday school,” said McKenzie-Lee, 46. “She taught me that we’re all plugged into something bigger.”

As a teenager, McKenzie-Lee grappled with the beliefs of some in the religious community that gay people should face repercussions or punishment for being who they are. If you’re supposed to love and care for everybody, she wondered, doesn’t that include gay people? She had her first girlfriend in high school – a basketball teammate.

“It was a long-term relationship, but also very hidden. I went to prom and homecoming with male basketball friends. Even for myself, I was trying to understand – is this who I really am? On the surface, things were good – I got good grades. I played sports. But it was a challenging time,” she said. “Seeking the approval of my grandmother, all of that had me covering up who I was for so long.”

At 20, she finally got the courage to come out to her grandmother.

“I had built this up for months. In essence, I was preparing to lose my grandmother. That’s what I thought would happen,” McKenzie-Lee said. “She certainly had a few things to say. But ultimately, she just hugged me. She lived to be 94. For the rest of her life, we were able to operate not just in love, but in transparency.”

Coming out was hard for her mother, too.

“I know she experienced some grief, that it was not a traditional path her child was going to follow. She thought I would get hurt and punished and wouldn’t advance in a career. But she was also the one who gave me the foundation to know I should continue to try to be who I am,” McKenzie-Lee said. “We have to be exactly who we are. There’s so much power in that. Fear is something that we somehow think will change or shift or go away as we get older, but it doesn’t. Whatever we need to do, we have to just do it scared. Don’t find yourself losing time.”

McKenzie-Lee and her wife, Denise, have been together for 15 years and married for five. They’ve been to Pride celebrations in Toronto, Minneapolis, Portland and Chicago. Though she will miss marching in Chicago’s parade with Starbucks partners this year, she believes we can look for new experiences, ones that could end up being just as meaningful as the ones we’re missing this year.

“We can celebrate the opportunities we have to reimagine ourselves. We can celebrate the ways we still have to connect. We can celebrate kindness – I believe kindness is cool. There’s an Alice Walker quote I love: ‘Keep in mind always the present you are constructing. It should be the future you want.’ Now, more than ever, that’s on my mind,” McKenzie-Lee said. “Where do we want to be on the other side of this? Let’s make sure it’s surrounded with people who support us. Let’s make sure it’s having taken care of ourselves and each other.”

Catlin Perrin: ‘Community can mean lots of things’

Catlin Perrin grew up in an immersive religious community in California. He attended a Christian high school and studied theology at a bible college.

“My growing up and coming out and becoming a whole person and Starbucks, they’re all tied together. That confidence got built here."

“It was the kind of immersive that’s not just your church, but your whole world – your social life, your education, everybody you know, just … identity,” Perrin said. “And in the particular vein of Christianity I grew up in, being gay was considered a sin. There was a ton of shame attached to it. For me, it was really repressive to feel my attractions were bad, these things I can’t control, as was my gravitation toward certain people and relationships, and to realize I’d have to either kind of ignore it as I grew older, or acknowledge it but never be comfortable acting on it, and to watch friends having these full and open relationships and feeling those were roads I could never access.”

Perrin, 33,  compartmentalized his sexuality, and said he started thinking of himself as pieces of a person rather than a whole – including some pieces that didn’t quite fit together, and others that felt broken altogether.

One night shortly after college, he was talking with his roommate, Nathan, in their new apartment. There was no furniture yet – they’d just moved in – so they were sitting on the living room floor, talking and drinking wine. Catlin decided to come out to him. Given their similar upbringing, his friend and roommate could have reacted in any number of ways.

“We talked about how I always felt compartmentalized, and how I could reconcile my faith and my sexuality and come into my own as a whole person. We drank wine and we cried it out. It was big. Nathan was massively important in my coming out experience and to my long journey to feeling complete,” Perrin said. “When I look back, I had a lot of perfectly legitimate reasons to be scared and hesitant to talk to anybody about what I was going through. But when you start to crack that, you will find there are people around you who get it, who will love you regardless. Find those people. Talk to them. And recognize those people are going to be on a journey, too, and that you can help inform their perspective as well, both now and further down the road.”

Perrin was pursuing a teaching degree when he decided to take a semester off and apply for a job at Starbucks, mainly for the health insurance. Now, 14 years later, Perrin is a district manager of 18 licensed Starbucks stores in Los Angeles.

Like his conversations with Nathan, Starbucks would also prove instrumental to Perrin finding the courage to come all the way out. Shortly after he started his job, he mentioned someone he was seeing to a co-worker. He was careful not to use pronouns – but when they asked if he was dating a male or female, he chose to answer honestly. “

“Her reaction was kind of ‘cool, whatever.’ It was almost blasé, which was powerful. That has stuck with me,” he said. “My growing up and coming out and becoming a whole person and Starbucks, they’re all tied together. That confidence got built here. At Starbucks I got to see adults who were successful in their careers and in same-sex relationships that were loving and caring, and they were the first ones I ever saw. So many people at Starbucks will not only accept you, but cheer for you and be in your corner and want to see you be successful.”

Perrin typically celebrates Pride outside enjoying the beautiful Southern California weather, barbecuing with friends and attending the parade. This year, more than ever, he’s looking for opportunities to support people and communities still fighting for equality.

“When I think about the arc of the gay rights movement, Pride means a lot of things – a celebration, a victory march, a resistance rally, a call to be better and more inclusive and more equitable,” Perrin said. “Pride is also community, and community can mean lots of things, too. In the middle of a pandemic, that community will look really different than it did a few months ago – I mean, there are Zoom night clubs with people dancing around in their living rooms. And there are all these glimpses of the better sides of humanity, and how we are figuring things out together as things have gotten really wild. For me, as an LGBTQ community, we also have a responsibility to keep fighting for equality in places and communities and for people for whom it’s not happening. There’s a lot of work left to do there. Pride marks that progress, continually.”

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5 things to know about first-ever Starbucks Promises Day