The revolution won’t come in a Starbucks cup

Starbucks has deeply offended at least half its US customers, and the vast majority of its international customers.

Those words aren’t mine, and I’m not sure if they’re true with regard to fact. I lifted them from a website, DumpStarbucks.com, which appears to have sprung up late last week and which swiftly went viral. The tract goes on:

On January 12th, 2012, Starbucks issued a memorandum declaring that same-sex marriage “is core to who we are and what we value as a company”.

Starbucks also used its resources to participate in a legal case seeking to overturn a federal law declaring marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

In many areas of the world where Starbucks does business, the concept of “gay marriage” is unheard of and deeply offensive to cultural, moral and religious values.

In taking these actions, Starbucks has declared a culture war on all people of faith (and millions of others) who believe that the institution of marriage as one man and one woman is worth preserving.

The religious right getting to grips with technology is certainly a refreshing sight, and there’s nothing better than a good old culture war. But the focus of this post is less the Dump Starbucks site than the response to it – a mass-signed, petitionesque “Thank you” card addressed to Starbucks which went equally viral.

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It’s the second post in a row where I’ve balked at something well-meaning, so I promise I’ll get straight back on the sunshine train tomorrow. A lot about this meme – and it seems like little else – concerns me somewhat.

On Facebook, here were some of the comments which met the ‘Thank you’ site when one friend shared it:

This makes me want to drink Starbucks even more

I don’t like coffee but I might start buying it now

Wow. Haven’t been to Starbucks in ages but I suddenly feel like a nice refreshing frappuchino.

I may have to visit Starbucks now… even if it’s not for coffee (I hear their muffins are good).

I’m a cynic, of course, but might the motives of Starbucks not have been strictly ideological when it provoked the religious right? (They’re not exactly the target audience of frappuccino sellers, after all.)

It’s almost as if gayness, like overpriced coffee, is a product they now stock. What’s certainly true is that gay is a profitable brand, in which multinational companies increasingly trade. My university’s LGBT society was sponsored by Deloitte; the L Project, a lesbian music group who’ve just released a charity single, are sponsored by Pret. Even McDonalds put out this advert two years ago.

I’m going to be blunt. I don’t like this kind of corporate-led, “consumer power” campaign. I don’t like it at all. I think it pulls activism in precisely the wrong direction, toward the most accommodationist, compromising, acceptable goals. I think it leads to pursuing them by the most accommodationist, compromising, acceptable methods.

It’s true that Facebook undeniably is a zone of retrenchment – if you’re not a postmodernist with a blog, that its politics are full of crap – but I’m instinctively suspicious of the idea that buying Starbucks coffee is a route to queer liberation. Actually, when has buying a product ever led to political change?

radicalrabbit has a post about “capitalism and the way it seeks to appropriate radical movements and sell them back to us”. When feminists took on the cosmetics industry for selling images of prettified, subservient housewives which devalued women, it responded some years later with slogans like “Because I’m worth it”. Where “beauty” products had been glossed as enemies of female strength, now buying hair products and perfume was framed as the route to “strong, independent womanhood”.

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If you want to see the deradicalising influence of corporate lobbying for protest movements – and the queer movement started out, undoubtedly, as just that – you need only ask what Starbucks won’t support.

They’re happy to stand up for monogamous white gay couples in southern California who’ll get married without fearing violence.

Will they stand up to police who inflict that violence on queers around the world? Will they support “indecency” demos to end sexual shame enforced by police? Fund lawsuits against them, even?

Will Starbucks fight violence against trans people, and especially sex assaults on transwomen? Will they fight for public funding of transitional therapies? Failing that, donate money? Will they fight to free transwomen and lesbians imprisoned for defending themselves when men tried to “fuck them straight”?

When religious teachers in state schools around the world spread homophobia, is Starbucks going to fight for separation of church and state? Will it come to the defence of bashed students who, like the New Jersey four, defend themselves forcefully?

When Mormon parents in Utah throw their queer kids out of the house, will Starbucks help prosecute them for neglecting their children? For being abusive? Will it fund initiatives to fight the insane Mormon church? Or the Catholic church, which tells us we’re guilty of moral evil? Or baptist and charismatic churches which literally demonise queer children, exorcism and all?

And when those kids in Salt Lake City are on the streets, selling sex so they can eat, will Starbucks fight to legalise that work and stop police rounding them up (or worse)? Will it help sex workers form trade unions to end trafficking and exploitation, and fight for better conditions and accessible healthcare?

These issues, in my view, are all a great deal more important and more pressing than gay marriage – assuming gay marriage is even a good idea. If “the gay agenda” exists, they should be right at the top. And I use the word “fight” on purpose, because all of them are uphill battles; that’s why Starbucks, a billion dollar company, won’t get behind them. Like all large corporations, it relies on appealing to the masses, even when the masses are prejudiced.

Natalie Reed, on her amazing FreeThought Blogs page, writes how “social justice movements will typically allow the narrative of a given group to be dominated by individuals who are normative in all other senses”. Relying on companies like Starbucks, then, is one way this happens. It diverts our activistic energy to the most “normal” areas, and further silences the more marginalised groups who need it most – for whom marriage, if desired at all, is not a solution to the life-endangering problems at hand.

Moreover, it persuades us to vote with our wallets and not our feet. Like parliamentary voting, actually, it encourages us to think we’ve achieved more than we have – that by purchasing a muffin, we’ll somehow be fighting a queer fight that encroaches on Stonewall and White Night’s legacy.

Consumer power, at its heart, is not real power. Giving money to the rich for the promise of their approval is precisely disempowering. It implies the validity of queer sexualities needs to be bought; that we not only have to ask for mainstream approval, but pay for it too.

And if buying Starbucks is a form of power, who wields that power? Metropolitan, middle class professionals for the most part, who can afford £5 on a cup of coffee. The same people, generally speaking, who stand to gain most from same sex marriage and require the least aid from genuine activism in all other senses. Once again, it’s the worst kind of slacktivism – below wristband wearing, and Twibbon displaying and even blogging – because it helps misdirect the campaigning mainstream.

This post has been a noisy, far left grunt on behalf of old fashioned faggots. It’s important, though.