“The employee is being terminated due to violation of company policy. The employee is gay.”
With those words on a letter in her hands, Cheryl Summerville walked out of the Cracker Barrel in Douglasville, Georgia, in February 1991, fired from a job as a cook she loved and previously saw a bright future in. The abrupt change in company policy caused a ripple effect, leading to several more LGBT employees being fired, and causing this Bremen resident and her partner Sandra Riley’s quiet lives to turn into one of protests, harassment and a media storm, including appearances on “20/20,” “Larry King Live” and even “Oprah.”
Cracker Barrel quickly ditched the new company policy that required employees to “demonstrate normal heterosexual values,” and in 2002 adopted a non-discrimination policy that includes sexual orientation (but not gender identity).
Summerville, 56, and her partner Riley, 58, just celebrated their 33rd anniversary together and are now proud grandparents. She now works in management with Hardee’s.
Summerville took some time to talk with the GA Voice about the Cracker Barrel controversy, her “Queer Nation baby” and advice for Flint Dollar.
So Cheryl, you went to work as a cook at the Cracker Barrel in Douglasville in 1989. Were you out at work? Well, I was out, but it’s not like I went around and introduced myself to everyone as a lesbian. But Sandra would come around and I’d talk about her. I don’t think that everyone in the store knew it but a great deal did, and I knew the management team did. I wasn’t in the closet.
What was your initial reaction to getting fired for being gay? Pure shock. I went home and it took awhile for it to sink in that this had actually happened. I was really pissed off, too [laughs]. I was like, ‘They can’t do this, it’s against the law.’ Then I found out Monday morning [from the ACLU] that it wasn’t against the law in the state of Georgia and a great deal of other states.
What happened next? We had talked to several people and asked about different organizations. Then someone told us about Queer Nation, and with the name, we were like, ‘We’re not too sure about this.’ [laughs]
Then we were in Little 5 Points shortly after that and Sandra mentioned that Queer Nation was having a meeting there and suggested we stop in. There were all these normal people standing there. Lynn Cothren [the openly gay longtime assistant to the late Coretta Scott King] was there and he was in a suit and tie and had just come from the office working with Mrs. King. I guess I just expected more radical people, which some were of course. I guess I expected ranting, but it was a nice experience. Everyone there was very pleasant.
And a protest was discussed? That’s what was on top of the discussion list when we got there. So they set the date for the first one, which was held at the Norcross store off Jimmy Carter Boulevard, and we attended it.
Were you nervous about taking part? Nervous, scared even. I mean, I had never done anything like that. I didn’t know what to expect, I didn’t know how people would react. I was out of my comfort zone.
What was your reaction to the media attention? I was afraid the first time I spoke on camera. I was afraid for our son. I wouldn’t let them film me from the front. Then I got home and saw the interview and realized how ashamed I was of myself for doing that. So I made up my mind then that no matter what happened, that I couldn’t be afraid. I never did anything like that ever again. I was realizing that I wasn’t as out as much as I thought I was.
At one point, my son was harassed at school and he came to me and said, ‘Why you?’ And I said, ‘Because it happened to me and if I don’t stand up for myself, no one else will.’ Now I had tons of support, but I was always taught that you stand up for yourself. When I realized I wasn’t really doing that, I knew I just had to go full force.
How did you feel about Cracker Barrel changing the policy the next month after firing you? Very happy because for so long we had gone and not really made much difference. Let’s face it; we didn’t have a great deal of support from the customer base. It really took their shareholders to make a difference to bring them into the 20th century. So I’m just happy that happened and there was some kind of outcome.
What was life like after the policy change and the media attention died down? Our lives have settled down a great deal since then. Today we’re just comfortable where we’re at with our lives and are just an old married couple right now. We had a daughter that came out of it; she’s 21 years old now. They used to call her “the Queer Nation baby.”
Why is that? We had tried for awhile [to get pregnant] through a clinic without success. It’s an expensive process. Then we became very close friends with a man that we met through Queer Nation. Once we began to get short on money, he stepped up and said that he would be more than happy to be a donor. So we did some testing and it just worked out. We tried three times and [Riley] got pregnant. We look at that and think that this was all meant to happen. She’s really turned out to be a great kid.
How did the whole Cracker Barrel experience change you? In the very beginning I think it made me a lot more cynical. I didn’t trust people like I had. It’s really an eye-opening experience to find so much hate around you. A lot of times we would go to a protest and we would come across so much hate and so much negativity and meanness that after the protests were over, we would go somewhere all together and spend time together. That would help us be able to release some of that. But there were times where you went home and it left you with a bad taste in your mouth for a while. I had never experienced that. My family was pretty good about everything, we had a great deal of straight friends who were supportive, then for that to happen was a shock to the system—you do some really fast growing up.
I also became much more aware of things. I educated myself a great deal on it. There are so many positive things to go along with it. My daughter came out of it, which of course was the best thing that ever happened. It made my whole family much more aware of things that most people never experience.
You’ve heard about the Flint Dollar story. How do you feel about the fact that over 20 years later, this stuff is still happening and there is still not a non-discrimination policy in Georgia covering sexual orientation? Well, definitely there needs to be one. There needs to be a federal law period. It’s amazing, it’s always surprising to get up in the morning and see something like that happening again today. You think people have moved so far in the country and then things like that still happen. There will always be prejudice as far as I can figure. When it comes to African Americans, there’s still prejudice today. I assume that will still happen to us too.
As someone who went through the same kind of firestorm, what advice do you have for Dollar? Hang in there. He’s got a great deal of support. He can’t let it suck the life out of him. He’s still his own person.