It’s not every day that a barista being fired from her job makes international headlines. But then again, it’s not every day that a café worker is forced to serve someone who has spent their entire career fighting against their right to exist.
Last Wednesday, Natalie Weiss was working her shift at Cultiva Espresso & Crepes in Lincoln, Neb. when she saw a familiar face: Marilyn Synek, who serves as a communications specialist for the Nebraska Family Alliance. Synek’s organization, which describes itself as “pro-family” and “pro-life,” has fought tirelessly in favor of “religious freedom” laws allowing people of faith to refuse service to LGBTQ+ customers on the basis of faith. The group also opposes LGBTQ+ nondiscrimination protections and has fought against outlawing the discredited practice of conversion therapy.
Weiss tells Out that she wanted to show Synek “what it's like to experience what she advocates,” so she asked her to “leave and... not to come back.” She adds that she didn’t expect what happened next: Weiss was fired within the hour. The incident — and her subsequent termination — was covered by Newsweek, The Hill, and NBC News.
Since then, Weiss says she’s gotten “hundreds” of hate messages and death threats. Last week a stranger reached out to her on Facebook to say that they “should stick people like [her] on an island and drop a bomb on it.”
Even despite the controversy, Weiss says she doesn’t regret what she did. In a 45-minute phone call with Out — which has been edited and condensed — she says that she’s sorry for the impact the backlash has had on her friends and former coworkers, but if given the chance, she would do it all over again.
As told to Nico Lang:
I've got to tell you a story to tell you the story. I'm the former secretary for Nebraska Young Democrats. I worked for the mayor of Lincoln on her city council race a couple of years ago. I directed a canvas jointly funded by the Nebraska ACLU and Out Nebraska in 2017 that was set up to explore what the support might be for passing [an LGBTQ+ nondiscrimination ordinance] at the ballot box. I have developed a reputation as for myself as a trans advocate in Nebraska and have been working for some time to find a viable path forward for Lincoln’s Fairness Ordinance.
Based on the data that I got from canvassing the issue in 2017, we believed the amount of money, the people that we would need to hire, and the time that we would need to invest into the campaign was more than what the city was able to sustain. In order to have a reasonable chance for success, we would need in excess of $500,000 and about 250 paid full-time canvassers knocking on doors seven days a week for eight months to counter the negative campaigning that we would get from the Nebraska Family Alliance, Nebraska Catholic Conference, and their national conservative allies.
We know what conservatives do when these ballot initiatives are brought up locally: They frame the issue around trans women using public restrooms and they specifically try to frame it around pedophiles disguising themselves as women using female public restaurants.
My canvas specifically found a great number of people — and this is very Midwestern, very typical of anyone in the Plains states — do not have LGBTQ+ people in their lives and have no personal experience with us. While they don't think that anyone should be removed from their home or their job because of who they are, they don't believe that it happens in our city. Because they don't believe it happens, they don't support voting for a fix for it. When those people are on the fence, they are really susceptible to that conservative messaging about pedophiles and bathrooms.
All of that is to say that I had been doing all this stuff with the Fairness Ordinance. I had had a really long week. I was getting over a cold. I was still not feeling very well. I was pretty exhausted.
Cultiva — the café where I worked — is really conveniently located to the state capitol and city hall here in Lincoln. We have politicos of both major parties and all political persuasions coming into that shop with regularity. Marilyn was and is a regular customer there, but I came in that morning and there she was sitting there enjoying her food and her coffee, a face of an organization that I've been fighting for years, that fights against my rights and the rights of my community.
When she was leaving, I just snapped at her. I told her in no uncertain terms that she works for bigots, that she was coming into a place that was staffed by LGBTQ+ people, and that she shouldn't expect service from people that she actively fights against. I told her to leave and I told her not to come back. It was very vulgar and very loud.
There’s a saying here called "Nebraska Nice." We're very proud of it here in my state. The people here value politeness almost above all else. They hate reading about fights in their local newspaper. They don't want to hear about societal issues. They want everything to just be nice, neat, and comfortable. However, we are a pretty red state and there are a lot of opinions here held by a lot of individuals that are very negative and hateful of my community.
What Midwesterners do is they take a moment while you're sitting at a coffee shop and they're passing by you. They take a moment while you're working in a kitchen handing them their food and just in the moment when the money is being exchanged at the register, they call you a "faggot." They call you a "tranny." They call you "sir." They call you "he." They give you a look of disgust. They scoff. They let you know that you're not welcome, but they do it privately, very quietly so that no one else can hear it, so that there is no consequence for them and they can deny it ever happened at all.
As a trans person, if you react to that, you're the strange one. You're the one that's being impolite. The other person — the nice, white, cishet person — gets to walk away feeling superior and smug about the interaction. It's absolutely exhausting. I belong to several trans support groups here in southeast Nebraska and those stories are ubiquitous. There are some days where we snap or we get really depressed and we hide ourselves in our room for a day or two or we don't talk to anyone and just don't go out and see anyone or anything. We have to just totally close ourselves in. There are some days that are a lot easier to get through than others.
But Cultiva is a very liberal place. They are owned by two people who hate the president with a passion. They support LGBTQ+ rights and people. They have employed their store overwhelmingly with people who identify in the LGBTQ+ umbrella. Their general manager is a queer woman, and the message that we had received as employees was that we were allowed to kick out bigots and that we were allowed to kick out anyone who made us feel unsafe or uncomfortable. There was a caveat involved with that: It had to have been something that they did in the store while you were working. That message that I received is why I felt comfortable doing what I did to Marilyn.
About a half-hour after that happened, my kitchen manager got a phone call from the general manager who told him that the owners had decided that I needed to be terminated. That was communicated to me and I left. I don't regret what I did. I really regret some of the consequences of it. The staff at Cultiva has been subjected to what I understand is a tremendous amount of really nasty harassing phone calls. Those are my friends. They're good people, and they had nothing to do with what I did. The owners have also been subjected to a tremendous amount of hate, which is also something that they did not deserve. They gave me a safe place to work, and I understand their decision as business owners.
But Marilyn and her coworkers, what they get paid to do is to argue in front of the Nebraska State Legislature that the behavior that I exhibited towards Marilyn should be legal as long as it's being done to people like me. Marilyn and her organization tell gay people who are looking for wedding cakes that they should just go someplace else if they're denied service. Marilyn very easily could have gone to another coffee shop in accordance with her own advice to my community.
My understanding of the argument against LGBTQ+ people who are saying that we deserve access to jobs and homes without being denied because of who we are is that it's a free market and business owners are able to deny service to whomever they want. They say you shouldn't expect society to be accepting of you because of your beliefs. Every single time some Christian conservative is denied service somewhere, they scream, "That is so unfair. That is so uncivil. How could anyone possibly do that?" And then they turn around and argue that exact behavior should be legal and accepted as long as they're doing it to the LGBTQ+ community. It's one of the most hypocritical stances in American politics today. I don't understand how they maintain their cognitive dissonance. It's just insane to me.
I gave her 30 seconds of what it's like to experience what she advocates. I am not sorry for what I did. Even though I am sorry for some of these consequences, I would absolutely do what I did to her again.