Last summer, fast food restaurant Chick-fil-A, became a flashpoint in the ongoing public debate about the role of LGBT people in America. It was revealed that over the course of 10 years, Chick-fil-A had donated over 5 million dollars to several anti-gay groups, including those that have political agendas that actively seek to harm hardworking LGBT adults, young people and our families such as Family Research Council and those that push dangerous practices like so-called “ex-gay therapy” like Exodus International.
When asked if Chick-fil-A was against marriage for same-sex couples, CEO Dan Cathy responded “guilty as charged.” He followed that simple, flippant statement with a much more explicit one. “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.
These statements launched strong reactions in the LGBT community, which then launched strong reactions from the anti-LGBT community. While Mike Huckabee called for a “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” thousands protested outside local stores. And the moment passed. At least for a while, it seemed.
Earlier this week, Shane Windmeyer, the Executive Director of Campus Pride, which works to create safe learning environments for LGBT college students, wrote an account of his developing personal relationship with Chick-fil-A Executive Director, Dan Cathy, which began when Campus Pride was taking actions against Chick-fil-A for its anti-gay funding. The two have communicated a lot since the protests of last summer. Because of his dialogue with Shane, Dan Cathy may be hearing, for the first time, what sort of harassment and discrimination is faced by young LGBT people in high schools and on college campuses. Shane has also reported that Chick-fil-A has curtailed their donations to the most divisive anti-LGBT organizations with the overt mission of harming LGBT people.
Is this progress? It depends on how we define “progress.” I don’t consider Dan Cathy an ally yet, but I do believe he has learned, grown, and understood the LGBT community more than he ever has before.
Dan Cathy’s views on marriage equality have not changed, by Windmeyer’s own admission. However, Cathy has learned of the real harms that befall LGBT people, particularly on college campuses, when such a flippant attitude toward LGBT people is taken. And Cathy doesn’t want his company contributing to that environment any more.
But that also means that Dan Cathy is far from being a vocal ally and accepting marriage equality. The only way that he can become an ally is to get to know real, living, breathing, loving, working LGBT people. If we want him to move beyond stony silence about LGBT people, then we are going to have to show him who we are and what our lives are like. It is through the power of personal, trusted relationships that we develop allies. The same thing is true for family members, co-workers, and classmates as it is for politicians, celebrities, and CEOs.
This is not easy work, and frankly, not all are suited for it. We will continue to need voices outside, calling for actions that respect and affirm the LGBT community, but we also need those who are willing to open themselves up and talk about why donations to anti-gay organizations are so harmful to real Americans who are working to build a life.
I get asked by friends, “Can I eat at Chick-fil-A again?” This is both the simplest and most complicated question to answer.
I’m sure a lot of LGBT people don’t trust Dan Cathy, nor are they going to want to spend their hard-earned dollars at Chick-fil-A. They are completely justified in wanting to patronize businesses that affirm the full humanity and equality of LGBT people, covertly and overtly.
Consumers still need to make the decision for themselves about how they want to spend their money. Some may decide that their witness within individual Chick-fil-A restaurants may be the thing that helps the company understand that LGBT people are not the threat that they once imagined. Others may decide that there are other places to get a chicken sandwich.
Ultimately, the power comes when we sit down and educate people about the realities of our lives. Shane Windmeyer has answered the call to be both an outside agitator and a graceful engager with Chick-fil-A. What role do we play to help the Dan Cathy and his company continue to grow and understand that support for the LGBT community is the right thing to do?
Ross Murray is director the office for Religion, Faith & Values GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation).
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