photo by Eli Christman
Over the past 25 years, as I maintained homes and offices in both the North and the South, I have often driven some of the longest and emptiest stretches of the Interstate highway system. I can almost recite the GPS coordinates of every truck stop and fast food joint on I-95.
But not Cracker Barrel. I haven’t set foot in a Cracker Barrel since sometime around 1992. I don’t plan to become a patron anytime soon, either.
My young family was just discovering Cracker Barrel when news broke about its top executives’ anti-gay hiring policies. My wife and I were both mystified and revolted. I don’t think we really discussed the question beyond saying to one another, “Obviously, we can’t go there anymore.” We stuck to a lot of McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Shoney’s instead, with the occasional Waffle House thrown in for good measure.
Cracker Barrel scrapped its formal anti-gay policy, under shareholder pressure, about a decade later. But attitudes die hard, on both sides. The chain has still not evolved into a welcoming place for gay workers or customers, and it still seems obvious to my wife and me that we can’t patronize the place. It is not a matter for extensive discussion. No matter how good the food, how deserving the staff or how kitschy the souvenirs, I still can’t bring myself to have my daughters - now grown - think that this is the sort of the place where I want to get my grits.
The New York Times reported last week on some ancient documents, dating all the way from the middle of the 20th century, showing the U.S. government’s longtime animus against gays in the federal workforce. Those documents are little more than a historical curiosity now. While it would be naive to think there is no remaining bias among federal hiring managers, such bias is certainly no longer government policy today, especially since President Obama finished evolving on gay marriage.
For some federal employees, executive orders have extended a measure of protection from such discrimination. And 21 states, plus the District of Columbia, have laws that ban employment discrimination based on sexual orientation to some degree. But no federal law prohibits such behavior.
My first instinct is to think that, in 2014, a federal law protecting gays in the workplace would be redundant. But it isn’t. A company like Cracker Barrel is still free, in many states and jurisdictions, to fire someone because of sexual orientation. Now that marriage equality is rapidly spreading, most recently to Pennsylvania and Oregon, employers who wish to discriminate this way will arguably have more opportunities to do so. Nobody should risk losing his or her job simply because of partaking in the many benefits of marriage, but in many parts of our country, that risk remains the reality.
Late last year, Cracker Barrel itself provided an example of how far we still need to go. After Phil Robertson, one of the stars of A&E’s show “Duck Dynasty,” made a series of blatantly homophobic (and racist) comments in an interview with GQ, Cracker Barrel pulled certain pieces of “Duck Dynasty” merchandise from its shelves. It took only two days of customer complaints for the stores to put them back, complete with an apology for offending Robertson’s supporters. A&E, too, reinstated Robertson after fans protested his initial suspension (though, as NPR’s Linda Holmes observed at the time, it seems unlikely the show’s producers could have been ignorant of Robertson’s beliefs prior to the interview). A company that is more concerned with offending Robertson’s fans than rejecting his prejudice is not one that can convincingly argue that it welcomes gay patrons - or staff, regardless of its official policies.
Nobody should be denied service in a place of public accommodation, or be turned away at the hiring office, because of who he or she happens to be. This principle was enshrined 50 years ago in the Civil Rights Act. The fact that the very people who wrote and implemented that act continued to persecute homosexuals speaks to the limitations of that era and of the human character. But our ability to transcend those limitations speaks to the human character too.
We are in the process of transcending our historic persecution of gays. Federal protection for workers and patrons, regardless of sexual orientation or identity, is a matter of basic civil rights that is made more pressing by the recognition of the right to marry.
Once a federal statute is in force and respected, I might someday have the confidence to walk into a Cracker Barrel and order a bowl of grits, knowing that the person who serves me is treated with the same sort of respect I want to continue earning from my daughters.