Chick-fil-A: Were the Protests a Big Fail? And Where Do We Go From Here?

Our enemies distorted our message and reframed the story. And we allowed them to do it. How did we allow it to happen? Because there was no coordinated effort on our side.
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Some are saying we lost the battle with Chick-fil-A, even calling it a dismal failure. I don't believe any effort to point to homophobia is ever in vain, so I wouldn't go that far. When you're fighting bigotry, it's always an uphill battle.

That said, there were problems with the strategy -- or rather, lack of strategy -- in taking on Chick-fil-A. We allowed the opponents of LGBT rights to use the media to recast the issue as one about the first amendment. I say we "allowed" the radical right to do this because it's a no-brainer that it's not about Chick-fil-A's first amendment rights, as Gay Voices editor Noah Michelson explained.

And these people are hypocrites who cared nothing about the first amendment when they went on a religious crusade against Muslims, trying to stop construction of the Islamic center near ground zero back in 2010. Now, while they crusade against gays, with millions of dollars from Chick-fil-A's profits going to groups that promote harmful pray-away-the-gay therapies, they're crying about the first amendment? Please.

So yes, our enemies distorted our message and reframed the story. And we allowed them to do it.

How did we allow it to happen? Because there was no coordinated effort on our side. The controversy was largely driven by blogs, social media and very loosely organized grass-roots activists, with no coordinated leadership. The city mayors and politicians calling for banning Chick-fil-A gave an opportunity for the right to reframe the story. The mayors backed off quickly after many on the left decided it wasn't a good idea. That's what we progressives do: We debate and often rethink things, unlike what those on the right did during the controversy over the Islamic center, as James Peron noted. But though the politicians backed off, the damage was done. And there was no leadership on our side aggressively pulling the story back from the right's re-framing.

After Mike Huckabee and evangelical groups shifted the discussion away from the millions Chick-fil-A gives to hate groups to a story about free speech and about opinions on same-sex marriage (which half the country still doesn't support), there was no forceful, unified response from national LGBT groups. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation seemed to be the only LGBT group actively focused on Chick-fil-A, while just about every anti-gay group from the American Family Association to Focus on the Family to Family Research Council was fully engaged.

At the largest LGBT group, the Human Rights Campaign, the new president, Chad Griffin, who took over in June ( an appointment I praised), hasn't said a word about Chick-fil-A since offering a quote responding to Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy's anti-gay comments weeks ago.

Actually, HRC has clammed Griffin up entirely. I was told by Fred Sainz, HRC's media flack, that Griffin has "no time to waste" doing any interviews with gay media, including with me for my SiriusXM radio program and for HuffPost Gay Voices, until two and a half months into the job (September), while he's "trying to wrap his hands around" the job (though Griffin gave puffy interviews to the AP and the Washington Post "Style" section).

Here we've been in the middle of a massive media firestorm, with so much of the community energized and ready for battle, and the new head of the largest LGBT group hasn't introduced himself to that community yet, nor will give interviews to the very media that can help him get the message out and take leadership? Is it any wonder we lost? (After I expressed dismay, I was told that an interview with Griffin will happen in "coming weeks." I'll keep you posted.)

The "Same-Sex Kiss Day" is also being criticized by some who say it was the wrong tactic because it was "offensive." That's misplaced. Attention-grabbing, sometimes jarring actions, like the kiss-ins and sit-ins of the Gay Activists Alliance in the '70s and ACT UP in the '80s, and the civil rights movement sit-ins before that, have a history of success.

The problem with the kiss-in was, again, a lack of leadership.The turnout was sparse. It didn't have a focus, and by default it seemed to be responding to Huckabee's re-framing of the controversy as about same-sex marriage -- couples showing their love and wanting their rights. Once you grab people's attention the messaging needs to be about the issue you want focused on: Chick-fil-A giving money to those anti-gay groups, which have fostered the very hate that has resulted in violence and murder. It surely wasn't.

So where do we go from here? First off, we're winning the war even if we may have lost control of the messaging in this skirmish. Chick-fil-A doesn't come out of this looking good. It may have had a big day with old customers, but it's not likely getting many new ones. And any other company looking at this will think twice about supporting bigotry.

We must continue making the case about Chick-fil-A's blood money, and surely continue the boycott. And we must have a discussion about leadership, and how, when something like this grows organically on social media and elsewhere, our leaders must harness it rather than run away from the story.

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