How we can do it better the next time around?
There were so many things I could have written about today: openly lesbian Tammy Smith’s promotion to the rank of brigadier general and the fact that the military is still intact after DADT, or Thomas Beatie’s (once dubbed the “pregnant man”) divorce court struggles due to Arizona’s confusion about his gender, or perhaps the fact that NBC’s Olympic coverage actually included mention of out gay Olympians. Instead, I’m still stuck on Chick-fil-A.
Oh, that’s so last month. Let’s move on already!
I argued with myself about this. On one hand, it was hardly a lunch counter sit-in. It had no gravitas—it was about fried chicken for God’s sake! It involved the Palins and people tweeting pictures of waffle fries to the world. Chick-fil-A support rallies have come and gone and Rahm Emanuel has already forgotten his pledge to keep Chicago Chick free.
On the other hand, did we win or lose this one? No one told me. I get the distinct feeling we lost. Last I heard, the far right has claimed the right to jump up and down about protecting free speech and have redefined “bullying” to refer to how the LGBT community is frighteningly intolerant of traditional values.
Yeah, I think we lost. While Chick-fil-A probably lost the LGBT part of their market, they’re not licking their wounds about it. No one learned any lessons on either side and the divide between us with regard to LGBT people remains as wide as it ever was.
I implore everyone not to let this moment go completely to waste. There are some big lessons we can learn from our Chick-fil-A outrage:
First, never let anyone tell you that supporting bigotry means supporting free speech. There is a difference. Imagine if Chick-fil-A’s Dan Cathy went on record about an alien abduction experience, or, say, a very special love for plush animals, you can bet that no one would line up at his store to support his free speech rights then.
What the pro-Chick people were saying, bottom line, was that they agreed with Cathy. This had nothing to do with Cathy’s free speech rights, but their own free speech rights. They are absolutely entitled to eat as much chicken as they like to show they don’t like same-sex marriage (seriously, go right ahead if you think it will stop the gays…), but don’t let them pull us into a red-herring argument about the Bill of Rights. When we look like we’re silencing people, we play right into an increasingly popular trope about the liberal elite imposing their agenda on average Americans.
This was our big—albeit understandable—mistake, focusing solely on Dan Cathy’s words and not on his actions. We looked like we just wanted him to shut up, when in fact he was speaking for a lot of ordinary Americans. The argument stalled out right there.
We’d have been better off if we took Chick-fil-A on for all the atrocious things it’s done through its charitable foundation, WinShape. I discussed this in a previous column, but in short, WinShape has put millions toward “ex-gay” therapy, stopping same-sex marriage, and fighting against LGBT equality. It has us in its crosshairs. Cathy’s words are so insignificant in light of what Cathy’s checkbook reveals that they hardly merit more than an audible sigh.
Still, in this ADD-friendly, 140-character news cycle, glib comments ricochet and amplify almost instantly, while an IRS 990 form showing charitable income and expenses doesn’t trigger the same shocking umbrage. But it should.
This brings me to the second big lesson we can learn: the only way to show the world that our lives are not appropriate fodder for debate are to tell our individual stories. Forget throwing accusations about whose words are more offensive to whom—that’s only helpful for talking head arguments on cable TV. Get over being offended; be honest instead. Talk about the lives that have been damaged by praying the gay away, or families that have been torn apart by discrimination, or the kids who have tried to kill themselves rather than accept their beautiful LGBT selves. Tell your story. That is free speech at its most powerful.