Five simple lessons from Shane Windmeyer’s friendship with Chick-fil-A’s Dan Cathy
By Elizabeth Tenety,
Shane Windmeyer, executive director of the LGBT group Campus Pride, wrote a hugely viral blogpost for the Huffington Post this week in which he explained how he became friends with Dan Cathy, the president of Chick-fil-A.
The fast-food chain has drawn nationwide criticism from gay rights activists in recent months because of Cathy’s statements on marriage and Chick-fil-A’s support of anti-gay organizations. After Windmeyer’s group led a nationwide boycott of the chain with a “Five Simple Facts about Chick-fil-A” campaign in the summer of 2012, Cathy reached out to him. Campus Pride suspended its boycott; Windmeyer and Cathy’s subsequent, still-evolving friendship allowed the unlikely pair to enjoy a football game together on New Year’s Eve.
Windmeyer was raised Catholic, but although he still defines himself that way, he no longer attends church services regularly. “I don’t want to not feel welcome anymore,” he says.
Could Windmeyer’s popular column represent one possible way forward amid the bitter stalemate between gay rights activists and the — often religious — supporters of traditional marriage?
From an interview with Windmeyer about his friendship with Cathy, here are five lessons for people on both sides of the marriage argument:
1. Let’s talk to each other
“We as an organization decided to put down our picket signs and come to the table. But it took Dan reaching out to me, it took me trusting him and actually being willing to sit down with the man. It all has to start with dialogue and understanding. To have dialogue with someone doesn’t mean you’re going to agree with them, but it can model respect and civility in a way that creates an actual relationship.
“Now, that’s not going to be true of everyone. And I want to be clear about that. There are people who have very strong beliefs who, when you talk to them, they’re not going to have respect or civility. And that happens on both sides of this argument, and particularly with Dan and me, we went to the table and we wanted to have a discussion that was authentic, and that dialogue had to be one of mutual respect.
“Often, in this country, we have such heated rhetoric, which has been the case around Chick-fil-A, since Dan even said his comment, and people started building on what that meant. Rightly or wrongly so, that creates division. We can blame that on one another for that division, that rhetoric, but each one of us has a responsibility to not fuel hate and to truly come together to listen and respect. That has to happen first with dialogue and sitting down and hearing, not just hearing with our ears but truly taking in, as someone of faith, what they’re talking about.
“Our organization, Campus Pride, teaches our young adults to engage in dialogue — respectful and civil dialogue. My opportunity with Dan was to not only speak but to role-model, to walk the walk. Dan saw it as an opportunity from his faith to minister in a way where he didn’t know how this was going to end up. We are still on this path. It is not complete. But that dialogue is still occurring.
“I told people repeatedly, as well as my students who have expressed many differing views, that this is about listening. I am trying to role-model what I hope can inspire and can help create civil discourse on college campuses. But that also has to start in society, too, so it’s a larger issue.”
2. Let’s see each other as humans worthy of full dignity.
“Human dignity and worth is at the heart of everything.
“I say that . . . as a gay man who has spent much of his youth up until college questioning my own worth because of what I would hear through faith or religious leaders. . . . And so for LGBT Americans, as well as for others who are harassed or discriminated against, it all comes down to giving each other human dignity and saying they are worthy of God or each other — they are worthy of being on Earth. We are all human beings, and at the end of the day, I think we are put here to learn from each other and to love. And I think we’ve lost that in the rhetoric. Chick-fil-A, I think, is a perfect example — we’ve lost it in the rhetoric in this country, but we’ve specifically lost it in talking about a chicken sandwich and Chick-fil-A.
“I want to be clear that Dan heard me when I said, ‘You realize that Family Research Council has been quoted saying that people like me are the pawns of the enemy?’ He understood how that impacted a young person. Before, I don’t know that he heard that. I think that’s really important.
“I think the divisive organizations on both sides of this that want to dig in their heels or who want to spew rhetoric that is stereotypical and defaming of the other group are not really giving one other full human dignity. That’s one of the most pivotal moments: when we can come together and say: You know what? I want to give you the worth and the value you need.
“One of my overarching goals in writing the Huffington Post piece was to tell America that each of us, regardless of our religious views about faith, deserves human dignity.
“I have received hundreds of e-mails, and the ones where I know that I’m doing something good are when I hear people talk about faith and talk about the discussions that they’re having around their own dinner table regardless of whether they’re eating Chick-fil-A or not. It really ultimately comes down to, ‘Will I still love my son if he comes out to me?’’ and ‘Will I still respect my neighbor and call up my neighbor if I need help if I know that they’re a gay couple?’ That’s where we get down to the human dignity.”
3. Let’s understand what our differences really are and let’s seek to find common ground
“For Dan and I very early on, after having several phone calls and text messages, it was clear that we didn’t want this to be a one-time conversation. Of course, I was very leery. I was very distrustful of Dan, and I think I would have been wrong not to be. I’m sure he was concerned about my intentions. We assumed and we heard what we wanted to hear about one another.
“For me, [those assumptions] were about him being a Christian, it was about his words about marriage and his tone in his voice when he talked about the judgment of God, saying that he’s ‘guilty as charged’ in support of marriage. That, on top of the rhetoric, really created a challenge. Luckily, we came together with the whole goal that we were going to respect and be civil.
“There’s something to be said in that Dan reached out to Campus Pride. We’re an educational organization. We’re not a political organization. We don’t see our relationship as win-lose.
“When we came together, the differences we had were distinct. It was very clear to me that Dan supports what he considers a biblical definition of marriage. [But] Dan asked about my husband, my family. My dad passed away from a drunk-driving incident where someone killed him. [Dan] asked about my life, and I asked about his life. Ultimately, our differences didn’t get in the way of our humanity and of hearing each other.
“I assumed that if I mentioned my husband [to Dan] that he would run away or run from the room screaming, right? Or throw water on me, I’m not sure quite what I expected. But in every instance that Dan had to react negatively based on his beliefs, instead he extended a hand, a hug, a warm welcome. He role-modeled what his company has said they are, which is to treat people with dignity, honor and respect. And I challenged him: Well, if that’s true, then why are you funding groups that are actively politically engaged to hurt my family? I think he heard that. Through that difference and dialogue, we were able to say: Okay, what are some of our common ground issues?
“One of them was that we don’t want to hurt anyone. We don’t want to be used by politicians. We both care about young people and making sure that they have a safe learning environment. On college campuses, that was being impacted — it still is being impacted and Dan’s well aware of that.
“I think that the Huffington Post piece wasn’t to say we’ve achieved what we want from the standpoint of a safe learning environment on college campuses, but Dan and I, through our friendship, we’ve been able to say that’s a common ground issue: We don’t want anybody to be bullied. We don’t want there to be homeless youth, and we want there to be strong families. Now, what those families look like we may disagree on. But at the same time, I believe by simply being who I am, I’m showing Dan what he would call a ‘blessing of growth,’ that Shane and his husband, Tommy, have been together 18 years. That’s maybe a different family, but it shows commitment and it shows love.
“I don’t plan on changing Dan’s belief system or his views on marriage equality. But I do plan to use our friendship as an opportunity to talk about our common ground. It has been a journey that I didn’t think I would be on, frankly, and I’m embracing it because I am also learning from this experience.”
4. Let’s not be so serious all the time
“The way that relationships are built is not merely by expressing differences and telling someone what they should do or should not do. A true, authentic friendship or relationship is built around fun and engaging each other in things that you enjoy. Dan invited me to the Chick-fil-A Bowl game, and he invited my husband, who does enjoy football. . . I decided it was important — this was an opportunity to demonstrate what our friendship had become, which was a chance to laugh and to enjoy college football.
“I received a lot of flak from people — which I understand, because they don’t have a friendship with Dan, so there was a lot of misunderstanding. But just going to a college football game is not a bribe to me. If Dan wanted to bribe me . . . it wouldn’t be through football, [though] it’s something I enjoy watching. Clemson is who I wanted to win, and they did. I was excited to be there, but it was really about the friendship.
“I learned this lesson very early. I’m a member of Phi Delta Theta fraternity, which is a large international fraternity, and . . . for my fraternity brothers when I came out in college back in the ‘90s, it was a big deal. They embraced me, they stood up for me, and that taught me a valuable lesson. I had assumed how our differences — some of them very strong in their faith which said that gay people are not worthy in many ways of human dignity or who had pretty strong views about certain issues — I made a lot of assumptions. [But] those same fraternity brothers, those friends, were some of my strongest allies. The reason is because we had built a relationship around activities and engagement that weren’t political . . . It was about: ‘Shane is in my frat, he’s my brother. And yes, he happens to be gay.’ They learned a lot and we still are close.
“That fraternity experience in many ways taught me valuable lessons about how to have fun and realize that people listen and hear in different ways. Not everyone is persuaded by a speech or a document that shows them what they’re doing right or wrong. And so Dan and I went to a football game just like my fraternity brothers and I would go out to dinner or we would go to events on campus like football or basketball games. That’s how you engage people, you engage them across common lines of friendship. That oftentimes happens in the most unexpected places.”
5. Let’s all be willing to give a little
“Giving a little is significant for many reasons. By giving a little it doesn’t mean changing your own values or acquiescing to a certain viewpoint. But Dan, I think, and I had a different way to look at this. I see that as an opportunity, Dan sees it as a blessing of growth— and that coming together we can listen and learn.
“Chick-fil-A still gives to some anti-marriage, anti-LGBT groups that I personally have a problem with. I have expressed that repeatedly to the press and to Dan personally, and I’ve shared why.
“At the end of the day, Chick-fil-A stopped donating to the most divisive, the anti-LGBT groups that were actively working to harm, hurt and defame LGBT families. Now, that’s a step in the positive direction. And that’s what I think giving a little is all about. Not to say Dan compromised, but he realized that from a political and social agenda standpoint, these groups were using rhetoric in very hateful ways, and that’s not what Jesus would do.
“Dan considers himself, in his faith and his ministry, to be a follower of Christ. He’s talked about how that is very different from being what some would call a ‘Christian’ today, because there’s many people who use that term ‘Christian,’ and Dan really tries through his life to be a follower of Christ. I have great respect and I’ve learned a lot from hearing that from Dan. In return, he has heard and experienced a blessing of growth through our relationship.
“On our end, we suspended our campaign. Campus Pride originally came out with a campaign called “Five Simple Facts about Chick-fil-A.” Dan reached out and contacted us because of that campaign. He never told us to take it down or remove it. If anything, he said: ‘No, you keep doing what you’re doing. That’s the reason why we’re engaged, because you were bringing up issues that were important to hear.’
“The most important thing that happened when we sat down together was that we were able to witness what the other had to bring to the table around our beliefs and most importantly, around these experiences. Chick-fil-A opened up and shared documents [about their donations to anti-LGBT groups] that they didn’t have to share. They’re a private company. After that conversation, there was a sincere willingness to continue the conversation.
“We decided that because . . . there was interest to continue that dialogue to find common ground, that we would suspend the campaign, realizing that we can always reactivate it any any time. [The campaign was suspended] in late September. And that was our way of saying: You know what? We don’t have to keep, at least nationally, this campaign going. We can sit down and try to find common ground.
“Now, at the same time, we have college students who are still being hurt by the Chick-fil-A brand, and so that was a very, very difficult decision. People see my friendship, they see me sitting down with Dan Cathy as capitulating or endorsing the brand Chick-fil-A. I have never once told any student, including any campus, to keep Chick-fil A. We’ve never told them to do so. That’s their decision.
“I said on the news the other day that if I ever have the right to marry in North Carolina, which I believe I will, I’ll invite all my friends, including Dan Cathy. And if Dan buys me a Chick-fil-A sandwich, I’ll eat it. But at the same time, until I have the right to marry from my perspective, and while Chick-fil-A continues to donate to groups that don’t support marriage equality, I have the choice to say I don’t want to eat Chick-fil-A right now. I feel like that’s significant.”