Why you should make an exception for the Starbucks/Mermaids Partnership

Campaign offers novel way to show support for the trans community

Photograph of a Mermaids Cookie being held up in front of the Radcliffe Camera, Oxford.  A woman's hand holds the cookie, which is in the shape of a mermaid tail, with blue glittery icing and purple piping.

Mermaids is a wonderful charity supporting young trans people across the UK. They offer amazing resources for trans kids, parents of trans people, and people working with young trans people, like teachers. They do fantastic work to help trans people get access to the support they need, and to improve representation and support for trans people in the country as a whole. Starbucks is a multi-national, tax-dodging corporation which has aggressively expanded into the UK and is now a ubiquitous sight on our high-streets. Not really two things you’d put together. Small, important charity on the one hand, huge capitalist machine on the other.

But that is exactly what has happened. In a landmark campaign, Starbucks has partnered with Mermaids to support their helpline service. They have released a limited edition Mermaids cookie, 50p of which will go towards funding the service. Alongside this they’ve released an advert, airing throughout February and March, championing the #WhatsYourName campaign. Mermaids explained that this advert was inspired by the fact that many of their service users were trialing their chosen names at Starbucks. The advert is a really powerful acknowledgement of the importance of using someone’s chosen name (and, by extension, pronouns).

In theory this sounds like just another case of pinkwashing. We see this all over the place, from corporate takeovers of Pride parades, to tokenistic responses to LGBTQ History Month. In some ways companies are able to give themselves an easy ride by jumping on the inclusivity bandwagon, without really examining the changes they need to make as businesses in order to be truly inclusive. Starbucks could be seen as part of this problem too. By avoiding paying corporation tax, for example, they are directly depriving public services of funding, making it harder for people to receive the help they need. Their charitable work could just be a way of distracting up from their misdeeds.

So why am I making an exception for Starbucks? Why do I think this is more meaningful than other attempts at pinkwashing? Simply put, it is because trans people need our help. I am a cis, white woman, and it is my duty to do what I can to support my trans sisters and brothers. The UK is in the midst of a vitriolic and violent debate about the right of trans people to exist – a debate I don’t need to tell you should never have been allowed to happen. It is disgusting and outrageous that some people feel they have the right to debate the existence and rights of others. Media outlets like the Daily Mail, The Sun, The Times, and even supposedly left-wing papers like The Guardian join ‘feminists’ such as the LBG Alliance in condemning anything and everything to do with trans people, and trans women in particular. A June 2019 BBC report cited an 81% rise in recorded trans hate crimes in England, Scotland and Wales. And that’s only the recorded crimes. The number of crimes going unreported will certainly be much higher. Add to this the snide remarks, ‘jokes’ and erasure which may not constitute crimes in the eyes of the law, and you have a toxic mix which does its best to make trans people scared for their lives and livelihoods, and feel utterly unsupported by the society they live in. These problems seem to be even more targeted for young people: a 2018 Stonewall report found that 53% of trans people aged 18–24 had experienced a hate crime or incident based on their gender identity in the last 12 months. No wonder that rates of suicide attempts are also very high in the trans community. These are global issues, which get caught up in other toxic debates such as that over ‘free speech’, but are ones that are being fuelled by a hate-filled media in the UK.

“It is my duty to do what I can to support my trans sisters and brothers”

In this context, who am I to turn my nose up at an attempt to make trans people feel safer and more accepted? Whatever you think of Starbucks as a company, it is hugely significant that such a ubiquitous, workaday company is coming out so strongly in support of the trans community. There has to be a narrative of acceptance and love to counter the white noise of hatred that fills so much of our society. I am not qualified to argue about why trans rights are being so questioned, but I would summise that it is a deadly mix of ‘freedom of expression’, ‘women’s rights’ and white supremacy. Check out Alison Phipps on Twitter for some background and knowledgeable thoughts, and read Sophie Lawson’s 2019 article on how UK feminism has been infiltrated by anti-trans hate. All I know is that wherever and whenever I can I should be trying to show how accepted and loved trans people really are. Those who shout the loudest are those who are heard, so we should be shouting louder than the hate.

Of course, one group we definitely shouldn’t be shouting over is trans people themselves. I know there are plenty of trans people who are uncomfortable with this partnership, and the idea that Starbucks has found a way to monetise acceptance and sell it back to the people who need it most. No group is monolithic, and we should try to listen to and consider all voices within it. But for now, I’m pleased to have been able to help, in some small way, towards furthering the work of Mermaids. They report that the funds raised will allow them to expand their helpline services team, and increase their web-chat opening hours to a full 9am to 9pm service. This is really fantastic progress, and will mean so many more young people will be able to receive the help they need. Sure, I could just donate directly to the charity, but the huge buzz of the advertising campaign, and the charity’s presence in so many stores, makes for a really heartening and vocal support of the vulnerable trans community.

Whether you’re buying a cooking, donating, or simply just tweeting and getting the word out (not everyone is in a position to support them financially), let’s do all we can to show our trans sisters and brothers that we love them, accept them, and want them to be happy. Trans rights are human rights, trans happiness is real, and we must work for a world where everyone feels this and knows it to be true.

You can read more about the partnership on Mermaid’s website, on Starbucks’ website. To donate to Mermaids you can visit this page. If you’d like to access their helpline support, you can find out how to here.

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