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Chick-fil-A Kiss-In: Affection as Activism?

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I have resisted writing about the Chick-fil-A anti-gay controversy, because there doesn't seem much to add that hasn't already been said by others on both sides. Yet beyond just hate chicken and marriage equality, one aspect of the ongoing story did strike me as odd -- and it might not be the part most might expect. My strongest reaction, oddly enough, was to the "kiss-in" protests at the fast-food chain, which were seen as the LGBT community's response.

That isn't to say that I think Chick-fil-A's corporate giving to hate groups and dangerous anti-gay causes doesn't deserve a strong and vocal response from the community and our allies. I think shining a light on what corporations like Chick-fil-A do with their money (to the tune of over $1.9 million to anti-gay causes in 2010 alone) is vitally important. But what also struck me was how using affection, like the kiss-in, as a form of shock activism bothered me.

Don't get me wrong: I am a proud direct-action activist. I've done sit-ins, walk-outs, pickets, candlelight vigils, die-ins, marches, civil disobedience, and just about every other form of direct-action protest one can imagine. I find it an important tool for our community to use to bring attention to an issue, show strength in numbers, and drive public dialogue. Yet the kiss-in response to Chick-Fil-A seemed an odd fit based on the message the community was trying to send.

First, I think using the tactic of a kiss-in plays into the "yuck" attitudes of our opposition. That isn't to say that I think we should censor ourselves because of fear of the right wing twisting our actions. That will always happen no matter what we do. But if, as a movement, we are trying to gain acceptance of our love and relationships, then perhaps using our love and affection as a "shock tactic" hurts our cause. I would like to see a day where I could hold my husband's hand or kiss him in public safely, so using that kind of action as a political weapon seems to cheapen it and send a very different message than "our love is no different from yours." We should want people to not find our love, relationships, and affection shocking or newsworthy. Yet that very shock value seemed to be what the kiss-in at Chick-fil-A was all about.

To be sure, visibility is of utmost importance in our fight for equality. We should never be ashamed of our affection for those we love. The pictures of happy same-sex couples kissing on City Hall steps as they get legally married sends a strong message of acceptance and love, but defiant, shock-tactic pictures of kiss-ins in front of fast-food chains seem more like a stunt than an exercise in visibility.

Second, I think the response of a kiss-in didn't match the action that was being protested. The focus should have been on bringing attention to Chick-fil-A's corporate giving and the real damage it does. Picket signs and protests with messages conveying that Chick-fil-A gave millions to anti-gay causes, and that we don't want our money going to a company that gives its profits to these kinds of dangerous organizations, could have gotten the conversation back on track after it was derailed by media focus on COO and President Dan Cathy's anti-marriage-equality comments. A clear, defined message, with visual signs, facts, and numbers, could have been a powerful response to show all the people who showed up for Mike Huckabee's "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day" exactly what they were supporting. Yet the images of gay people kissing in front of a restaurant seemed to muddy the message further and play more directly to the marriage-equality comments rather than the real issue of corporate giving to hate groups.

This isn't to say that kiss-ins don't have a place as a tool of protest, but the direct-action response has to match the action it is protesting and further a distinct message. For example, a kiss-in in response to the same-sex couple in Salt Lake City that was kicked off a Mormon-Church-owned street for a peck on the cheek was completely understandable; it matched the issue being protested and furthered the message clearly. But how kissing and affection connect to the funding of dangerous anti-gay hate groups is disjointed at best.

To be clear, I applaud the people who showed up and made their voices heard at Chick-fil-A. But as a movement we should be able to look critically at our responses to issues and try to make it better, especially when our message got lost as it did in the Chick-fil-A controversy. We also have to be mindful of how an action plays into the larger narrative we are trying to create. I don't want my love for my husband, or the natural affection that follows from it, to always be seen as a political statement. Saying our love is a political act only strengthens the opposition's argument that being against basic equality is simply a difference of political opinion -- a message we should be trying to dismantle, not amplify.

As we gain momentum and ever-increasing societal support for equality, we have to continue to look critically at our actions and see what works and what doesn't. It's an important conversation to have so that we can continue to grow as a movement and learn from mistakes so that we can more effectively fight other issues that come our way.

In the end, if we are trying to get out the message that our love is equal, then perhaps we should treat it that way ourselves.