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Thursday, August 2, 2012

Chick-fil-A is (almost) the Cracker Barrel all over again

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I've received requests from readers and friends to comment on the Chick-fil-A controversy. Unless you've been hiding behind a cow, you know that COO Dan Cathy precipitated a firestorm when he publicly objected to gay marriage. The mayors of Boston and Chicago threatened to block plans to open restaurants in their cities.

There is nothing very new in any of this. I remember over 20 years ago dining at the Dwarf House in Hapeville where Chick-fil-A originated. Opened by Truett Cathy, Dan's father, it was the favorite of a good friend. Even then, there was the taste of Christian piety, especially with the restaurant's closing on Sundays, as all Chick-fil-As still do.

The recent brouhaha reminds me somewhat of the furor generated by Cracker Barrel restaurants in 1990. Under corporate policy, the restaurant conducted witch hunts and fired gay employees. I had an acquaintance of the time who was fired after more than 10 years. He was married and the firing ruined his family life as well as his career.

I was mildly active in Queer Nation at the time. Most Southern chapters of the organization made protest against Cracker Barrel its priority. We urged people to boycott the restaurant — a futile, ineffective undertaking in of itself, since such actions only inspire the religious right's increased patronage. But the effort helped keep the issue in the public eye.

There is a big difference between Cracker Barrel and Chick-fil-A. The latter's situation is about free speech in great part. Dan Cathy has every right to oppose gay marriage, and the state's threat to block the opening of new restaurants is surely a violation of Constitutional rights.

In Cracker Barrel's case, however, there was explicit discrimination. Imagine if a company tried to fire all black people. That would be flat-out illegal. Gay people still do not have that protection. But you can see how Cracker Barrel attempted to literally enforce the owners' values, whereas Chick-fil-A does not, at least not directly.

The company does support, to considerable extent, several anti-gay organizations like Focus on the Family. I won't eat there. It's easy for me, since I haven't eaten a Chick-fil-A sandwich in at least 10 years. But I have no illusions that my boycott will do much to affect the restaurant's business.

I do think it's appropriate to publicly demonstrate against the restaurant. That's also exercise of free speech. Realize that we live in a time when a majority of Americans support gay marriage. At least at this writing, most oppose Dan Cathy's language after a brief spike in approval.

What always blows my mind about statements like Dan Cathy's is the lack of empathy. Gay people want the same thing he does — the right to love freely, marry, and receive the same benefits and privileges the state grants heterosexuals.

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