A few nights ago, a segment on The Daily Show chided the gay community for encouraging a boycott of Chick-fil-A following the assertion by Dan Cathy, President of Chick-fil-A, that gay marriage was against God's plan. The segment pointed out that living a life free of involvement with corporations opposed to one's own political beliefs was impossible, so the politicization of fried chicken sandwiches was pointless. The interesting irony of the piece was the correspondents in the piece with Jon Stewart were Jessica Williams and Wyatt Cenac, the two black correspondents on The Daily Show, a fact which brought to my mind the many times civil rights movements have used the most trivial of points to argue their cause. Trivial points, that, with surprising frequency, end up involving food. If history is a guide, Chick-fil-A might just be the best way for the gay community to make our point.
In 1960, there was no legal barrier to a black man becoming president. From a federal legal perspective, distinctions based on race were officially nearly non-existent. But black people couldn't sit at the lunch counter at the Woolworth's in Greensboro, North Carolina, and that was a problem. African Americans could still get food from Woolworth's, it's not like this issue was any actual impediment to their lives. It was just an indignity, an indignity that re-instantiated a stratified culture, that told every kid, black and white, growing up in Greensboro that African Americans didn't matter. In 1960, four men declared they would no longer suffer that stupid little indignity, and it helped change the world.
In 1930, Britain owned India. Indians played almost no role in the political, judicial or economic governance of their own country. Gandhi didn't choose to make his point by disrupting courts or assassinating the viceroy, he made his point more subtly. He made salt. Gandhi picked the lamest, most random, but also most fundamental British law to disobey: Indians were only allowed to buy salt made by the British and taxed by the British. It was a tiny thing, but it also meant that every time an Indian ate, he or she was in a tiny way paying for her or his own oppression. So Gandhi marched for 23 days, from his home to the sea, and made salt in defiance of British law. It didn't do much to throw off the shackles of British rule, but it taught the Indian people the fundamentals of what their independence movement would be about: Self-reliance and refusal to cooperate with a system that did not value them.
The arguments against a Chick-fil-A boycott are many: we lack the numbers to do any real damage, we lack the solidarity to do any real damage, we will terrify middle Americans by acting like thought police, and hey, gay guys are too weight conscious to eat fried chicken sandwiches anyway. I don't care. We need to boycott Chick-fil-A, not to send a message to Dan Cathy, but to send a message to ourselves and our friends.
Gays are an interesting minority group for three significant reasons: we are relatively invisible, we are diffuse, and we are popularly portrayed as frivolous. Boycotting Chick-fil-A can help us address these problems.
Unless we say it, you generally can't tell if someone is gay. Popular culture attempts to refute this with images of flaming queers and surly dykes whose homosexual nature is undeniable, but the simple reality for all gay people is that we have, to some extent, the option to hide our homosexuality. Many point to this as a reason our oppression is less grievous than racial discrimination: an Indian can't hide his skin color, but we have the option of just pretending we're not gay. But that is not a defense mechanism, it's a prison.
Gays have the option of separating ourselves from our oppression if we consent to shamefully hide our identity. It is the disease of our community. It's what leads gay men to become anti-gay Senators and keeps certain lady rappers from explaining just why they own a house with their personal trainer. The separation of our gay identity from the rest of our personhood makes it easy to demonize us as a group. It's easy to call gays a virulent special interest hell-bent on destroying American morals when people don't realize that their butcher, dentist and Dr. Sally Ride are some of the gays we're talking about.
And gays are wimps. We don't want to have to fight all of these fights. Most of our biggest celebrities, Lance Bass, Ricky Martin, Ellen, Rosie, lived a closeted life for much of their career before coming out (some times not so voluntarily), so they wouldn't have to slog through constant indignities that go with being gay. But having the option of turning off our homosexuality means these little battles aren't getting fought. During the 60s, any black person who got on a bus in Montgomery or accepted their food from the back door of a restaurant knew they were shaming themselves and selling out their community. We have to do the same, we have to be brave, we have to keep our homosexuality in the "on" position, we have to fight the fights.
Chick-fil-A is a direct insult, and treating it as anything else requires that gay people either in some way say they're not gay, or consent to a belief that heterosexuals have the right to insult us. These modes of thinking are outdated. In Nora Ephron's commencement speech to Wellesley in 1996, she encouraged women to take slights against other women personally. She's right. Every time someone says faggot or dyke, they're talking about you, every time Dan Cathy says gay relationships are destroying America, he's talking about you and the lady or guy you love. You deserve better than to eat one of his chicken sandwiches. If we don't start taking insults against gays personally, we're never going to earn the right for being gay to just be part of being a person.
Gays are a diffuse and isolated minority. In many ways, this means we don't look out for each other, but really it means we need to work harder to take care of each other. Gays are born, usually, to heterosexual parents. We grow up not knowing other gays, or gays who have decided to be invisible to us. For most of us, our first experience of gay community doesn't come until we're adults, and then its in a bar where we're drunk, horny, and dealing with other homos more as sexual objects than as people we have rights and interests in common with. For these reason, gays are super-crappy at getting organized.
Women and members of racial and religious minorities grow up with people like them, people who can teach them how to be Black or Jewish or a woman. They grow up knowing how to manage minority status in America. Gays don't get that, and it means we can be really bad at thinking of ourselves as a community.
Part of it is a fear factor, of course. We grow up getting the popular American boogie-man version of what homosexuality is, and we don't like it. Then you turn 13 and you find out we ARE it. It doesn't change the fact that you were raised to be terrified of homosexuals, it makes it worse. We have to get over this so we can show strength and solidarity as a community.
It's our obligation to make the world a better place for gay kids, we need to build a community for them and send them positive messages about themselves. We don't live in their house, we don't get to talk to them, so we need to send them a bigger message culturally. They deserve dignity, they shouldn't have to hide who they are, and they shouldn't have to take insults from someone just so they can go to the same chicken sandwich place as everyone else. Boycotting Chick-fil-A isn't just about you, it's about doing something as a group. It's building a sense of community for ourselves and all the little homos and dykes we haven't met yet.
Gays and our rights are too frequently portrayed as frivolous. We are rarely portrayed as human beings: we are florists and softball coaches. Accessory human beings. We are charming but unnecessary, and the rights we demand are similarly portrayed as unnecessary. Why do they NEED to get married? Why do they NEED to have a pride parade? Why can't you just be quiet and not talk about "it"?
This construction allows us to ignore a gross range of oppression that has existed and continues to exist. There were sodomy laws, there were the thousands of gays who died in concentration camps, there was the legal exclusion of gays from the military, and a host of other legal regimes that exist to oppress us. There's Matthew Shepherd, Lawrence King, that kid who Mitt Romney attacked in high school, and a culture that violence against gays is acceptable. There's Jamey Rodmeyer, Jamie Hubley, and an epidemic of kids thinking they'd rather be dead than have to deal with being gay. Our problems are serious. Our problems will not go away if we just sack up and stop wearing nail polish.
Our oppression, like that of so many other groups, rests on acceptance of a thousand tiny injustices every day that convince us we matter less. We need to get some dignity, and this stupid fight is a pretty good way to do it. The guys in Greensboro said they wouldn't take their food to go. The guys in India said they wouldn't pay their oppressors for salt. The question with Chick-Fil-A isn't "can we hurt them" it's do you deserve better than a chicken sandwich that thinks you're gross and evil.
You deserve better.