I glowered at Bobby all through lunch.
“Stop looking at me like that,” he said.
So I looked at my harmless sandwich.
“Are you going to be silent this whole time?”
I took a big bite and said, through increasingly spirited chewing, “I’m not coming here with you anymore.”
“You’re acting like a child,” said Bobby.
“I’m acting like a child?” My half-chewed lunch peeked out at Bobby between every word. “I am not the one knowingly ordering food from an anti-gay company because I can’t control my appetite for chicken fried in peanut oil.” The chicken smelled really good, but I didn’t mention this.
This was the third time Bobby and I had snuck into the NYU cafeteria for lunch. We both worked low-paying jobs in Soho, and managed to pass well enough for desperate that no one bothered us when we carried our trays through the school’s cafeteria line and paid with cash instead of student debit cards.
I usually went with the lunchroom fare—burgers and sandwiches made to order, or something from the sad little salad bar. This was the second time Bobby had ordered from Chick-fil-A.
“They’re here anyway,” Bobby said defensively. “They’ll get NYU money whether I order through them or not.”
I quirked an eyebrow and swallowed. “Now who’s being childish?”
Bobby and I are both originally from Florida, and are both well aware of Chick-fil-A’s political affiliations. The company makes no secret that it’s anti-gay and supports right-wing Christian causes and funds, most notably Focus on the Family, famous for its ex-gay ministry program, Love Won Out. The company often skirts a thin legal line in its employment practices, too. A friend of mine who used to work there once told me that people were sometimes fired if they “acted too gay.” This is still legal in many cities in Florida, and it’s often under-reported in states or cities where it isn’t.
“Why do you have to put politics into everything?” Two weeks later, I was telling my friend Mick he shouldn’t order his pizza from Domino’s. The founder, Tom Monaghan, contributes heavily to anti-gay initiatives and organizations, and still maintains a 27% stake in the company. The current CEO, David Brandon, is also an aspiring politician opposed to marriage equality. The English major in me wants to tell Mick that every decision we make is a political decision, but I’m already being pedantic enough.
“I didn’t co-found the Thomas More Law Center or advocate to restrict access to domestic partner benefits,” I say. “Or finance a proposal to remove sexual orientation from my city’s non-discrimination clause. Plus, Domino’s pizza tastes like a newspaper dipped in milk then microwaved for three minutes.”
I’m not a business-minded person. I hate thinking about money. I spend a little too freely, especially where my appetites are concerned. And most damning of all, I buy a pack of cigarettes every couple weeks—money spent where I know it will do no good. It doesn’t make me happy to spoil a pleasure of someone’s. When I was a kid, I used to love going to Cracker Barrel with my parents for breakfast. They had great pancakes, and I could have spent hours in the gift shop picking out the one piece of useless crap I was allowed to take home. It wasn’t until I got to college that I discovered every time my parents had toted their happy little fairy of a son to his pancake breakfasts, they’d been doing it under an HR policy which stated: “It is inconsistent with our concept and values, and is perceived to be inconsistent with those of our customer base, to continue to employ individuals in our operating units whose sexual preferences fail to demonstrate normal heterosexual values.”
The first job I ever worked was in concessions at a Cinemark theater in high school, the CEO of which donated $10,000 in 2008 to the successful passage of Prop. 8 in California. I made popcorn, and smelled like it, for a whole summer for him. I pushed customers to upsize to a large (“for only $.25 more”) so that asshole could undermine my relationships. I used to donate clothes to the Salvation Army. I used to buy clothes from Urban Outfitters. I once tried to donate blood. Once, I supported my mom’s ambition to become an elder at our church.
I understand the feeling of betrayal and disappointment that comes with hearing someone or something you enjoy has been moving behind the scenes to undermine you. I also understand the impulse to be disbelieving, or to ignore it. They’re so polite to you in person. They make the best fried chicken. But it’s still important that we know. And that we stop supporting bad companies and people. My friends usually cave in the face of my belligerence, but sometimes badgering doesn’t work. Sometimes, unfortunately, it takes the structure falling out from under our feet for us to plunge into politics.
My mom made the bid to become an elder of First Presbyterian Church while I was in college. I’d stopped believing in God years ago, and only went to church at Christmas to make Mom happy. But I still admired and envied her faith. And I was excited when she told me the session would be discussing her possible nomination as a high-ranking elder again. She’d been an elder when I was kid, but fell out of it as her life became busier and the church became more conservative. She was proud of the work she did for First Pres., and had a lot of friends there. It was because of these friends, and because she felt she could be a voice for tolerance from within, that Mom didn’t leave the church after she was rejected from the position. In my memory of this time, I sometimes forget that Mom really believed she could win the hearts of the congregants. It was important to her. She’s a better, friendlier advocate than I’ll ever be, and to see her hurt only made me a worse one.
John Bolton, my former Boy Scout leader, and the reason I left the scouts after coming out, suggested behind closed doors to the session that my mother wouldn’t be a fit for the position because of her positive views of homosexuality—because she had a gay son, specifically—and the session agreed. Someone sympathetic to Mom let her know what happened. John continued to counsel my brother to Eagle Scout. My parents continued to have him as a guest in their home.
Things didn’t change for Mom until the December of my last year in college. The week before Christmas, First Presbyterian was raising donations with baked goods and poinsettias for various charities with a fair outside the chapel. Mom volunteered, as usual, and happened on a booth she didn’t recognize. It was there to collect donations and signatures to “Protect Traditional Marriages” in Florida.
“I thought we weren’t taking an official stance on this issue,” my mom said to the woman running the booth.
“It isn’t personal,” responded the woman, as if saying it would make it true for my mother. As if a prayer didn’t require a breath.
Mom had made a donation to the church during service just that week, unaware of where her money was being funneled. Even after she’d been personally abused, she waited until I had to take issue. Mom didn’t ask me to go to the Christmas service that year. We said a prayer at home before dinner, and that was that. Eventually, she stopped going altogether.
People in language or vocabulary training often like to say that once you learn a word you hear it everywhere. That Christmas, I recognized that my church was saying something I hadn’t been hearing before, and I began to recognize it in other places. Phrases were brought into relief that had seemed like background noise: traditional marriage, partner benefits, non-discrimination clause, contributions. But the most chilling thing I heard, and finally recognized, was a whole new lexicon of silence.
Zachary wrote a previous story for IFD and you can read it here.