What a startling, painful gut-check. LGBT people were basking in the warm glow of apparent acceptance with the Democratic Party Platform committee’s historic decision to include a plank supporting marriage equality and a new Pew Research poll showing support for marriage equality among Democrats had jumped to 65 percent.
And then BAM! An out-of-control controversy exploded over Chick-fil-A COO Dan Cathy’s peacock stance on “traditional marriage.”
Cathy said on the Ken Coleman radio talk show: “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.’ I pray God’s mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.”
Suddenly, a couple of pro-equality elected officials in Boston and Chicago jumped on Cathy’s statements and said Chick-fil-A was not welcome in their area.
That stirred the ire of Fox News host and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who called for a “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” on Aug. 1. He framed the controversy as a First Amendment issue—with the brightly highlighted theme of government punishing Chick-fil-A for their religious beliefs, which Huckabee called “economic bullying.”
Thousands of people lined up around the corners at Chick-fil-A restaurants across the nation to show their support. In some cases, participants told reporters they didn’t have a problem with gay rights, but this was just going too far—and besides, they craved the fried sandwich.
The Religious Right loved it, having scored a huge PR coup. “It’s gone beyond anything I could have imagined,” Huckabee told Fox News. “Every one of (the stores) that I know have reported record, historic sales yesterday. … A lot of the stores ran out of chicken before the end of the day.”
The elected officials walked back their comments about refusing permits for new Chick-fil-A franchises; the LGBT community didn’t call for a boycott or organize any counter-protest—other than The Abbey restaurant in West Hollywood creating a Chick-For-Gay sandwich and a Facebook effort suggesting that people donate the cost of a chicken dinner (about $6.50) to support an LGBT advocacy organization.
But the mainstream media went for the visuals and ignored the hate that went along with the jubilation. A counter-protest to the “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood was organized by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) with no input or participation by local LGBT leadership. That resulted in shouting matches about the Bible by straight people supporting and opposing gay rights.
But Renee Sotile and Mary Jo Godges said the atmosphere was heavy with hate. And there was no LGBT spokesperson to point out that the Chick-fil-A uproar was about more than marriage equality. Rather, the issue is over how WinShape, the foundation behind Chick-fil-A, uses customers’ cash to help create an environment of anti-gay hate. Equality Matters reported on July 2: “In early 2011, Chick-fil-A came under fire for its donations and political ties to a number of anti-gay groups. Though Chick-fil-A continues to deny supporting an anti-gay agenda, the company has donated over $3 million to organizations like the Family Research Council and Exodus International between 2003 and 2009. And in 2010 alone, Chick-fil-A donated over $1.9 million to anti-gay causes, more than any other year for which public records are available.”
Protesting a company because of the contributions by the company’s foundation is not new. In the late 1970s, Harvey Milk joined labor in the boycott of the Coors Brewing Company because founder Adolph Coors funded anti-gay groups and the company was accused of firing gay and lesbian employees. Subsequently, the company came around because, as chair Pete Coors said, it was good business.
Additionally, the LGBT community has been generally opposed to using government permits to prevent businesses from opening. In 2001, openly gay Palm Springs councilmember Ron Oden reportedly was the lone vote against a Harley-Davidson shop opening up, explaining that such government permits had been used to prevent gay bars from opening. He argued that customers should decide the success or failure of a business.
The Chick-fil-A controversy will eventually die down as a media story. But one of the unseen consequences of the “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” is just how happy those diners were. It was as if they were experiencing a secular communion with fellow “Silent Majority” believers. LGBT people know that feeling—it’s the shared common bond with strangers at the marches on Washington and other jubilant events. Chick-fil-A has become a symbolic local mecca, and it may be wise for LGBT leaders and activists to consider how best to communicate with regular people who feel emboldened by “defending” the First Amendment but have no clue how their loyalty may lead to hate.