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05/19/2015

'Out' magazine's editor-in-chief makes case against gay 'bullies'; it's shortsighted and here's why

by Jeremy Hooper

Out magazine has long been known as a magazine more focused on the pop culture side of the LGBT world than the political one. Yet in a post on Out.com (which might be running in the print edition too; I'm not sure), editor-in-chief Aaron Hicklin has chosen to weigh in on some high profile recent events—and has done so in a way that I find devoid of nuance and overloaded with misrepresentation.

Hicklin begins:

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 At 6.42.58 PmFor five long minutes I gave serious thought to donating to Memories Pizza in Walkerton, Ind. — just enough to cover a slice or two, and maybe a soda. Don’t get me wrong: I have no particular affection for Crystal O’Connor, the hapless young co-owner who told a TV crew she wouldn’t cater gay weddings, but I have no love, either, for bullies, and in this case — as all too often these days — the bullies were us. I’ve been in the media for 20 years, so I know how easy it is for a dogged reporter to find someone — anyone — to say whatever their editor is looking for that day. Here, the sacrificial lamb was O’Connor, speaking off-the-cuff, and without fully appreciating the ways in which the toxic stew of social media and self-righteousness would turn Memories Pizza into a national byword for prejudice — and, just as inevitably, a cause célèbre for social conservatives. Naturally, we were outraged afresh to discover that our original outrage had backfired, helping Memories to secure more than $800,000 in donations from sympathizers.
Pizza With A Side of Gay Shame [Out]

Let me first say that I'm someone who didn't care so much about the Memories Pizza fiasco. And I do think the reporter who got Crystal O'Connor on record saying she wouldn't cater a same-sex wedding likely was seeking to find someone who would be willing to admit as much. With so much focus on Indiana and denial of service, this is an angle many reporters surely wanted to explore.

But that said, Crystal O'Connor did speak dangerously discriminatory ideas to the press. If a gay couple calls in a large order to a pizza place, said pizza place should not deny service to that couple because the owners, who purport to run a public accommodation, have strong beliefs about the occasion at which the pizza will be used. Many areas (though not yet Walkerton, IN) have taken steps to ensure these protections for LGBT consumers, which simply mirror protections that have long been in place on the basis of race, religious, gender, national origin, etc. When business owners have gone to court claiming they have such a right to discriminate, they've most always lost. As they should.

So what are people supposed to do when they read about this pizza owner and her publicly-stated choice to discriminate? Particularly while the state is embroiled in that very controversy surrounding a terribly controversial "religious freedom" bill? Are activists and others who care about justice supposed to just pretend they didn't hear it? Are they supposed to let it slide out of worry that the opposition will exploit the pushback? What does Hicklin suggest? How do you tell millions of concerned people to pipe down and not have an opinion?

Obviously you can't. When people hear about the Memories Pizza situation, people had many opinions. Let me state upfront and outright that I stand fully and loudly against any true threats that were made against the business, something that goes without saying to anyone who knows my work. Sadly, these kinds of extreme opinions are an example of the newfound access we all have because of social media. Trust me, those of us who push for LGBT equality get it too. Just go on Fox News sometime and talk LGBT rights and see what happens to your Twitter timeline for several days on end. Oh my.

The truth is that the responses were mostly far more considered and far more pertinent than the "bullying" that Hicklin conveniently describes. Countless commentators weighed in on the subject in the various ways that commentators do. Late night comedians and even the President of the United States mad jokes about "Indiana pizza," which became a stand-in for wrongheaded denial of service. None of these people were like, "Grrr, that damn Crystal O'Connor, wicked witch of Walkerton!" Instead, they were like, "Hey, that is a wrong thing for a business person to encourage, and here's why." It's just easier to focus on the bullying, I guess.

Which brings me to Hicklin's claiming that he almost donated to the pizza once conservative Dana Loesch started her "victim" campaign on behalf of the pizza shop. This is a startling thing for an editor-in-chief of an LGBT magazine to admit! It's one thing to have an opinion about some of the more heated rhetoric, or to even oppose nondiscrimination protections for the LGBT consumer. But to say you were considering financially rewarding someone who is only in the news because of her stated intent to discriminate against a theoretical same-sex wedding?! That kind of blows my mind, actually.

Hicklin continues:

All of this, of course, served to deflect attention away from the politicians — the real villains — and though Indiana did indeed modify its Religious Freedom Restoration Act, it was more likely due to pressure from that great beacon of civil rights, Walmart, than our furious storm-in-a-teacup debate over whether a skanky pizza joint should be forced to cater gay weddings.
Pizza With A Side of Gay Shame [Out]

This is the part that annoys me the most. Pushback against Indiana's RFRA began lonnnnnnnnnnng before the Memories Pizza silliness. In fact, those of us who talk about and strategize about this stuff have been thinking about RFRA, and how to pushback against it, for years now. I know, because I've been involved with some of it. Lots of activists have dedicated much time and attention to this thoroughly unglamorous subject.

Hicklin sets up a false Walmart versus Memories conceit, but that is just as slighting to the real work that has gone into this. Walmart didn't just decide in and of itself to oppose these kinds of laws. No, no—Walmart did so because of the hard, grueling, time consuming, behind-the-scenes work of many activists. These are not men and women that you will likely see on the cover of Out anytime soon. The Out 100 list typically ignores their contributions. Our movement and its powerbrokers (/editors) can be really bad about acting like this stuff just kind of happens. But lots of folks do lots of work to make this stuff happen. It doesn't just happen on its own.

Hicklin goes on:

So I have a question for those pizza-loving equality warriors who tied up Facebook and Twitter for days with their indignant tirades: What is it about Crystal O’Connor that makes you care so much? She may be a terrible woman, or ignorant, or unhappy, or deeply religious, or even a self- hating lesbian, but whoever she is, absolutely no one outside of Walkerton, Ind. (pop. 2,247), needs to know or care about her views on any subject, much less LGBT equality. Doing so gives those views weight they never deserved. We all know people—relatives or neighbors, maybe—who might say the same thing in an unguarded moment. Until a few years ago, even our progressive president didn’t support gay marriage (a fact he seems eager to have us forget), much less catering one, so what makes O’Connor the lightning rod?
Pizza With A Side of Gay Shame [Out]

Again with the silly labeling of O'Connor. Again, the commentators I read and respect didn't spend time talking about Ms. O'Connor's character traits. Instead, people were focused on her wrongheaded business ideas and what they could mean for nondiscrimination protections if left unchecked. That is a true slippery slope, and Mr. Hicklin's giving it a really dangerous pass.

It is just silly in this age of social media to say that "absolutely no one outside of Walkerton, Ind. (pop. 2,247), needs to know or care about her views on any subject." Once she chose to speak to the media—and yes she, someone who runs a public accommodation, chose to while her state was in the middle of a controversy—it was only a matter of time before it went national. That is the world we live in. Faulting that genie for leaving its provincial bottle is basically faulting Twitter for existing.

And then with the Barack Obama thing? Really? REALLY?!?! I'm pretty sure that our president, who always opposed anti-gay legislation and ballot initiatives even back when he was only a (public) civil unions supporter, would've still opposed the idea of gay people being denied pizzas for ceremonies they were hosting. This is a truly silly road to go down.

Continuing:

The truth is that it was our choice to care, but if we insist on that path we’re going to spend an awful lot of time getting pointlessly angry. I felt the same way in 2013, when the Internet exploded in a froth of fury because the chairman of Barilla, an Italian pasta maker, made a point of saying he would not include gay families in the company’s advertising (though he was in favor of gay marriage). Gosh, what a slap in the face that was! GLAAD quickly issued a statement encouraging people to switch to “more inclusive brands like Bertolli,” while the veteran campaigner Michelangelo Signorile announced that, henceforth, he’d make his own pasta. Good for him — homemade pasta is delicious — but most of us had been eating spaghetti quite happily for years, without ever wondering why Neil Patrick Harris and his adorable kids weren’t smiling back at us from the box. I’m all for LGBT-friendly advertising, but I can’t help feeling that our growing hysteria — the cry of the mob — is the sound of the formerly powerless fetishizing their victimhood.
Pizza With A Side of Gay Shame [Out]

Eating pasta that doesn't include Neil Patrick Harris's family on the box is very different from continuing to purchase pasta from a company whose head said he "doesn't agree" with gay families and who pointedly told gay consumers "If they don’t like it, then they will not eat it and they will eat another brand." I mean, I'm sensitive to the idea that some boycotts are silly, but this one seemed pretty damn cut and dry, with Mr. Barilla even literally soliciting a boycott himself. And, most importantly, it led to significant changes within the company. When the company and Mr. Barilla himself began reversing course, LGBT groups were quick to note it. That's the way this stuff should play out.

Maybe to Mr. Hicklin, this is "fetishizing victimhood." I call it teaching my daughter that companies who tell her that her family is broken do not get our hard-earned money until they sincerely understand how damaging their views truly are. That's not being a victim, and it's certainly not a "fetish" (this stuff is rarely even fun, much less titillating). It's called taking charge on your life.

Hicklin closes:

All minorities are acutely sensitive to being belittled and disparaged, and rightly so, but in the febrile world of the Web, it’s easy to take umbrage at every passing slight. We begin to care too much about whether our pasta is too conservative, or if a pizza maker will cater a hypothetical wedding in a state that until just recently didn’t even have marriage equality. We act like petty tyrants exploding in anger whenever someone says something that falls foul of approved policy. Increasingly, of course, the targets of that anger are other LGBT people, because that is the way tyranny works — the enemy eventually becomes anyone who is not on exactly the same page, exactly the same word, at exactly the same time. It makes us less compassionate, less generous. Is gay-friendly macaroni and wedding pizza really worth that?
Pizza With A Side of Gay Shame [Out]

What strikes me here, in closing, is how Hicklin seems to view all of this from the perspective of hurt feelings and "fetishized" activism. He literally criticizes "caring too much." I think perhaps the problem is his seeing this stuff through the lens of whether or not this stuff ruins the critic's day, or if that critic is pushing back because he or she understands the implications in terms of policy.

Going back to the Barilla situation: I didn't give a flying fusilli what Mr. Barilla thinks of me. I do, however, care about having all of the same protections for my family that my heterosexual peers so easily achieve. And I understand that if I want to protect my family, fully and unequivocally, it is pertinent to challenge headline-grabbing ideas that portray us as lesser-than. Again, that is how we created change in this movement. It's really easy now, at a time of great victory, to tell politically-engaged people to challenge others less often and to do so less vociferously. But challenging outdated notions of what makes for a proper human existence is precisely why we got to where we are today.

Or back to the pizza thing: I know many activists, but I don't know one who was really losing sleep over what a random pizza shop owner thought of his or her "lifestyle." But if everyone were to let these situations in which business owners wish to flout nondiscrimination laws (realized or desired) in order to discriminate against same-sex couples, then the conservatives who want that kind of business world would quickly take a mile from that inch. I mean, what makes this pizza owner's stated wish the one rare exception immune from criticism? If we are seeking logically consistent policy that includes LGBT people in all fairly applied nondiscrimination laws (and I very much am seeking that), then we need to be logically consistent in our reaction. If something gets public attention that flies in the face of that, then I would hope the loudest voices on our side are clear and levelheaded rather than vicious and mean-spirited. I always want people to be focused on the wrongheaded ideas rather than on character assassination. But that doesn't mean lowering your voice. And for god's sake, it certainly doesn't mean contributing to the pro-discrimination proprietor's conservative-enacted "victim" fund!!! (and might I add, !!!!!).

Finally, I really don't know what Mr. Hicklin is even talking about when he suggests ours is becoming a world where is other LGBT people are increasingly the new targets. I see LGBT activists who sometimes disagree with other LGBT activists (e.g. this piece I'm writing now), which is part of any movement and any commentariat. But I do again find it startling that the editor-in-chief of Out magazine is telling his readers that LGBT activism has turned into a form of "tyranny" where LGBT people are increasingly calling others "the enemy." I guess I would need more elaboration on this, since this whole part seems shoehorned into the commentary apropos of little that came before it. Perhaps Hicklin is speaking of a personal situation to which I am unaware.

But I will answer his closing question, "Is gay-friendly macaroni and wedding pizza really worth that?" My answer: Well no, but that's an extremely reductive way of framing this whole thing. Pushing back against a high profile company's stated opposition to gay families and a high profile media story's wrongheaded view on discriminatory business practices are, indeed, worthwhile endeavors. The next time one of these situations pops up (and it will, and soon), I would encourage Mr. Hicklin to stop focusing on the "bullies" he perceives in our midst and to stop helping the far-right sell the very narrative that they wish to sell in order to score some late-stage wins. From my vantage point, there are a lot of hardworking groups and individuals who are simply pushing back against the true bullying from a long-suppressive movement that would like nothing more than for us to accept our marginalized and denied roles in a world in which we do, in fact, coexist.

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