The Chick-fil-A sandwich franchise is planning to open its doors in late April on the intersection of Wabash and Chicago, in the heart of Chicago's downtown. Founded by S. Truett Cathy in the 1960s, the chain is especially popular in the South but has enough of a reputation and devoted fans that the Chicago opening is bound to attract crowds.
However, recent news and controversies regarding its Christian background and allegations about its negative attitudes towards homosexuality may prove to be a stumbling block. Given all the many stories that have been circulating, a closer examination of the facts reveals some truths that appear to have been ignored thus far and also throws light on the task ahead if the Chicago gay community does in fact plan either a boycott or a protest of the franchise.
Cathy's original venture was the Dwarf Grill restaurant in Hapeville, Ga., started in 1946. The first Chick-fil-A store was established in an Atlanta mall in 1967. Today, the chain runsby most accounts, including its websiteabout 900 free-standing restaurants, 29 drive-through locations and 214 licensed locations in places like college campuses and hospitals.
Since the chain has yet to open in Chicago, this reporter was unable to procure a sample for research purposes, but this website description of their basic sandwich is sufficiently detailed: "A boneless breast of chicken seasoned to perfection, hand-breaded, pressure cooked in 100% refined peanut oil and served on a toasted, buttered bun with dill pickle chips." The sandwich is also available on a "Golden Wheat bun."
That combination of unctuous indulgence and practicality ( the bread sops up the grease from the chicken thus making it easier to eat the meal while driving ) has meant that Chick-fil-A essentially sells a Southern staple, fried chicken, in a form designed for the contemporary customer. This simple combination of comfort foods has resulted in big profits. Annual sales in 2010 were over $3.5 billion, according to the company's website.
But what sets Chick-fil-A apart from competitors like Kentucky Fried Chicken and Popeye's is its resolute and open adherence to Christian principles. Like banks, Chick-fil-A restaurants are never open on Sundays. The company is a privately owned family business. Cathy has stepped down as company president and his son, Dan Cathy, took his place; another son, Donald Cathy, is senior vice president. They were both given the reins on the condition that they continue operating the corporation according to its Christian principles. The father remains busy with the corporation as chairman and CEO. In 1983, he founded the WinShape Foundation largely to work with youth, especially those who needed foster homes. The website describes the mission thus: "to impact young people and families through experiences which enhance their Christian faith, character and relationships."
The WinShape Foundation also conducts marital boot camps for both married couples and pre-marital couples alike ( living quarters for the latter are single-occupancy only ) . A 2007 Forbes magazine article on the business, titled, "The Cult of Chick-fil-A," discussed its hiring practices. Truett Cathy is quoted as openly admitting he prefers married employees, "believing they are more industrious and productive." Anyone who applies for an operator license is asked to "disclose marital status, number of dependents and involvement in 'community, civic, social, church and/or professional organizations.'"
None of this has ever been secret; most of the information can be found in interviews with the owners, on the company website, or the senior Truett's website. But Chick-fil-A's attention to marriage has brought it a newfound and presumably unwanted notoriety in the midst of the culture wars around gays and marriage. Earlier this year, Jeremy Hopper, of the website Good As You ( GAY; www.goodasyou.org ) posted a flyer from an event titled, "The Art of Marriage: Getting to the Heart of God's Design," to be held Feb. 11. The copy stated that this was presented by the organization Family Life and sponsored by Pennsylvania Family Institute and Chick-fil-A.
A day later, Hooper posted again, pointing out there was now a new flyer with the Chick-fil-A sponsorship removed from it. He wrote that it was unclear how and why the decision to do so had come about. Following this, the blogosphere lit up with stories of Chick-fil-A's alleged allegiance to homophobic groups, with the story becoming one about the company's support and/or sponsorship of groups like Exodus International, notorious as the figurehead of the "ex-gay movement." Indeed, GAY does reveal that at least one marriage summit, Marriage CoMission, took place at WinShape's Rome, Ga., retreat. The purpose and principles of Marriage CoMission, according to its website, are "to save future generations from the destructive consequences of failed marriages and broken homes and to work together to fan the embers of hope in men and women to fulfill their created desire for life-long, healthy marriages, and to equip married couples to lead strong families."
But, as with Chick-fil-A's Christian principles, none of this is a secret. Hitting the "history" tab on Marriage CoMission's website reveals WinShape's founding role in the formation of Marriage CoMission, stating that, "This group envisioned a neutral banner under which marriage champions from various circles of influence could work together as allies in a strategically focused collaborative effort." Hitting the "Partners" tab does nothing, but GAY reveals that the 2009 Marriage CoMission summit included guests like Maggie Gallagher, president of the National Organization for Marriage, which has been among the most right-wing groups opposing gay marriage.
GAY has posted part of the charter, with a list of "allies." The first joint names on this list are of Alan and Leslie Chambers, of Exodus International. However, there is nothing to indicate that Exodus International itself is an ally or a major sponsor. ( It is not uncommon for people to name their workplaces for identifying purposes only; indicating workplace affiliation does not indicate that the workplace signs on to a document. ) GAY's link to the rest of the charter no longer works.
So far, the proof of the corporation's Christian foundation is incontrovertible. It is also clear that Chick-fil-A's adherence to Christian principles comes from a fairly conservative and Bible-based interpretation of its religion. Less clear is if the corporation itself directly spreads the word that homosexuality is unacceptable, but it does clearly emphasize, through its WinShape foundation, that it considers marriage to be between a man and a woman.
As for the sponsorship of the Pennsylvania event: both groups listed, Pennsylvania Family Institute and Family Life, are well-known for their conservative principles around marriage and the family. But it is unclear whether the "sponsored by … Chick-fil-A" wording that appeared on the first version of the flyer was simply a mistake or over-reaching by a zealous franchisee. In the wake of the initial controversy, Dan Cathy sent out a press release Jan. 29, which stated, "…we will not champion any political agendas on marriage and family. This decision has been made, and we understand the importance of it. At the same time, we will continue to offer resources to strengthen marriages and families. To do anything different would be inconsistent with our purpose and belief in Biblical principles." He also wrote, "Through the years, we have supported our Chick-fil-A staff and franchised Operators in their marriage journey, and since the formation of our family foundation, the WinShape Foundation, we have helped others as well."
Matters reached a head again when GAY published an e-mail correspondence from someone ( their identifying information was blacked out ) who wrote to a WinShape representative asking if the foundation's programs were open to gay couples. The eventual answer was, "We do not accept homosexual couples because of the statement in our contract." Yet, in an interview with the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, the paper said he explicitly stated that the WinShape Foundation "does not bar gay couples from its marriage retreats or training … ."
Brenda Morrow, a spokesperson for Chick-fil-A, in response to a request for information from us, said they would not discuss the current controversy.
Meanwhile, across the country, some college groups have been trying to ban Chick-fil-A. Things heated up further when the online petition site Change.org took up the story with a series of posts suggesting that readers sign petitions to support two student efforts. One is ongoing at Florida Gulf Coast University ( FGCU ) . The other, which Change.org celebrates as a victory, has in fact been reversed ( at the time of this printing, the site had not provided this update ) .
Rashad Davis is a theatre major at FGCU, and the primary person behind the student attempts to get Chick-fil-A off campus. Speaking to Windy City Times from Florida, Davis said that he had in fact been trying to get the effort going for about a year, but his efforts did not gain traction until late 2010 and early this year when the media also began to take more notice. According to him, he and other studentswho have met with resistancehave worked to let people know that their problems are not just with what they see as Chick-fil-A's anti-gay policies but with the chain's use of environmentally unfriendly materials. Davis, a vegetarian, also says that the presence of Chick-fil-A in the university's food court restricts food choices for those who might need more than just chicken. The Change.org petition to oust Chick-fil-A from FGCU has, at the time of this writing, acquired 13,625; the goal is 15,000.
Indiana University South Bend's Ken Baierle also spoke to WCT, and clarified a point: Chick-fil-A was not "kicked off" the campus as some reports have claimed. In fact, Chick-fil-A does not maintain kiosks at IUSB's two dining areas but delivers sandwiches on a weekly basis. After a faculty group raised their issues with Chick-fil-A, the university suspended the delivery for two weeks while it reviewed the matter. Having conducted a review, the university has since ended the suspension.
In a press release, IUSB Chancellor Una Mae Reck said, "IU South Bend is committed to IU's policies on non-discrimination and diversity" and that "Upon review, it is clear that the local Chick-fil-A franchise providing sandwiches to the campus in no way violates the letter or spirit of those policies."
IUSB planned a public forum to discuss the matter this week.
New York University also made the news in this series of campus actions. It holds the unique distinction of being the only place in New York state with a Chick-fil-A. But here, the response was much less enthusiastic and, at least initially, queer students and their various groups have not agreed to a call for a boycott. WCT spoke to Joseph Bishop-Boros, a member of Queer Union, an umbrella group under which the other queer campus groups function, and explained that, "The majority of us have issues with single-issue boycotts, although boycotts can be a very powerful way to mobilize people to action. If other students wanted to boycott Chick-fil-A, we'd support them."
Bishop-Boros also made it clear that the group was not likely to come to its discussion only because of the anti-gay arguments, "… we try to think more in terms of intersectional forms of oppression. We don't like to identify as a gays-and-lesbians-for-marriage-equality group … if you think of the Human Rights Campaign ( HRC ) Corporate Equality index, [ those corporations ] may be gay friendly but they could be doing horrible things to the environment, they could be abusing the workers. It's really hypocritical to say you're fighting for equality when in reality you're supporting corporations that are doing horrible things in the world."
Queer Union is set to have its first meeting of the semester this week, and the matter will likely be taken up then.
What does all this mean for Chicago? To date, there has been no concerted effort to either lead a boycott or a protest. Most people in the community have only heard the rumblings and are just beginning to familiarize themselves with the details, which is not surprising since the downtown store will be the first in the city. So far, activists here are weighing the options and considering the dimensions of the issue before fully committing to the matter.
Andy Thayer of Gay Liberation Network said that the group was busy with several other planned actions and events, and if it were to consider an action it would first need to review the facts carefully: "People don't always understand that a boycott requires time and commitment to be effective, and it's difficult to measure your progress," he said, pointing to the 1970s boycott of orange juice around Anita Bryant as an example of a successful campaign that took many years to come to fruition. The fact that the initial problem began with a franchisee and not the entire corporation per se could also have a bearing. He emphasized that such factors could play a role in shaping any campaigns, if at all, and that there was a further problem if the associations with anti-gay groups were to the second or third degree. However, Thayer also said that an action was not out of the question after the group had met and discussed the matter more thoroughly.
Erica Meiners, an out faculty member at Northeastern Illinois University and a long-time social justice activist, was circumspect while broadly supportive of any action in principle, but was concerned, like Bishop-Boros, about a single-issue boycott: "It's great that we are looking at how organizations are using their excess profits, but I'd also want to know: what are their labor practices? How are they with labor unions? Animal welfare? Where did they stand on healthcare reform as a corporation? It's great if this issue can become a wedge issue that we use to continue to use to push on other matters, but I'm not interested in the anti-marriage question." As Meiners sees it, the larger question is: do we consider corporate greed as well or focus on matters of identity?
While HRC has come out critically against Chick-fil-A, the organization Log Cabin Republicans ( LCR ) is less willing to support a boycott or protest, which is not surprising given the group's adherence to the principles of the free market. Speaking to WCT, R. Clarke Cooper of the national office said that people needed to make informed decisions and that Chick-fil-A needed to be educated on the idea that it could be pro-equality and pro-family. He pointed out that the Cathy family, unlike the Manchesters of the Hyatt Manchester, did not have a demonstrated record of hostility to gays. He also said that the LCR had a lot of other legislation to focus on.
Illinois Log Cabin Republicans' president emeritus Michael Carr perspective varied slightly from Cooper's: "As gay consumers we should be looking at all companies with a critical eye and making sure we're purchasing from organizations that support our community [ but ] we can't hold all locations responsible for the actions of one unit. This is a good opportunity to send a message to the ownership of Chick-fil-A that they need to be more cognizant of their support of organizations and how that can effect their public relations." He said that LCR had no immediate plans to discuss the matter with the incoming franchise.
It remains to be seen whether the gay community in Chicago will rally around this issue or not, and to what extent. Given its location, the franchise is likely to be frequented by busy and hungry lunchtime office goers as well as eager tourists. There has been so far no evidence that gay and lesbian employees of Chick-fil-A, if any, are actively discriminated against at work. However, given that the corporation favors married people and that most of its locations are in states that do not recognize gay marriage, gay and lesbian potential employees would appear to be automatically out of the running. Chicago's human-rights ordinance includes sexual orientation and gender identity, and that could also be a key factor here.
WCT also contacted GLAAD and Join the Impact Chicago, but these groups did not respond in time for our deadline. Windy City Times will continue to follow this story.