• Zachary Blair

Starbucks and The Problem with Commercial "Safe Space"


In the days after Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, acts of racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, and misogyny that invoke the president-elect have made headlines. These events, along with a generalized fear and anxiety about and the future of the country, have sparked numerous movements around the creation of safe space.

The donning of the safety pin has become a widespread and contested movement, critiqued for its racial politics and slacktivism (alternatives have also been created). In protests and on lapels, the safety pin has come to symbolize protest, solidarity with marginalized groups, and safety from physical harm and emotional distress.

Another thing also happened. Some Starbucks stores in Seattle are turning into safe havens for victims of LGBT hate crimes. According to this article, the goal of the “Safe Place” is reduce violence and bias crimes within Seattle’s LGBTQ community and, most immediately, within the Capitol Hill neighborhood.


This sounds like an excellent idea in that it promotes the safety and security of LGBT people. However, the reliance on businesses and commercial spaces for LGBT safety is dangerous in that those who benefit most from the safety that these spaces afford are consumers. Furthermore, by labeling businesses "safe spaces," the fallacy of LGBT safety is promulgated through temporal and exclusive spaces, while the risk of being LGBT in public persists.

First, there is a danger for LGBT people in the assumption that commercial spaces are safe for everyone. This includes gay bars and gay nightclubs, which have touted and experienced by some as being spaces of sanctuary. I talk about this briefly in my article on the Pulse nightclub shooting. However, businesses have an incentive to make their spaces safe only for consumers.

As an anthropologist who conducted years of fieldwork in Boystown, Chicago's gay neighborhood, I have spent countless hours at the neighborhood's only 24-hour Starbucks observing social interactions in the neighborhood. Throughout my research, I documented homeless people being forcibly removed from stores due to customer complaints about the smell of body odor or unwelcome conversation interpreted as harassment. I also documented various strategies employed by Starbucks baristas to keep black and Latino LGBT people out of Starbucks stores by not providing free cups of water when asked, putting "out of order" signs outside of working restrooms, and asking LGBT "youth" to leave the store on the premise that they had to buy something if they wanted to stay (even if leaving meant having to go out into the cold at 2:00 AM in the middle of Chicago's brutal winters).

Commercial spaces like Starbucks have an economic incentive to exclude. Stores have to make sure their paying customers feel comfortable and that the coffee shop environment is enjoyable. They are after all businesses, whose central goal is to make a profit. Under capitalism, those who are not buying (who are not consumers) have no reason to be there. As a result, LGBT people who are severely economically disenfranchised–that is, those who are at the greatest risk for anti-LGBT violence–remain without adequate, additional, or necessary protections, which can only be attained through significant social, economic, and political change. In this context, those being excluded from these places of business are the homeless, poor, and/or young LGBT people of color who are excluded from the market economy.

For those whose actual lives (not just livelihoods) depend on more significant political-economic change, the increasing dependence on the market economy for LGBT safety and well-being is frightening. In addition to the exclusivity of these commercial "safe spaces," the visibility of these businesses as "safe spaces" makes invisible the structural issues that perpetuate anti-LGBT violence against people of color. This is because they are socially constructed in response to a narrow understanding of anti-LGBT violence (along the same lines as hate crimes legislation) that ignores issues such as racial inequality and homelessness. As such, businesses designated as "safe spaces" inevitably offer no more than a false sense of security and protection.

This calls into question the extent to which Trump's neofascism has ended a neoliberal era. Neoliberalism and Trump's brand of fascism are not mutually exclusive. Rather, in the immediate aftermath of the election it appears that they are mutually perpetuating. Starbucks' "safe spaces" show how neoliberalism extends beyonds policies and politicians. It is a force woven into the fabric of American society, where socio-economic issues are consumed by corporate brands and maintained through forces of capitalism.

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© 2016 by Dr. Zachary Blair