By the time this newspaper hits stands, it will be more than two weeks since thousands lined up outside Chick-fil-A restaurants, answering the call of Mike Huckabee, the failed GOP presidential candidate turned conservative commentator, to celebrate “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” Aug. 1 to thank the chain for being “willing to take a stand for the Godly values we espouse.”
It will be about two weeks since LGBT people held their own counter-protests, ranging from kiss-ins at Chick-fil-A restaurants (Aug. 3) to a day of support for Starbucks and other gay-friendly corporations (Aug. 7), and even a day dedicating to backing locally owned “gay-loving” businesses instead (Aug. 8).
In that time, gay couples haven’t broken up and turned heterosexual, Christian marriages haven’t suddenly grown stronger, and public opinion hasn’t been shifted from its seemingly inexorable — though slow — progress toward justice for LGBT people.
On the other hand, the heads of the Atlanta-based chicken chain haven’t renounced their positions, vowed to stop giving donations from their foundation to virulently anti-gay causes, or been driven out of business for being bigots.
So what was the point of it all?
Was it just to make LGBT people — including many of us in Atlanta, who already were well aware of Chick-fil-A’s anti-gay stands — feel like we are living in some kind of gay version of the film “Ground Hog’s Day,” where we are doomed to keep repeating the same controversies over and over again?
Or are there lessons we can take from this latest Chick-fil-A controversy to help our local and national movements go forward?
Time to draw the line at the ‘chickin’ stand
The latest round of controversy over Chick-fil-A launched in earnest in mid-July, when Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy told a Christian media outlet that his company is “guilty as charged” on opposing marriage rights for same-sex couples.
“I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say, ‘We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage,’” Cathy said, as quoted by the Baptist Press on July 16.
Cathy’s comments caught the eye of mainstream media, where they stood in stark contrast to a string of positive news on gay marriage in recent months. Meanwhile, some veteran LGBT activists likely rolled their eyes instead.
Call it “Chick-fil-A fatigue” — for many who have criticized the company’s positions for years, Cathy’s comments drew the equivalent of a collective “duh.”
“Certainly my first reaction was, this topic again?” admitted Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, the state’s largest LGBT political group.
It’s not as if Chick-fil-A’s positions are new, Graham noted, pointing to media reports in 2011 about Chick-fil-A’s corporate giving to anti-gay groups — reports that have actually come from liberal groups for several years.
After an earlier round of criticism, Dan Cathy put out a press release in January 2011 to clarify that the company has “no agenda against anyone,” while gay Atlanta activists staged a tiny protest (complete with cow suit) at a Chick-Fil-A conference at the Georgia World Congress Center in May of last year.
In fact, this latest firestorm of outrage over Chick-fil-A was slower to ignite in Georgia than in other parts of the country, where people may be less familiar with the company, Graham observed.
“Where Chick-fil-A is a newer company, they have just seen it as a cute little company that has those funny cows,” he said. “Chick-fil-A really does such an incredible job of marketing in a very friendly, funny way that people just assume they are going to be a company that is open and accessible to all sorts of people.”
When those who were just starting to pay attention to Chick-fil-A started looking at the folksy company more closely, a simple Google search would turn up all of those older controversies.
“LGBT blogs and media played a large role in bringing forth facts about Chick-fil-A’s giving history,” said Rich Ferraro, spokesperson for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, which helped compile information about protests around the nation, including the Aug. 3 “Same Sex Kiss Day” at Chick-fil-A.
“That information was amplified after Cathy’s recent comments, which sparked media attention because they were out of touch with the growing majority of Americans, including our nation’s leader, who support marriage equality,” Ferraro said.
Far from corporate leaders opposing gay marriage, Chick-fil-A’s more egregious sins (to use a language they would find familiar) come in the guise of the WinShape Foundation, the company’s corporate giving arm.
As Equality Matters documented, in just 2010, Chick-fil-A’s foundation gave more than $1.9 million to organizations that oppose LGBT equality — including $1,000 each to Exodus International, which tries to help people overcome homosexuality, and the rabidly anti-gay Family Research Council; and more than $247,000 to the National Christian Foundation, which in turn gives grants to groups like the Family Research Council.
Previous beneficiaries include the Alliance Defense Fund, basically the opposite of Lambda Legal.
“So much of WinShape Foundation’s funding supports individuals and organizations who demonize queer folks,” Graham said. “It really is about much more than marriage. It’s about Chick-fil-A funding organizations that at best want to discriminate against us, and at worst want to eradicate us.”
It was the funding, coupled with Dan Cathy’s gloating defense of his company’s policies, that tipped the scale against Chick-fil-A this time.
So the lesson here is that — at long last — it doesn’t matter how tasty the chicken is. If there is even a chance that a penny from your wallet might make its way to groups that so vehemently oppose your very existence, no self-respecting LGBT person or true ally can take the risk.
Finally, Facebook ‘friends’ matter
Along with wider mainstream media exposure to those who actually were learning about Chick-fil-A’s policies and donations for the first time, another key difference — and lesson — in this latest round of chicken controversy was the role of social media, especially Facebook.
Huckabee used the internet to publicize his Aug. 1 Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day, and many participants touted their support on Facebook, including a particularly galling graphic that said the day was to support “free speech.”
Atlanta’s Kirsten Ott Palladino, editor of online magazine Equally Wed, also used Facebook for publicity when she declared Aug. 7 the first Starbucks Appreciation Day, and then expanded it to National Marriage Equality Day with a call to patronize all companies that back LGBT nuptials. The Facebook page for the event drew over 38,000 to click that they were “going.”
Unable to get behind an effort to support any large corporation, another Atlanta resident, Kiki Carr, also used Facebook to organize an alternative “National Support Gay-Loving Local Independent Businesses Day” on Aug. 8, with 750 joining in just four days.
“Facebook was used by young people around the country to mobilize in a way that could be replicated in states where LGBT issues are being debated or voted on,” noted GLAAD’s Ferraro.
Yet while the role of virtual organizing for real-world protests continues to grow, using Facebook as a means to publicize an event or cause is hardly new.
What is different is that this time, the Facebook conversations themselves mattered.
Too often, Facebook can be an echo chamber — a place where our views are seldom challenged, because our self-selected “friends” are people with whom we already generally agree.
But Chick-fil-A is so ubiquitous (the company’s Facebook page has more than 6 million “likes”) that many LGBT people found they had friends who supported the company, and many found themselves reading post after post backing the chicken chain.
In response, the past two weeks saw a deluge of status updates from LGBT people explaining how they are hurt by Chick-fil-A’s policies, and why they were going to “unfriend” anyone who supported the company.
At first glance, all of the Facebook unfriending may have seemed more pathetic than positive: While previous generations sat in at lunch counters for racial equality, marched for women’s rights and stood up to anti-gay police at the Stonewall Inn, now our activism amounts to clicking a box on Facebook?
Still, the most effective tool of social change is almost always one-on-one connections, changing hearts and minds by showing the personal impact of discrimination and inequality.
And in this case, that’s exactly what Facebook delivered. Debates over Chick-fil-A played out on the same page where participants on both sides would also see photos and comments about each others’ children, pets and daily life.
“It just broke my heart to see person after person posting about how hurt they were by seeing friends and family support Chick-fil-A in such a strong way,” said Graham of Georgia Equality. “While I hate that it was so painful for those folks, I hope people will take this as an opportunity to continue to talk to friends and family about the reality of our lives.”
We can’t let this be a fight over ‘free speech’
In her essay “The Winner Names the Age” Southern writer Lillian Smith — a white woman who staunchly opposed segregation and, yes, a lesbian — discussed how the side that wins a social debate defines the era.
“An age is named for its triumphs, for the big ideas that add stature to the human being. …We cannot name our age, the winner will do that. What we can do is pick the winner,” Smith wrote in 1957, as quoted by scholar Rose Gladney in a 1979 issue of “Southern Changes.”
But if we want our side to be the winner in either the Chick-fil-A debate or the larger debate over LGBT equality, this latest controversy also highlighted how careful we have to be with our tactics.
The Religious Right is nothing if not media savvy. After years of couching their stands in terms of “family values,” the conservatives realized that while that language still works to rally the base, mainstream moderates weren’t falling for it anymore.
Since then, we’ve seen a concerted effort to couch their debates in terms of one of the most iconic (and most misunderstood) tenets of American government — the First Amendment, which protects freedom of speech, religion, the press, and assembly.
Often, this strategy can be countered with a simple lesson on what the First Amendment actually says: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech…” [emphasis added]
In other words, while supporters interviewed at Chick-fil-A’s restaurants might use “free speech” to explain why they think critics are wrong to boycott the chain over Cathy’s comments, the First Amendment doesn’t mean you have the right to speech that is free of all consequences. It only means those consequences can’t come from the government.
Yet in the case of Chick-fil-A, some politicians who support LGBT rights blurred those lines, unintentionally playing right into the conservatives’ hands.
Boston Mayor Thomas Menino (who later backed down) and Chicago Alderman Joe Moreno were among those stating they would work to block the chain’s efforts to open new restaurants in their cities.
That caught the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union, which supports LGBT equality — including filing a lawsuit seeking marriage equality in Illinois — but is dedicated to defending the First Amendment. The ACLU was quoted in Fox News and other media defending Chick-fil-A.
“In regard to the Chick-fil-A controversy, our concern is that the power of government— through the office of the mayor or an alderman, here in Chicago — is being used to punish those who have views that are not consistent with those in power at a particular moment,” Edwin Yohnka, spokesperson for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, told GA Voice.
An individual or organization speaking out against Chick-fil-A is vastly different than a government entity preventing a restaurant from opening, Yohnka explained, noting that the tactic could also backfire.
“Criticizing someone — anyone — for the views that they have is a legitimate freedom of expression, and it does not limit someone else’s free speech rights,” he said.
“The concern arises when government takes action based on speech. That is dangerous and, we are concerned, could be used against those companies that have led the way in pushing progress in LGBT rights.”
The gay blog Joe.My.God was more direct in criticizing the politicians: “Their words poured gasoline on the fire and allowed our enemies to frame the entire national debate as being about freedom of speech, which we know it is not,” it argued, concluding that “we lost this round and we lost it badly.”
Atlanta City Councilmember Alex Wan walked a fine line when he told GA Voice on July 27 that not only would he personally boycott the chain, he would “oppose their efforts to expand further within the city.”
This week, Wan said reaction to his stand has been “pretty evenly split,” though he did garner his first “hate email,” which accused him of being an anti-Christian bigot.
He also clarified that he did not mean city government should take action against Chick-fil-A based on its leaders’ opinions.
“Clearly, I would not — nor would I be able to — try and have the City deny or revoke a permit to Chick-Fil-A if they meet the legal requirements for that permit,” Wan said.
The City Council doesn’t play a role in permit issuance, Wan said, except when the applicant doesn’t meet zoning requirements and seeks a special variance to get around them. In those cases, they often turn to City Council members to help find a solution.
“I will not be inclined to assist Chick-Fil-A should that situation arise in District 6. Nor would I be inclined to support any variance requests in the rest of the City should that arise. I do feel that is absolutely within my prerogative as an elected official to exercise that discretion,” Wan said.
In that case, it wouldn’t be the government blocking an otherwise lawful business only based on a viewpoint, Wan argued, it would just mean declining to help them get around a requirement with which they are already out of compliance.
“I absolutely respect a person’s/entity’s right to free speech. But I also believe that right does not shield that person/entity to the consequences of what they choose to express,” Wan said. “In this example, the consequence is losing the support and cooperation of someone whose assistance they might find themselves needing sometime in the future.”
That’s a welcome explanation, because if we let our opponents name this battle a fight over “free speech,” we won’t be the winners who ultimately get to name this age.
Atlanta activists garner national Chick-fil-A spotlight
Atlanta isn’t just home to Chick-fil-A. It’s also home to LGBT activists whose responses to the ‘chikin’ chain garnered national headlines.
While Atlanta may have been slow to warm up to the latest round of Chick-fil-A controversy, we eventually took the lead in several different efforts that drew extensive media attention.
The Atlanta-based Gayborhood App and Carma Productions, which produce online and print LGBT directories, announced their support for National Same-Sex Kiss Day and organized one of the local Aug. 3 protests. Their Decatur rally was joined by events at Chick-fil-A restaurants at Atlanta’s CNN Center, Colony Square and in Midtown.
Carma CEO Marci Alt also became a face of the national Chick-fil-A debate when she posted a letter on Change.org inviting Dan Cathy to have dinner with her family, including her wife and two small children.
At press time, Alt said she had heard no response from Chick-fil-A’s Cathy, but she think the invitation was successful even if the Cathy and Alt families never actually sit down to dinner.
“I truly believe that by inviting him to dinner and creating a petition through change.org, we have opened the eyes of many people worldwide,” Alt said. “I know that most people weren’t aware of the many organizations that are being funded by Chick-fil-A and that some of these organizations are hate-based. I know that I won’t be eating there nor will any of my friends.”
The day after Huckabee’s national Chick-fil-A lovefest, Atlanta-based EquallyWed.com announced Aug. 7 as National Marriage Equality Day, which focused on supporting Starbucks and other gay-friendly companies.
“It was giving our community and allies a chance to realize that we had power in our purchases, too. We didn’t just have to stake out bigoted companies and kiss our significant others at those locations,” Equally Wed Editor Kirsten Ott Palladino told GA Voice.
Palladino’s project was almost immediately countered by Atlanta activist Kiki Carr’s call to celebrate “National Support Gay-Loving Local Independent Businesses Day” on Aug. 8.
“Frankly it was pissing me off every time someone posted the Starbucks event,” Carr said. “First, support for gay rights is the minimum. We shouldn’t be thanking companies just because they say they support gay marriage.”
Starbucks has damaged LGBT communities by running independent stores out of business, she charged.
“For gays specifically, in many small towns and suburbs, our community only finds each other at friendly bars and independent cafes,” Carr said. “Starbucks has made a practice of installing stores within a block of independent cafes and under-selling them, in order to shut them down. … This has a direct cultural effect on our community, the LGBTQI community —removing our vibrant, nurturing community gathering spaces.”
Top photo: Atlanta activists joined in National Same-Sex Kiss Day on Aug. 3 by smooching and rallying at Chick-fil-A restaurants at Piedmont Avenue, Colony Square, CNN Center and in the suburb of Decatur (not pictured). See more photos at www.theGAVoice.com (Photos by Dyana Bagby and Ryan Watkins)