Land of the Free, Home of the Chicken Sandwich

Eating Chick-fil-A While Queer: A Taboo Within A Taboo

I’ve never read Albert Camus, but if I had I would’ve known that one of his most-quoted passages comes from his 1942 essay The Myth of Sisyphus, in which he wrote, “Man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.” Fortunately, I got a good grasp on what ol’ Camus was getting at by way of a film released half a century after The Myth of Sisyphus was published: Steel Magnolias. In the quippy, southern-fried chick flick, hairdresser at-large Truvey Jones echoes the French-Algerian writer’s sentiments succinctly, and in far fewer words: Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion. Had Camus not beaten us to the punch, the leading authority on absurdity would surely be a Louisiana belle with large hair jacked to Jesus.

Lord knows that southerners are no strangers to the peculiar, eccentric, and downright deranged. There’s a reason why the phrase that’s interesting has been cobbled from a way of indicating investment in a topic to a regional colloquialism which conveys a complete and total loss for words. In order to remain at relative peace with the place we call home, that sort of language—mannerly yet brutal—is a must.

One only needs to take a gander at a few choice headlines from rural Georgia in order to emphasize the degree of absurdity that we’re dealing with: Georgia school hosts first racially integrated prom. ‘Honey Boo Boo’ in spotlight after ‘dancing bar video’ released. Kid Rock Arrested For Assault After Waffle House Scuffle. Augusta National Golf Club admits its first female members. Chris Tucker Arrested for Speeding. My personal favorites have to deal with a certain Georgia-based fast-food empire: The gay chicken row: Chick-Fil-A’s anti-gay stance sparks protest as loyal customers turn on chain. Chick-Fil-A Fast Food Chain Donated Nearly $2 Million To Anti-Gay Groups In 2009.

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Before it became a full-fledged social justice no-no, Chick-fil-A was just another thing on which I’d been reared. I’d been mystified by the perfect symmetry of waffle fries and devoured the paperback books that were tucked into every kids’ meal regardless of the gender of the recipient (more than can be said for McDonald’s). And instead of the tired old sexism of exaggerated gender roles, Chick-fil-A’s “Eat Mor Chikin” ad campaigns relied on the visual, slapstick humor of cartoon dairy cows. Up until it became a disruptive part of my lesbian young adulthood, Chick-fil-A was a small, positive part of my girlhood, that short-lived time where I could read and eat what I wanted without self-loathing afterthought or insecurity.

***

When Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy’s son Dan — who would later become the most outspoken of the family on “traditional values” — went off to college, he chose Georgia Southern University in Statesboro. Forty years later, knowing next to nothing of the Cathy family except that I probably shouldn’t be eating their food for moral reasons, I did the same.

A bit limited when it comes to eateries and businesses, Statesboro has two Chick-fil-As, one of which is located in the heart of Georgia Southern. The other, located in midtown, is flanked by a trifecta of equally-as-infamous corporations: Hobby Lobby, Wal-Mart, and Books-A-Million. Laughter, though tears.

In 2010, it became fashionable to stage same-sex kiss-ins at Chick-fil-A in protest of the corporation’s homophobia, yet the idea of one being staged at the campus location seemed ridiculous as a majority of the employees there were queer. Girls with Rachel Maddow cuts and boys who had secret wig collections dominated the staff, and the lispy chants of “Hello, welcome to Chick-fil-A! Can I get your name?” could be heard from outside the establishment. All protest participants would succeed in doing would be holding up some disgruntled employee’s line. Queer or not, $7.25 an hour is not nearly enough compensation for being used as a prop in misdirected activism. Giving the restaurant’s power players — the Truetts and the Dans — hell seemed like a much more effective strategy, one that didn’t make any southern queers trying to make ends meet more sweaty and miserable than they already were.

The following year, Dan was scheduled to be the commencement speaker at my graduation from Georgia Southern University. When my academic adviser informed me that I was not going to graduate on time, it felt like a blessing in disguise, an alternative to either being miserable for the duration of commencement or being escorted out for indulging in a heckle or two. In this instance, being a southern cliche — smalltown-bound, indignant, and undereducated — felt like a good thing.

***

Because it’s the birthplace of Chick-fil-A, there are around 228 restaurants in Georgia, amounting to 1.5 Chick-fil-As per county in the state. As you travel further up the Eastern seaboard, there are fewer and fewer Chick-fil-As. By the time you hit New York, those lightly-fried chicken breasts are all but obsolete. New York City reluctantly houses a single Chick-fil-A; it’s tucked away into a little-accessed food court at NYU.

After it became common knowledge that the chain donates millions in corporate dollars to the Family Research Council, Focus on The Family, and the notorious gay conversion establishment, Exodus International, the city rebuffed the restaurant’s attempt to open more shops there. “We don’t need bigots coming to New York City,” councilmen Daniel Dromm said matter-of-factly in an interview with The Huffington Post. “They are not welcome here unless they can embrace all of New York’s diverse community — including the LGBT community.”

Earlier last year, I began dating a woman from New York. As long-distance relationships tend to go, she made plans to visit me in Statesboro in August. Before she arrived, I spent a healthy chunk of time emphasizing two things: how sinfully hot as sin our summers are, and how little there is to to do. Brooklyn born and raised, there weren’t many experiences my girlfriend had been denied. There are more concert venues, museums, and cultural spaces in that one borough alone than there’d been people in my entire high school.

There was one unique thing I could offer her, however. Something — practically outlawed in her stomping grounds in New York City — that had such a mythology surrounding it that she had no choice but to try it when she had the chance. And all it consisted of was a buttery bun, a batter-dipped chicken breast, and a couple of dill pickle chips.

She took a bite, chewed, and swallowed expressionlessly.

“I think I’m gonna die.”

On the restaurant bar in front of us, there was an ambitious feast consisting of one classic sandwich, two packs of nuggets, an envelope of waffle fries, along with a fistful of Heinz 57 packets and Polynesian sauces.

“Do you not want to do this?” I asked, concerned despite the fact that eating there had been her idea from the get-go. I felt as though I was peer-pressuring her to go skydiving, not indulge in Georgia’s indigenous fast food.

But there we sat, two dykes at a Chick-fil-A in south Georgia, embracing a spread of peanut oil-fried cuisine with our bellies, all while understanding that we were probably donating to the opposite of our own cause.

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“We can totally go somewhere else,” I offered. There’s a — ”

“Are you kidding me? This? This is great.”

She picked up the sandwich with both hands and took another mouthful. Not without hesitation, I helped her tear through the rest of the food — the two orders of nuggets, the heavenly waffle fries — until there was nothing left but paper wrappings and deflated ketchup packets.

“I need to not move for a moment,” she muttered.

Exhausted, we rested our heads on one another’s shoulders and tried to figure out how we were going to roll our expanded bodies home.

Eating Chick-fil-A while gay becomes a taboo within a taboo. The ‘bad’ is twofold: not only are you eating a heart attack in a red and white paper bag. You’re also giving money to a company that’s then giving it to your worst nightmare.

Often, I become so caught up in the equality politics that I actually forget that the thing we’re fighting for is the right to eat unhealthy fast food without guilt; an impossibility. But if you’re capable of getting past the homophobic stance as well as the deep-fryers and partially hydrogenated this-and-that and to the point where you can let your teeth sink into a Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich, it’s an absurd, delicious, eye-rolling, illicit, all-too-southern experience. It was like the first time I had sex with a girl, fully aware that — were our parents to catch us — we’d be in a world of shit not only with them, but their God. This only served to make it more exciting.

A month after splitting an unethical chicken sandwich with my girlfriend, I received an early morning text from a peer who was commuting through Statesboro.

“Why is the flag outside of Chick-fil-A flying at half-staff today?” she wanted to know. “Did I miss something?”

If you’ve lived in a place like rural Georgia long enough, you’ve learned to coexist alongside folks who want you dead, be it politically or in actuality. It’s best to navigate these soft, slow places with a certain degree of hypocrisy. We talk shit and preach love in equal doses. Most people, regardless of what side of the tracks they’re coming from, do so.

Hate the sin, but love the sinner.

Hate the CEO, but love his food.

“Ol’ fucker Truett died,” I texted back. I’d woken up to the headline regarding the 93 year-old a few hours beforehand: S. Truett Cathy, Chick-fil-A founder, dies. The CNN article in question played it safe when talking about Chick-fil-A’s heteropatriarchal bias, simply stating that “Chick-fil-A’s leadership shares Cathy’s religious beliefs, openly espousing biblical values not only in its operating principles but in its conservative definition of family as well.”

“The fact that I laughed shows how prepaid my ticket to hell is,” my friend responded. I pictured her in her car, taking a sip from one of those big foam Chick-fil-A cups full of Diet Coke that she frequently hauled around.

We balance these two worlds in open and even palms, and examine them closely — not to figure out how to get them to come together in some sort of hippie-dippie harmony, but to figure out how to survive both of them unscathed.

And sometimes, we eat the chicken sandwich before the chicken sandwich eats us.

Written by

Sarah Fonseca is a publicly-educated nonfiction writer from the Georgia foothills who lives in New York City.

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