If the snaking drive-thru line and crowded patio tables at a Chick-fil-A in Asheville, N.C., are any indication, business is booming for the national chain despite the controversy surrounding CEO Dan Cathy's recent remarks in opposition to marriage equality. The franchise manager in Asheville reported that they've seen a significant uptick in business in recent weeks, with about one in four customers pausing to express support for Cathy's statements. That the latest flare up in the culture wars about LGBT rights would have been catalyzed by a chicken chain's CEO suggests exactly how reactive our current climate is.
Still, as gay minister in the South, I've been puzzled by the national media frenzy surrounding this story. Here in the South we are, sadly, used to hearing anti-LGBT rhetoric -- from business leaders, politicians and preachers. It's hardly news, it's hardly surprising and it's hardly ever the whole story.
As a CEO and private citizen, Mr. Cathy has the right to voice his beliefs on gay marriage (or any topic). And people have the right to disagree or agree and make consumer choices accordingly. Chick-fil-A is not the issue here. The real issue is that in 29 states, Mr. Cathy, or any employer, has the right to fire employees simply for being gay or lesbian. In 34 states, employers can fire people because of their gender identity.
Through the Campaign for Southern Equality, I often work with LGBT people in southern states who cannot risk coming out because they fear they'll be fired. This includes employees in the public and private sectors. Employers communicate in both explicit and implicit ways that LGBT employees should stay closeted or risk termination. Cathy's statements are an example of what it means to create a hostile work environment, just as they are an example of public rhetoric tied directly to a power no one should have over another person: the ability to terminate someone's job simply for being who they are.
Polling suggests that 73 percent of likely 2012 voters support legislation that would protect LGBT people from employment discrimination. In fact, a bill that would do just this -- the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) -- has been introduced in Congress. A vote is not likely to occur before the November elections, but that shouldn't keep us from building bipartisan support in the interim.
Rather than getting ensnared in the familiar traps of responding to anti-LGBT rhetoric with one-off actions that won't have much staying power, LGBT advocates should focus our collective energies on passing legislation to ensure that employers -- whatever his or her personal beliefs -- cannot fire someone for being LGBT.