I live in Boston where I have three modes of transportation: I primarily walk, but I also bike and drive. When I first moved here in 2010, I did not have a car for the first two years, and as a biker/walker I harbored great disdain for those resource-sucking, air-polluting, giant, metal aggressors on the road. When I began driving, suddenly I found myself frustrated by those scrappy, self-important, brazen bicyclists who carelessly weaved into traffic, demanding that I yield or risk their lives. (Does it happen anywhere else in nature that the one who would surely perish counts on the provoked to protect his or her livelihood?) Pedestrians are less involved in the adrenaline-laced drama of their wheeled colleagues given their status as relatively stationary objects with some sense for how physics works. Such is the morning commute. There is chaos and hierarchy.
You may be wondering if this transportation tangent is ever going to give way to substantive content. It will. I hope.
Vacillating between these three identities on a regular basis has shown me, in a new way, how much our own situations can affect our view of the world. I am so quick to change my perspective in moving from one mode of transport to another. Who we are determines how we perceive much of what occurs around us as we move through the world? Feminist Standpoint Theory says that people in marginalized or oppressed positions are most well-equipped to be objective in their knowledge and understanding of the world around them. In short: These are the people who can tell it like it is. Those in power often do not realize the extent to which their power can cloud and color their view of the world.
So what happens when the oppressed come into power?
Queer rights are gaining ground in big ways across the United States. This month, The Washington Post and ABC News conducted a poll that found that 59% of registered voters in the United States support same-sex marriage. Although I know that there are many questions about whether or not the national consensus on marriage equality is any real indication of the quality of life that queer folks experience across the United States, I do think that this figure speaks volumes to the direction we are heading.
As a major caveat: I am by no means trying to say that queer rights are won in the United States. In 29 of our 50 states, you can still lose your job on account of your sexual orientation. 19% of federal hate crimes recorded in 2012 were tied to sexual orientation. One-third of young people who identify as LGBT will attempt suicide. These numbers are staggering and sobering.
What I am trying to say is that, commercially, there have been some major movements toward non-discrimination in recent years. In some cases, the messages of support sprouted from a positive desire to move toward a model of inclusion and equality. In some of the most publicized cases, however, the support came in response to a less inclusive impetus.
On Wednesday, March 19, Fred Phelps died. Although unable to find my way back at this point, one of my favorite comments on an article about his death employed this sentiment: Phelps will never know all that he did to advance queer rights in the United States. Whenever the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) announced on its website a plan to picket or protest an event, they were often met with an effective counter-protest that was sometimes peaceful, sometimes playful, and often a little of both. The WBC gave people a reason to come together to demonstrate their support for love over hate. In fact, so many people were moved to action by the WBC that there are some conspiracy theorists out there who believe that the WBC is actually a left-wing organization whose mission is to mobilize the masses to take to the streets in support of equality and inclusion. (And no, I am not talking about Fox News.)
Earlier in the month, on Friday, March 14, Dan Cathy, the President and Chief Operating Officer of Chick-fil-A and self-described Christian, lamented his decision to weigh in on the same-sex marriage debate in 2012. I still think that was one of the strangest debacles. My feeling on the topic at the time, which has grown only slightly more nuanced over the past two years, is this: Why the hell is Dan Cathy talking about same-sex marriage? For someone whose company rakes in billions of dollars in sales each year, Cathy showed little business savvy in overlooking what it would mean to alienate a large base of consumers. It is as if Cathy forgot the golden rule: The consumer is king. The consumer also happens to be a diverse body of individuals who come into your establishment because of one shared value: They value a fried chicken sandwich with waffle fries. To his credit, Cathy seems now to acknowledge his mistake as he and his company work to dismantle the public perception that Chick-fil-A is a discriminatory organization.
When those who organized the 2014 St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York City barred queer groups from participating, Guinness responded by locking its taps. In both New York City and Boston, each respective mayor sent a message to the populace in opting not to march in his city’s St. Patrick’s Day parade in solidarity with the queer groups who were not allowed to march.
We are living in a unique historical moment. The “consumer as monarch” idea has been complicated and expanded in our digital world. All of us little monarchs can unite and mobilize across incredible geographic bounds, and when Dan Cathy suddenly says something that creates a schism throughout our empire, we have this giant Montague-Capulet feud on our greasy little hands (Wet-Nap, please.) We can use the Internet as a forum to plan (and find) protests around the country. We can get over 30,000 people to sign a petition asking Dan Cathy to have dinner with a same-sex couple and their kids. We can make a sizable, collective, national, direct impact — and so can those who stand behind Cathy and “tradition.”
When Guinness sides with the sidelined queer rights groups, half of us belly up to the bar while the others close their tabs. When Phelps and his family protested military funerals and other tragic events, even some of the youngest among us felt compelled to take a stand. (That photo subsequently made the rounds on the Internet, capturing minds and hearts with its powerful simplicity). Be it our taking a physical stance in showing up to protest or a financial stance in refusing to give our money to folks who do not share our beliefs and values, we, the consumers, yield some degree of power as stakeholders in these mechanisms. Our ability to connect via the Internet to host these discussions across vast geographic space, to mobilize folks to show up to protests, to encourage a boycott, to tweet praises at Guinness, has totally changed the game. Why would anyone in the business of attempting to turn a profit say anything political in an age where consumers seem to be chomping at the bit to launch a Twitter war against you for stepping out of line? Then I catch myself praising Guinness and my whole thought process goes into a tailspin.
Returning to the issues of standpoint theory, perspective, and experience, maybe I am a huge hypocrite, but I have never asked: Why the hell is Guinness taking a stance on queer issues? People come to them because they value a good, dry stout. Are they not alienating a base of consumers whose firmly held beliefs (usually religious in nature) prevent them from adopting such a model of inclusion? Are they not engaging in a different iteration of the same needless politicization of consumerism?
As someone who grew up in a pretty conservative neck of the American woods, I know that I have a special affection for people who have a hard time reconciling their firmly held religious beliefs with an emerging social embrace of inclusion on issues pertaining to equality for queer folks. Maybe that is why it gives me pause to recognize my own situation in this conversation as someone who, seemingly hypocritically, takes issue with Dan Cathy’s statement about his stance against marriage equality while applauding Guinness for aligning themselves with the queer community. Guinness is a powerful corporate entity, and in taking a stand on these issues, there is little doubt in my mind that some who disagree with their stance may feel powerless and manipulated into compromising their beliefs in order to continue consuming its delicious nectar.
So let me ask again: What happens when the oppressed come into power?
On the one hand, it is a moot point because they have not. Just because Guinness stands up for non-discrimination does not mean that there are not multitudes of disenfranchised queer folks across the country (and world, frankly) for whom this move does very little to improve their lived reality. On the other hand, it is very important that Guinness has done this. The oppressed have not come into power, but some of those in power have demonstrated a sort of solidarity with them which has garnered a good deal of publicity and fostered discussions about these issues. (I can already hear the haters dismissing Guinness’s decision as a PR move, but PR move or not, it has power.)
With that said, the people who piled into Chick-fil-A on the skirts of Cathy’s affirmation of his support for “tradition” no doubt may feel as if they are the neo-oppressed in a world that is growing increasingly inclusive.
But they are not.
This is an important point to drive home again and again: They are not the oppressed. Just because their beliefs are growing less popular in the American mainstream does not mean that they are oppressed. The fact that queer people have been joined by those who love and support them in their crusade for liberation does not make them the oppressors. That is not how equality works.
We would be doing a great injustice to stop there, however, because we have done little to address the conundrum that the religious right is facing in this moment. We have to be gentle with one another. We have to respond to discrimination and hate with thoughtfulness and care. We need to be patient with one another as we enter into discussions around these potentially divisive topics. We need to be cognizant of where our resources, financial and otherwise, are going and what they might be supporting. We need to voice our solidarity with the oppressed, whether we count ourselves among them or not. We need to take care of one another, knowing that “taking care” does not preclude us from pushing one another to grow and to become better, more thoughtful versions of ourselves. I need to remember how I felt about cars as a cyclist and how I felt about cyclists as someone behind the wheel of a car and use those partial perspectives to create one whole of understanding. In cases when it is not possible to have both experiences for ourselves, we need to trust others to offer up their partial truth to our collective whole of understanding.
There are some out there who believe that Guinness’s move makes them feel as I did when Dan Cathy issued his remarks on same-sex marriage: They feel like a consumer scorned. It is important to remember, though, that the only constant across these examples is the oppression of queer folks. Cathy wants queer people excluded from marriage – marking their love as somehow illegitimate. The parade organizers wanted queer groups excluded from participation – marking their identities as somehow unwelcome. These are the oppressed. These are the marginalized. These are those whose standpoint offers them the most objective knowledge and understanding of the world in which they live. “Religious freedom” does not give anyone the right to embrace discrimination and to treat other people as lesser. That is my piece of the truth. What is yours?