“The Negro people of Montgomery, exhausted by the humiliating experiences that they had constantly faced on the buses, expressed in a massive act of non-cooperation their determination to be free. They came to see that it was ultimately more honorable to walk the streets in dignity than to ride the buses in humiliation…This principle became the guiding light of our movement.” (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Pilgrimage to Nonviolence, 1960)
Now, before I begin, let’s be clear. I find this whole idea of the Chick-fil-A boycott slightly—banal, for two main reasons. For one, Chick-fil-A’s anti-gay stance is nothing new, and secondly, if we’re going to suddenly boycott companies for unsavory views or practices, we have a lot more places to hit up. Most of us would probably have to dump a few fruit-related electronics, some clothing items to return, and we should probably start growing our own food back in our grandparents’ gardens. Unsurprisingly, Chick-fil-A’s values only matter to us now because gay marriage has suddenly become a hot button issue. The controversy is symptomatic of what blogger Jonathan called our “fireworks” culture of gaining interest in the sexiest political issues. We can find our Kony-esque villain to launch our politics against, and suddenly we can feel like we made a difference in our little slice of the world.
Yet, problematic and disingenuous as this may be, in regards to a boycott, this is precisely the point.
For many of us, the boycott strategy is an antiquated residue from the Jim-Crow era. That idea, coupled with our deeply polarized cynicism of political efficacy and our valuation of corporations makes us feel that this is largely pointless. It is true that Chick-Fil-A may not lose much money because a “few” of us decide to opt out of a chicken sandwich. It is also true that Chick-Fil-A has every right to be against gay marriage. Of course they do. And it’s probably illegal to deny a corporation the right to set up business in a city just because of their religious proclivities. But if you’re talking about the boycott on the grounds of legality and profit margins, you’re missing the point entirely. The point, rather, is the principle.
As the above Dr. King quote alludes to, the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 was not just about the legal result (although it had a damn good one), but also about empowering Blacks to take pride in their self-worth. Similarly, our (admittedly watered-down) boycotting of Chick-fil-A presents an opportunity for individuals to assert their own agency, and to gather in collective action to stand up for the issues that matter to them. We should not think of this boycott solely in terms of the harm it can do to Chick-fil-A, but rather in the good it can do for hundreds of queer people and allies who are making the choice not to support a company that devalues integral facets of their identities. The point is principle, and the effect is drama. No matter which side of the rainbow you fall on, this controversy sends a message to the entire country saying, “yeah, you can be against gay marriage—but now you have to face the consequences of that stance.” It’s official. Being against gay-marriage isn’t PC anymore, and pro-gay marriage advocates get to revel in this moment of principle.
And this matters, because ultimately, we are a nation of principles. It makes me chuckle when people talk about what Chick-Fil-A has the “right” to do when this is a country that gave people the “right” to bar Black people form their business, or the “right” to jail people for homosexual behavior, or the “right” to keep women from voting. The “rights” of this country are symbolic fictions that change against the force of our national ethos—our principles. As author Ralph Ellison says in his Perspectives of Literature essay, Americans “…are bound by the principles with which [the Constitution] inspirits us, no less than by the legal apparatus that identifies us as a single American people.” Our principles inform laws. So let’s not get too swept up in the “rights” and “laws” of this country. Those change with the ebb and flow of historical progression.
The real challenge, I think, is to make sure our principles are consistent and have conviction. Let’s recognize that marriage equality is not the end-all-be-all for LGBTQ individuals, particularly queer youth of color. Let’s begin to challenge all corporations for slanderous actions, and not just the ones of the moment. And finally, let’s not trade meaningful discourse and intellectual interrogation for lazy political action. So whether you’ll be at Chick-fil-A for the “same-sex kiss-in” or for “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day,” do it sincerely, meaningfully, and let’s not downplay the importance of this moment politically.