In the age of growing transphobia—and Long Beach trying to combat it, politically—a daunting statistic stood out for retired Marine, former Pop Warner coach and now coffee-shop owner Tom West: nearly half of the entire trans population has attempted suicide at least once.
With a trans son-in-law who will be facing surgery in the coming weeks, West hopes his dive into the coffee business, with fiancée Shannon Francis, will help them eventually establish a nonprofit that connects trans adolescents and teens with trans adults that have been through the struggle of connecting with their identity. In other words, Long Beach Coffee & Tea, their shop at the southeast corner of Pine and 5th Street in Downtown, is a stepping stone into creating a better future for one of the nation’s most vulnerable populations.
“I had to watch my daughter struggle to come out as gay,” West said. “And it was painful to see her have to face so much ignorance, including my own. There was a lot I had to face within myself. But I wouldn’t change anything in the world because she has taught me so much, as has Ren [my son-in-law]. They deserve better and I want to work to give them just that.”
Empty nesters with three kids off to college, West and Francis met nearly seven years ago and eventually shared a bottle of wine thanks to West’s insistence and a social media, ahem, strategy.
“I wasn’t hiding in bushes by any means but there was something about her that I had to pursue,” West said, laughing heartily while Francis rolled her eyes.
“It was the wine,” she quipped.
One bottle of wine turned into two and the Long Beach residents hit a point where they would abandon their respective careers to focus on creating what Francis called “an enjoyable and safe and community-driven environment for all.”
This is the vibe of the shop itself: quaint, uncomplicated and filled with grub. There is meaty Boar’s Head sandwiches, wraps, breakfast burritos and more with your choice of everything from ghost pepper hot sauce to house-made salsa to full, un-speared pickles that warm the heart of any lover of dill. There is a “Smell Bar” where samples of teas in jars are available for your olfactory center to explore. There is cold brew on nitro.
And there is the love of Shannon and Tom.
“I think the experiences Tom and I have gone through have really culminated into this shop,” Francis said. “We’re loud and proud. And not just for ourselves, but for the entire Long Beach community. The veteran community. The LGBTQ community—that’s why our logo is so colorful. The Downtown community. The Pine Avenue community. They’ve all been such incredible supporters of us that we want to return that. This is a place for every single person no matter their background, beliefs, or status.”
If you visit the shop, don’t be shocked to find in conversation with West everyone from a Marine veteran to local LGBTQ legend Ben Rockwell coming in on his wheelchair to get his usual, while also being loquacious with anyone willing to lend an ear. And that type of connection comes with good reason.
“Every single one of our neighbors have welcomed us with open arms,” Francis said. “The Pie Bar, Romeos Chocolates, Pinot’s Palette, Kress Market… They are all standouts in answering any and all questions we have or had. We both came from a technology background and this is our first coffee shop so, naturally, there are challenges, and the challenges we’ve faced so far have been made easier due to the help we’ve received from our neighbors. It has honestly felt like a team, and we are all working to make ‘Decadence Row’ special to Long Beach.”
They’re working on creating their own Kona blend of coffee to offer patrons in the near future. They might look into selling beer and wine. But most important is why they’re doing this in the first place: They want to give something to the trans kids of the future by creating a nonprofit that connects trans youth with established, successful trans adults to act as mentors, guides, and friends.
“I’m an ally; that’s not a question,” West said. “And while I love my son-in-law and I love the trans community, I am not trans. I don’t have their experiences and they deserve to be with someone who doesn’t just understand but has actually been in their shoes. That will make them stronger, healthier, and maybe feel like the world has a bit of love to give them. That’s the ultimate goal of this coffee shop.”
Can we get an amen? Oh, and a Prilosec sandwich!
Long Beach Coffee & Tea is located at 480 Pine Ave.