In an impressive act of chutzpah, Chick-fil-A, the popular fast food chain long known for its support of anti-LGBT causes, is set to open in one of New York’s longstanding LGBT neighborhoods: Park Slope, Brooklyn.
Admittedly, the new branch, which will be the chain’s seventh in the city, is closer to the jock mecca of Barclay’s Center than it is to the legendary lesbian hangout Ginger’s Bar. And the chain, as well as its owners, the Cathy family, has divested from most, though not quite all, of its anti-LGBT causes.
“We welcome and serve everyone,” a spokesman for the company told The Daily Beast. “We do not have a political or social agenda, and our corporate office and 2,300+ restaurants nationwide employ more than 120,000 people from different backgrounds and beliefs.”
Is that enough, then? Should queer folks and our allies forgive and forget?
There are no easy answers to those questions, and I think the way we respond to them is guided more by emotion than reason. Maybe that’s fine—maybe it takes awhile for homophobia’s wounds to heal. And maybe that’s what this issue is really about: the enduring power of trauma in an age of renewed anxiety.
After all, my mother—a first-generation American Jew—didn’t drive German cars for her entire life.
To refresh your memory, Chick-fil-A was once notoriously anti-gay. In 2012, the company’s CEO, Dan Cathy, proudly stated he was “guilty as charged” for supporting anti-same-sex-marriage initiatives. In a radio interview, he elaborated on these views, saying, “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.' And 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.”
(Of course, the debates at the time were about secular, state marriage, not religious marriage.)
Cathy put his money where his mouth was. The Winshape Foundation, at the time funded by the Cathy family and by Chick-fil-A, supported groups including the National Christian Foundation, the leading funder of the politically active Christian Right, as well as the anti-gay Family Research Council, the “reparative therapy” group Exodus International, and Alliance Defending Freedom, the most prominent of the organizations redefining religious liberty as the right to discriminate against LGBT people.
Though Cathy insisted in a press release that “we have no agenda against anyone” and “we will not champion any political agendas on marriage and family,” he also didn’t deny or apologize for funding the anti-equality groups.
Gradually, Chick-fil-A became synonymous with the push against same-sex marriage, and against LGBT equality more generally. Gay activists held “kiss-ins” to protest the company’s advocacy work, while conservatives praised Chick-fil-A for sticking to their right-wing guns.
As recently as last week, the president’s favorite source of flattery, Fox & Friends, gave out Chick-Fil-A sandwiches to its studio audience.
Over the last six years, however, the corporate strategy has changed.
First, while Winshape continues to donate money primarily to religious educational institutions, the separate Chick-fil-A Foundation—funded by the company to the tune of over $7 million per year—now donates to a range of conservative organizations. Neither foundation is funding specifically anti-LGBT initiatives anymore.
That’s true, but it also seems unfair. Essentially, Chick-fil-A is being pilloried not for supporting anti-LGBT causes themselves, but for supporting Christian causes which, among other things, have certain bad policies. (The FCA grant was for sports camps for inner-city youth; the Salvation Army for holiday gifts to Atlanta kids.)
Second, most of the company’s giving, based on its Form 990 filings and its PR materials, goes to neutral causes like Junior Achievement, and causes liberals might like, like the historically black Morehouse College.
In response to a query from the Daily Beast, Chick-fil-A’s spokesperson sent over a laundry list of New York area charities that the company has supported, including New York Cares, Covenant House (which “provides residential services to vulnerable homeless, runaway and exploited youth in the New York City area, including many LGBTQ+ teens,” they pointed out), and a charter school in Harlem.
Third, the company has repeated ad nauseam the undisputed fact that Chick-fil-A does not turn away queer people.
These efforts, as well as Trump Fatigue, have normalized Chick-fil-A. When the first Chick-fil-A franchise opened in New York City in 2015, Mayor Bill DiBlasio said, “I’m certainly not going to patronize them and I wouldn’t urge any other New Yorker to patronize them.” But now, I couldn’t find a single protest planned for the Park Slope location.
And yet, as other queer commentators have pointed out, the company still has a long way to go.
Chick-Fil-A still rates a dead zero on the Human Rights Campaign’s Buyer’s Guide. Their employment nondiscrimination policy doesn’t include LGBT people, they don’t do any diversity training on LGBT issues, and they certainly don’t have any pro-LGBT messaging anywhere. You won’t find two women splitting a chicken sandwich in their commercials.
More broadly, the company and its owners are still deeply conservative, and they proudly—as, arguably, they should—integrate those values into their work. “We operate on biblical principles,” Cathy has said. “If you're obedient to God you are going to be evangelistic in the quality of the work you do, using that as a portal to share [Christ].”
I think, though, that these shortcomings aren’t the real reason queer folks are upset about the lack of outrage. I think we’re upset because 2012 wasn’t that long ago, and with the Trump administration waging all-out war on transgender people—and with an anti-gay-marriage majority now on the Supreme Court—it doesn’t seem that impossible that we could easily turn back the clock.
We’re hurt, in other words, and we’re still hurting.
Moreover, it’s not like Chick-fil-A has ever apologized for its past misdeeds. They’ve just stopped doing them. In a way, Chick-fil-A is the fast-food version of Kevin Hart, who has angrily said that he’s already apologized for virulently anti-gay remarks more than he actually apologized for them.
I don’t know where that leaves me. I’ve eaten Chick-fil-A, and it’s delicious. I don’t like that chicken sandwiches, like New Balance sneakers or red trucker hats, are now public displays of anger, nativism, and owning-the-libs. I almost feel like the queer community would be better off ignoring Chick-fil-A, because people love it, the company’s bought the freaking Peach Bowl football game, and they’re really not so bad anymore.
We can’t beat ‘em, so let’s join ‘em and appreciate that they’re denouncing bigotry instead of funding it.
And yet, I also remember how my mom would sneer whenever she’d see someone at our synagogue driving a BMW or Mercedes. A German car, she’d say with contempt, her anger quite failing to mask the pain.