Carly McGehee, 24, had been trying for months to plan a "kiss-in" to protest fried-chicken chain Chick-fil-A's long history of donating money to groups that oppose same-sex marriage and promote conversion therapy, a controversial practice intended to "cure" gay people.
But there was no real catalyst for the event until now.
This summer, the company's chief executive Dan Cathy gave a pair of interviews saying he was “guilty as charged” of supporting “the biblical definition of the family unit" and that gay marriage invites "God's judgment on our nation."
The company now sits at the center of a furious debate over same-sex marriage, gay rights and free speech while some politicians rally around it and others urge the company to stay out of their cities. McGehee, of Dallas, thought the time was right.
On Friday night, she estimates about 15,000 same-sex supporters will show up at Chick-fil-A restaurants nationwide to snap photos, and hug, kiss or hold hands with someone of the same-sex. One of her main goals for the event is to give hope to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth living in the South, who hear messages condemning gay marriage more often than words of support, McGehee said.
"Tonight is for those kids that are growing up in, say, a small town in Texas, like I did, so that they can see that they're not different, that they're loved and accepted and they shouldn't be ashamed of who they are," McGehee said. She also hopes to show the world that the American people "aren't going stand for discrimination and intolerance."
The Atlanta-based chain issued a response to the ongoing debate Friday describing its "biblically based principles."
"The Chick-fil-A culture and service tradition in our restaurants is to treat every person with honor, dignity and respect –regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender. We will continue this tradition in the over 1,600 Restaurants run by independent Owner/Operators," said Steve Robinson, executive vice president of marketing in a statement. "Going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena."
On Wednesday, hundreds of thousands of Chick-fil-A supporters flooded restaurants across the U.S., leading to a record-breaking day for the company, after former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee called on Americans to visit the restaurants to "affirm a business that operates on Christian principles and whose executives are willing to take a stand for the Godly values."
Some said they showed up because they agreed with Cathy's views on marriage, while others said they wanted to support his right to express those views. As one attendee put it in a tweet flagged by the New York Times, "I want to eat at Chick-fil-A because I believe in freedom of speech and religion -- regardless of my stance on gay unions."
For McGehee and others attending the "Same-Sex Kiss-In," the issue isn't free speech. It's about the millions the company has given to anti-gay rights groups including the Family Research Council and Exodus International, according to Equality Matters, an initiative associated with the progressive Watchdog group, Media Matters.
The Family Research Council is designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, while Exodus International is a Christian Ministry that has long endorsed ex-gay therapy. (In recent months, the president of Exodus has tried to distance his group from the idea that gay people can be "cured.")
"A lot of people have accused me of infringing upon Mr. Cathy's free speech," Nikki Wooden, a 29-year-old lesbian who planned to participate Friday night in Colonial Heights, Va., wrote in an email. "If all Mr. Cathy did was say something stupid, I would simply continue not eating at his restaurants as I've done anyway since I quit eating meat, but since he chooses to donate millions to groups that are actively working to keep LGBT people from having rights, it's on!"
Wooden is currently single -- and has no girlfriend to kiss -- but she has a sign prepared: "My parents' marriage was once illegal too!," it says, featuring her black father and white mother holding hands with an arrow pointing to her mother's stomach reading "lesbian fetus."
"P.S. They're still together," the sign declares. (In 1967, the Supreme Court ruled that bans against interracial marriage were unconstitutional.)
But many within the gay rights movement have expressed doubts about whether Friday's protest, facilitated in part by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, is a good move.
In a blog post on Thursday, gay rights activist and blogger Pam Spaulding wrote, "The kiss-in seems more like a stunt for shock value."
Mark Segal, the publisher of Philadelphia Gay News, told the Huffington Post that he thought kissing in front of Chick-fil-A restaurants is "probably the worst form of demonstration the LGBT community could possibly use" because it won't foster communication between the two sides.
"It plays right into the fears of the right wing and what they've always thought: We just want to have sex whenever we can!" he said.
Wooden disagreed. "This is a kiss-in, not a f--- -in, straight people kiss in public all the time and I don't have a problem with it, why should it be any different for LGBT people?" she said in email.
Some gay rights groups are taking a different route. Garden State Equality, a gay rights group in New Jersey, is organizing a day of dialogue, urging members to call restaurants across the state to set up conversations with operators. By early Friday afternoon, Steven Goldstein, chair of Garden State Equality, reported that several operators in New Jersey agreed to talk with members on topics including bullying, same-sex marriage and transgender equality.
The civil rights movement is filled with examples of unconventional protests, and there is a long history of kiss-ins and similar activism within the gay rights movement, said Ken Sherrill, a Hunter College professor emeritus in political science.
"A kiss-in is a fun, high-spirited newsworthy thing, there will be photographs all over the place, people will be talking about it, and nobody is hurt by two people kissing," Sherrill said. "Or if they are hurt, there's something wrong with them."
Sherrill thinks that the protest might help rebuild some of the damage to the gay rights movement by politicians who urged Chick-fil-A to stay out of their cities. On July 20, for example, Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston wrote a letter to Chick-fil-A: “In recent days you said Chick-fil-A opposes same-sex marriage and said the generation that supports it has an ‘arrogant attitude'. Now — incredibly — your company says you are backing out of the same-sex-marriage debate. I urge you to back out of your plans to locate in Boston.”
"The moment you have the government involved in penalizing people for their political believes you have a serious free speech issue," Sherrill said. "We may have been done in by our allies on this one."
McGehee understood some reluctance about participating in the event. Her girlfriend, for example, was not planning on taking part. (Although she planned to be there with a camera). Her family doesn't know she is gay and she was afraid of being outed.
"We've heard a lot of stories like this. To me, that just makes the call to action that much stronger," McGehee said. "The fact that people are afraid to show their love, its even more proof of how necessary this is."
See a slideshow of tweets from Huffington Post readers sounding off on the kiss-in and what should happen next: