Two Gay Men Walk Into a Starbucks
When I was asked if I would be interested in writing a column for Letters, I actually paused for a moment. The editors thought that my almost 30 years of diversity and inclusion experience would be a subject that readers would find of interest.
My trepidation was not whether this issue would resonate but instead how I could best present my point of view about a subject that is my passion—and still keep readers interested. Which is why I decided to focus on a topic that most people have in common...enjoying a “cup of joe.” (In the spirit of full disclosure, I am not a coffee drinker...it’s a taste issue not a health choice. But I digress.)
By now, everyone has likely seen the video footage capturing the arrest of two African-American men in a Philadelphia Starbucks for failing to make a purchase as they waited for a friend to arrive. While many people were surprised to learn that Starbucks has such a policy, it was statements from white customers who said they have never been questioned under similar circumstances that sent a clear message to these men they were not welcome.
I knew exactly how they must have felt. As someone who has been a part time resident of Rehoboth for almost 30 years (most of it with my now husband Greg), there was a time when some locals made us feel unwanted too.
Let me take you back to the early 80s when this small beach town began to catch the attention of more and more visitors from Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia. Greg and I were among these “outsiders” who heard about this picturesque beach resort that was not only charming but also had cute shops, LGBT-owned establishments including the Blue Moon and a boardwalk reminiscent of the one I fondly remembered in South Jersey where I vacationed growing up.
By the late 80s increased tourism began to fuel growth, with visitors, including LGBTQ people, now becoming residents and business owners. However, not everyone was happy about the changes they were seeing. They attributed more traffic and difficulty parking to the influx. But, it was the decision by Blue Moon owners Joyce Felton and Victor Pisapia in 1988 to open a new disco on Rehoboth Avenue named the Strand that became the tipping point.
For the city’s homeowner association, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Citing concerns about the increased noise created by such a large establishment, it publicly opposed efforts by the Strand owners to secure a liquor license. Almost simultaneously, bumper stickers began to appear on cars around town that read “Keep Rehoboth a Family Town” and there was also a sudden uptick in gay bashings.
Unfortunately, this was an all-too-familiar shot across the bow and taken collectively, the LGBTQ community viewed this as Rehoboth’s way of saying we were not wanted here. In the end, the city commissioners took action which came in the form of a ban on bars that were not connected to restaurants. Soon after the Strand was forced to close.
It is often said that sometimes bad things have to happen before good things can. In this case, it came in the form of Steve Elkins and Murray Archibald, who as part-time summer residents decided to get involved. Representing the interests of the LGBTQ community, they began a dialogue with the police, business community and politicians to find a path forward so that everyone that loved Rehoboth could do so in harmony. What began as a conversation turned into a movement and in 1990 CAMP (“Create a More Positive”) Rehoboth was born.
The gay bashings back in the early 90s served as a catalyst for the community to come together and begin a dialogue in an effort to better understand each other. One thing was clear—everyone shared a love for Rehoboth. Finding a common ground provided a foundation to work from and begin to build trust.
For Starbucks, the incident in Philadelphia was also a wake-up call. It left customers questioning whether the company was truly committed to valuing diversity and creating an inclusive environment. Which is why the company knew taking swift action was needed to preserve its hard-fought reputation. Within days, CEO Kevin Johnson took responsibility for the crisis, met with the two men to apologize, and sought advice from leaders in the African-American community as to what was needed to make things right. The result was closing all 8,000 US stores for half a day to conduct racial bias training with all staff.
While it is too soon to tell what the long-term impact will be, these initial steps are a positive signal that Starbucks is a place that welcomes everyone. ▼
Wesley Combs is a diversity and inclusion expert and a passionate social justice advocate. He is the founding Principal of Combs Advisory Services where he works with clients who share his values of enabling equity, equality, and opportunity in the workplace and the community.