Excuse Me While I Kiss This Guy

“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. 

12 thoughts on “Excuse Me While I Kiss This Guy

  1. I was never able to boycott the Chick-fil-a because I’d never been in one, and it didn’t seem in the cards that I ever might have come to be in one. But anyway, good for you and the Mayor.

    The support of straight people for equal rights being extended to gay and lesbian people and the participation of straight people in edging the culture to greater acceptance of us was a major factor in the revolution in law concerning us and in career possibilities for us. Our own psychological self-liberation and public activism, of course, was also major. One of the reasons Jer and I had moved from Oklahoma after college to Chicago was because Illinois was a state where we were legal. We were there in time to march in the third Gay Pride Parade (1973). It would come from up north on Broadway and then turn east at Fullerton to go into Lincoln Park for a rally. Much hostility from observers on the sidewalks. 1980 was the tenth anniversary of the parade. I was a little ahead of Jer and some pals and just about to turn into the park when they hollered up to me to turn around. I never forgot it. Behind us and the other plain gays who formed (we thought) the tail of the parade, there was a sea of straight people marching with us in support. In another 23 years the criminalization of gay sex, such as in Oklahoma, would be overturned at the US Supreme Court extending to us a Federal constitutional individual right.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Part of the point of my opening “anecdotes” was to illustrate the humble beginnings of moral change and progress. I grew up in suburban New Jersey in the 1970s and 80s. When I grew up, everyone around me was an unreflective (though not particularly virulent) homophobe. In second grade, a friend my age (who came from an earnestly Presbyterian family) challenged my casually expressed homophobia. I was scornful at first, but found myself out of arguments fairly quickly, and realized even at that early age that I had just come to take pure nonsense for granted. So I rejected it.

      But a second-grader’s rejection of homophobia isn’t all that meaningful. Or rather, it’s meaningful only in a very thin, abstract sense that has to be tested by engagement with reality. By sixth or seventh grade–the time period reflected in my opening anecdotes–the time had come to engage. That age marks the onset of puberty and sexual feeling. It also represented my first unchaperoned forays into New York City, where I encountered my first non-closeted gay people. What you see in those anecdotes is moral progress taking place over a few weeks or months of the same summer–from “My god, two men are holding hands?” to “What if a lot of people are gay?” In 1980, two men holding hands in public (even in Greenwich Village) was regarded as not only a transgressive, but an “aggressive” act. One commonly encountered people who would say, “Yes, we should respect their rights, but they have to keep their displays of affection private, behind closed doors.” Some people tried to maintain consistency by claiming that all displays of affection, gay or straight, ought to be privatized. Others had no problem with inconsistency.

      Activists began to push the envelope, and began to cancel places that were homophobic. That was a real driver of moral progress. We could all just have acquiesced in the comfortable, “moderate” position of respect for gay rights plus disrespect for gay sexuality. But it’s a good thing we didn’t. We owe the activists–from the most active and aggressive to those who simply marched in gay pride parades–a debt of gratitude for the move from “moderation” to “radicalism.” We can now (sort of) take their achievement for granted. But no achievement comes for free.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Your mention of some memories from childhood, Irfan, naturally reminds me what a different era I grew up in. I graduated from high school in 1966, and to that point, I didn’t really know what a homosexual was. People did not talk of such a thing. I heard the word, and another word for it you might hear at high school was “fairy”, said jokingly in a good-natured way, such as one I recall who because of the rhyme would say “Harry’s a fairy.” So far as I knew, no one I had ever encountered was one. If you asked what the word “homosexual” meant or looked it up in a dictionary, it would say something like “someone who is romantically attracted to the same sex” or you might be told that it was someone who was mentally of one sex but trapped in the body of the other sex—some kind of mental illness. All of which seemed a sad predicament. But I had no idea what they DID, that is, I couldn’t have imagined such physical possibilities. And no idea how various they might be psychologically. I assumed I was straight. I was attracted to girls, not boys, and I didn’t feel I was a girl, but simply a boy, which I enjoyed and still do. When I went to college, I finally learned what was what, my potential range in love and love making, and heard open hostilities expressed against gays. The only condescension from Objectivists I ever heard towards gays was from Rand, Branden, (later) Gotthelf, and one of David Kelley’s backers. Then too, later on and to this day, there are Objectivist sectors online who will never mention the option of homosexuality should they come to talking about romantic love—erasure, like what saturated the culture when I was growing up. But of course, now that is a hopeless speaking not its name, and I should add that all of the Objectivists and libertarians I personally knew from college on were totally decent, acknowledging, comprehending, and they loved us. Lastly, if I may drift to old age here in Lynchburg, VA, all of our friends are straight, almost all of them being couples about our age, and we are all just plain open and human-to-human.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Irfan,

        Activists began to push the envelope, and began to cancel places that were homophobic. That was a real driver of moral progress.

        You’ve made this claim repeatedly now. How do you know it is true? It seems most unlikely to be. At a guess, I’d say that “Will & Grace” did ten times more for the gay cause in America than all the activities of Act Up combined. But what really turned the tide, it seems to me, is the flood of gays coming out in the 1990s and 2000s. It is hard to keep “othering” people when it turns out they’re your sons, daughters, co-workers, friends, etc.

        Canceling people does not persuade them.

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        • David,

          You are entitled (of course) to your opinion on the best way to bring about change. But others have that same entitlement. You’ve got your opinions about what worked, but how do you know those opinions are true? You don’t. People who were there and did the work seem to have different opinions. Their opinions seem more founded in experience and normal human behavior than yours, which is why I side with them.

          the flood of gays coming out in the 1990s and 2000s [turned the tide, you think]. It is hard to keep ‘othering’ people when it turns out they’re your sons, daughters, co-workers, friends, etc.

          All that is very true; but at the same time as the Great Coming Out were lots and lots of demonstrations and aggressive assertion of basic human rights. I don’t know how anyone can determine which tactics “worked”; maybe they were both needed?

          There are still homophobes among our families, co-workers, friends, etc.”. Acquiescence to their homophobic behavior doesn’t persuade them. It is hard to keep “othering” people you know, but some are clearly up to the task. Our silence empowers their bigotry. I’m not going to be silent.

          sean s.

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        • I’d like to chime in on this remark of David’s, but with the preface that I don’t really know the the relative weights of the various factors leading to the American cultural revolution in acceptance of gays and lesbians.

          I did not know until now that the program “Will and Grace” had something to do with gay people. I’d heard of the program, but by design, Jerry and I did not have television. So I really don’t know much about that avenue of influence through those years. There was a disgusting movie Jer and I saw called The Boys in the Band, which was alien to us, and as I recall had no gay people we’d have bothered to get to know. There was later a not-sick film called Making Love. The two men kissed on the silver screen, and howls of disgust went up in the audience from some men. That was in 1982. Finally, in 2006, Walter and I saw a major motion picture that spoke to my earlier life setting and meant something to me. That is called Brokeback Mountain. The big difference between those two men and Jer and I had been that we had gotten education, we were bright and talented, and we got out of there (together).

          I’ve wondered if the acceleration of coming out was triggered by AIDS in the 80’s-90’s and the overwhelming incidence (in America) of the disease in gay men. So many gays still in the closet by then were forced out (such as Rock Hudson). In 1986 the US Supreme Court heard Hardwick v. Virginia and upheld the constitutionality of State criminalization of homosexual acts. When the Court reversed in 2003, Justice Thomas asked: What has changed? (meaning in legal reasoning, I imagine.) Well, sweetie, I’d suggest that the culture changed drastically since ’86, and the bigots against homosexuality are not so strongly on the throne anymore.

          I took little notice of Act Up. It was simply after my time, as it were. I visited their website a moment ago, and at least some of the advances they take credit for are in the head. (The founder of Act Up in Chicago, by the way, was Danny Sotomayor, and earlier he had regularly been the babysitter for the two boys of Walter and former wife Lynn, which Danny was good at.) What I did hear of Act Up in Chicago, concerned AIDS, but there was a lot of identification of it with being gay, and hatred of people with AIDS came from prior hatred of gays. Whatever Danny was raging about to Chicago public officials did not impress me favorably at the time, I do recall that. Nothing really mattered but science; it did not advance quickly enough to save Danny; it did not advance quickly enough to save Jerry. I do not buy the usual line that if Reagan (whom I detest for plenty of reasons, including his social erasure of the existence of gays—Obama was the first President to say the name Gay while in office, if I recall correctly) had kick-started research sooner thousands of lives would have been saved. Physical reality and intelligence are not that deterministic. The science problems were hard. We still don’t have a vaccine, and not for lack of trying. Nature is a giant.

          The demonstrations I recall (besides Pride), and in which I marched, were for local issues with police raids closing bars for the hell of it, and against Anita Bryant when she came to sing for the Shriners. Those were large, well organized, and quickly organized, demonstrations, and nice because the news coverage was going to have to actually look at us, rather than the low-percentage showtime drag folk coverage focused on at Pride. The important movers in political advances in Chicago and later in Illinois were people I knew such as Bill Kelley and Chuck Renslow. Those were the sort of people in law and business who, with a growing voter block, could get an anti-discrimination ordinance in the city. Individuals like me were a factor in getting companies like mine (electric utility) to adopt a private non-discrimination policy. (I was working at a nuke in the country, and when Jer got sick, I was able to transfer to downtown so I would be with him and help him; it was there that some executives got to know me and my competence and my story—the VP mentioned his awakening on this from my case when the policy was announced.)

          The biggest and apparently effective boycott I can recall was in the 70’s. It was against Coors, which, due to reactionary views of the old man, contributed to anti-gay politicians. I’d think boycotts can be more effective and swifter nowadays due to he internet. But of course effectiveness depends greatly on the product and who are its consumers.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Hi Stephen,

            I did not know until now that the program “Will and Grace” had something to do with gay people.

            Wow, that’s crazy. Of course, most people do have TV sets, and the show was very popular. A basic reason to think that a popular show would be more culturally influential than any activist organization (not that you are contesting the idea): a lot more people watch popular TV shows than follow news and political events closely. I would bet money that more Americans knew about and liked “Will & Grace” in the year 2000 than had ever heard of Act Up. (It is a classic “pundits’ fallacy” to suppose that the average person is glued to the news about political events. I personally don’t follow political events at all closely, but I am still constantly amazed at how little my students seem to know about what is going on.) Again, when a march or other “action” takes place, it is typically only a small news item that does not mean much to anyone who is not already interested in the issue. But “Will & Grace” showed, every week, attractive gay characters whose concerns and activities were mostly “normal” and relatable.

            I first learned about Act Up from my gay roommate of the time, a fellow Psychology grad student. This was in Chicago about half a mile from you (for those who don’t know) in about 1988. Looking up Act Up in Wikipedia, I see that was right near the beginning of its existence. I also see that the pink triangle symbol was not Act Up’s, which I always thought it was until today. So there’s another instance of political ignorance. (Every year, a giant pink triangle is displayed on the north hill of Twin Peaks in San Francisco during Pride Month. It is huge. I can see it from my house every year—which is no longer in Chicago but is not in San Francisco either!) My roommate’s opinion of Act Up was similar to yours, to judge from his remarks. He would go to meetings, then come home and complain about the silly things he thought people had said. I had the impression he thought a lot of their plans and actions were counterproductive. But he wasn’t naturally a very political person, and after a while he stopped going. That’s wild about Walter’s connection with the founder of the Chicago branch of Act Up.

            I love the story about your influence in bringing about the nondiscrimination policy at your company. That is the way to do it, imo.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. I’d never even seen a Chick-fil-a before this whole controversy started, tho’ my wife had eaten at some while on business travel. After we discovered their “policy” she stopped. Then they opened one in a mall not far from where I live. So now I can boycott them too; and do. There are other chains we stay away from for similar reasons.

    Respect to you, and Bloomfield’s mayor, Michael Venezia.

    sean s.

    Liked by 2 people

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