“Dude, holy shit! Those guys are gay! They’re holding hands…they’re actually gay!”
–Me to my cousin Waseem, on our first visit to Greenwich Village, summer 1981
“Dude, was Hendrix gay? How is that even possible? What if a lot of people are gay?”
–My cousin Waseem to me, on mishearing “Purple Haze” later that summer
I’m going to assume from the outset that homosexuality is morally on par with heterosexuality. If so, gay relationships and families are morally on par with straight ones, and those who denigrate either are guilty of a bigotry of sexual orientation. Bigotries of sexual orientation, like those of race or gender, are an injustice whose advocates and supporters deserve, among other things, cancellation.
The owners of the Chick-fil-a enterprise have long expressed and supported anti-gay bigotry. They have in recent years dialed these attitudes back, if only by means of clever sorts of PR, but they have never unequivocally repudiated it. Justice, however, demands the unequivocal repudiation of one’s past injustices. To softpedal one’s malfeasances is to continue them by passive-aggressive means. If George Wallace could overcome his past (or at least make an effort), so can Chick-fil-a. But it hasn’t. For background, consult this article in Vox.
The New Jersey Turnpike Authority (NJTA) is in the process of refurbishing various rest areas along the Garden State Parkway. The Authority has decided on purely monetary grounds divorced from justice to install a series of Chick-fil-a restaurants at these locations, including one in my former hometown of Bloomfield, at the Brookdale Rest Stop at Exit 151. The property in question falls within the municipal boundaries of Bloomfield Township, but is owned by the NJTA, a state agency. So strictly speaking, the parcel in question is state property outside of the legal jurisdiction of Bloomfield Township.
Yet the Bloomfield municipal authorities, led by Bloomfield’s mayor, Michael Venezia, are properly proposing the cancellation of Chick-fil-a on moral rather than legal grounds (described in this article from NJ.com). I agree with Venezia & Co., and would argue that the people of Bloomfield (and adjoining Nutley and Clifton, and generally, of Essex County, of nearby counties, and of the metro area as such) ought to get behind his proposal. They ought to pressure the NJTA and state government, by formal as well as informal means, to cancel Chick-fil-a, and to find a more acceptable replacement.
It’s interesting to compare Chick-fil-a’s circumlocutions on this issue with those of the NJTA (see the Vox and NJ.com articles above). The first makes moral postures, the second does not, but both come across as frauds. Listening to the soulless bureaucrats at both places, you might somehow get the impression that revenue is a substitute for moral principle. It isn’t. Listening to Texas governor Greg Abbott–who placed the power of his state at the service of Chick-fil-a, and at the disposal of bigotry–you might come to think that bigotry was on par with morality. Another falsehood. Part of the point of cancellation is to marry the rejection of these falsehoods to action that negates their power in the real world, the world of practice that exists apart from the realm of thought and discourse. Not every negation of injustice does justice. But this one would.
Bloomfield Township may lose its battle with the NJTA and Chick-fil-a. If it does, the people of Bloomfield should continue Venezia’s cancellation by means of another–boycott. They should refuse to work for or patronize Chick-fil-a at Brookdale. They should periodically gather in the parking lot to picket the place. And though I know this is too much to expect, developers and constructors with a conscience would refuse to build the restaurant in the first place.
The fight for gay rights and gay dignity was won by activism–and by cancellation. Cancellation was often the only weapon at hand for those cancelled by a whole society. I grew up in a medical household; most of our family friends were physicians, and I myself worked in health care–in doctor’s offices, in hospitals, in medical billing. The AIDS crisis was a life-and-death struggle for the gay community, a plague that took and destroyed lives. Yet AIDS patients could not count on the medical profession for reliable assistance or support. I knew physicians who, behind closed doors, refused to accept openly gay patients, particularly patients with AIDS. “Let them find their own doctors,” I was told when I challenged the practice–a euphemism for “let them die their own miserable deaths.”
Anyone who thinks that cancellation is a harsh practice should reflect on the uncancelled medical practitioners who, through concealed (and yet unapologetic) bigotry, cancelled the very lives of the AIDS patients they were supposedly sworn to heal and cure. That was in the mid-1980s, not so very long ago. And it amounts to a lot of uncounted and uncountable corpses. None of those physicians ever committed a legal crime for which they could be hauled before a court of law. The law, after all, itself was populated by people with the same attitudes. But the moral crimes such people committed were unspeakable–and went unspoken.
My generation was won over to the cause of gay rights and gay pride by the moral passion and rectitude of gay activists, including the most assertive and confrontational ones. It’s as easy to take their achievements for granted now as it was to ignore or deride them then. But such evasions are just a recipe for moral stagnation or retrogression. Were it not for the in-your-face quality of gay activism in the 1980s and 90s, we would still be in the same moral space we inhabited before 1980–some of us languishing in shame behind closeted doors, others of us oblivious to the shame of our having forced them there.
The fight for gay rights may be close to won, at least in the United States, but to borrow a theme from the partisans of epistemic uncertainty: don’t be too sure. Gains won can easily be lost. And even if the struggle for gay rights is a victory, the struggle for gay pride is not, as the case of Chick-fil-a itself illustrates: clearly, a company can crap all over gay pride, bankrolling its enemies, and laugh its way to the bank in the process. You don’t stop running a race until you’re sure it’s done. You don’t stop fighting a fight until you’re sure it’s won. We’ve got a long way to go. Now is not the time to waver or stop.