CEO’s meeting with college leaders a positive sign, but brand will suffer as long as company is viewed as the right’s last stand against equality
The Chick-fil-A controversy isn’t just a battle over chicken sandwiches, as some have flippantly suggested. The fast-food chain has become an international symbol of anti-gay intolerance since its CEO, Dan Cathy, expressed his views on marriage equality on The Ken Coleman Show in July.
“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,” Cathy said.
This controversy also extended beyond Cathy’s comments and included his more than $5 million in donations to anti-gay organizations such as the Family Research Council. His Winshape Foundation has also contributed to Exodus International, which has worked in the past to help people “pray away the gay.”
We all know what followed. Some big city Yankee mayors said they didn’t want the franchise in their metropolises. This raised the ire of talk show host and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, as well as reality TV star Sarah Palin. They organized Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day — where fun calories and fundamentalist Christianity converged in an orgy of high-fructose homophobia.
In this fight, the LGBT community took a beating from the often-friendly media who were agitated because they thought the mayors overreached into unconstitutional territory. But Chick-fil-A also suffered from the fracas, with its Brand Index score having fallen 40 percent nationally since Cathy’s controversial statement.
The big question was what would happen after the last pickup truck and General Lee pulled through the drive-thru on Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day? Would the company seek to dig in or dig out of the hole?
The company appeared to take steps in a positive direction last week when Dan Cathy “welcomed campus leaders to a private luncheon in Atlanta to discuss diversity, hospitality and the opportunity to find common ground.” The secret meeting included the LGBT student advocacy group Campus Pride.
This certainly can’t be a good sign for the Huckabee crowd, considering they despise “diversity” as a pro-gay code word. They also sneer at those who seek “common ground” as losers who are weak and uncommitted to their fanatical cause.
If Chick-fil-A truly desires rejoining mainstream America, it will have to come to terms with the fact that it will let down its most ardent defenders. In an age when Ellen is a spokesperson for Cover Girl and products from Amtrak to J.C. Penney are courting LGBT consumers, the chicken joint has become a symbol of defiance.
This only intensified after the Baptist Press asked Cathy about his comments on marriage equality and he replied, “Well, guilty as charged.” His company at once transformed from resistance symbol to the Alamo — the scene of the Religious Right’s last stand in corporate America.
Even a whiff of “capitulation” will infuriate anti-gay activists who view the company as a beacon of hope in a secular world. Some anti-gay activists, such as Holocaust revisionist Scott Lively, are even crediting Chick-fil-A with taking a prophetic first step in rolling back the LGBT movement.
“I think the ‘gay’ worm may finally be starting to turn,” wrote Lively in a World Net Daily op-ed. “It began to turn on the day Chick-fil-A Chief Operating Officer Dan Cathy refused, in the face of a firestorm of criticism, to back down.”
This week, the Montana Family Foundation declared that it would show its support for “traditional family values” by opening a Chick-fil-A drive-thru in Billings for one day in September.
“Since Chick-fil-A doesn’t yet have locations in our state most Montanans were unable to participate in the national event in August. So we created Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day 2.0,” Jeff Laszloffy, president and CEO of the Montana Family Foundation, told KPAX-TV.
If Cathy budges even an inch, extremist groups are going to squawk louder than a chicken in a slaughter barn. So, Chick-fil-A might as well go all the way and renounce donations to homophobic hate groups and rejoin civilization.
The alternative is an ongoing struggle to maintain brand integrity, while increasingly extreme elements embrace the company’s logo and carry out anti-gay activities in their name. For instance, at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, a fraternity tabling next to an on campus Chick-fil-A chanted: “We love Chick-fil-A” and then screamed “Faggot” when LGBT students passed by.
This company is simply not going to be able to control its image as long as it remains a rallying cry for hate groups and homophobes. I suppose that Chick-fil-A could defiantly stand firm and remain the right’s anti-gay Alamo. But I’m sure they are well aware of the fort’s fate.
Wayne Besen is founding executive director of Truth Wins Out, a Vermont-based nonprofit organization that fights anti-gay religious extremism. He can be reached at WBesen@TruthWinsOut.org.