Saturday, August 4th, 2012...8:00 pm

Ya Gotta Eat: Fast Food, Slow Justice

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My first foray into gay activism occurred in 1976 while I was at the University of Illinois, and a group of us from the Gay Student Alliance met with the management of the local Sambo’s Restaurant, the only place open after the bars closed. After spending several hours twirling, twinkies, drag queens and our retinues decamped (so to speak) to Sambo’s for coffee and dessert. For several months, however, we’d become aware of reports of hostile and abusive treatment of the after-hours crowd by some other patrons and by some restaurant employees.

Twenty years later, several dozen activists and I under the aegis of Queer Nation flooded the Old Country Buffet outside Williamsburg, Virginia, during the after-church Sunday lunch hour to protest the company’s recently announced position that they would not extend employment discrimination protection to queer employees. Trained in advance for the action, we were instructed to be scrupulously polite to the staff, each of us asking for a single table (packing the place), and ordering only coffee, staying for several hours. And we were also instructed to tip the wait staff very generously to make up for their lost revenue.

What is it about fast-food and social equality in America? Earlier in the twentieth century it was African Americans struggling for a place at the lunch counter at Woolworth’s. Today it’s advocates of same-sex marriage against Dan Cathy, president and COO of the Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A, a family-owned business founded by his father.

The outcry following his weighing in on the same-sex marriage debate, “we’re 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 that thinks we have the audacity to redefine what marriage is all about,” was intensified with the disclosure of massive donations (nearly $2 million in 2010 alone) to anti-gay causes by a Chick-fil-A foundation.

The right-wing victimolatry machine went into high gear; nothing is quite so delicious as the pusillanimous whining of the right about the abridgment of their rights, in this case an assault on the First Amendment protection of free speech. Get a constitutional grip, girlfriends. The First Amendment protects us from the government’s infringing on free expression, but it doesn’t grant immunity from the consequences when we express ourselves.

What’s particularly striking is that calls for a boycott and the announcement by some municipal officials that they would not welcome Chick-fil-A stores into their cities elicited a sympathy for the company, sometimes even from people friendly to gay equality.

So it’s unfair to call out a business owner who is using corporate profits to fund the structural abridgment of people’s equality?

Perhaps some of this fecklessness even from our friends signifies their ambivalence about our status in society and our claims to structural discrimination. Perhaps it’s also that the nation that invented convenience food also invented convenience social justice. People don’t like asking inconvenient questions about their favorite chicken shack.

It’s hard to figure out, until you realize that, in exchange for the American founders’ refusal of an established church, we have created three forms of civic worship: The worship of worship; the worship of guns; and the worship of business. Worship, guns, and business are granted immunity from ethical critique and allowed a remarkable degree of freedom. Freedom of worship, freedom of guns, freedom of business are the foundations of the republic.

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