A Win at Cracker Barrel. (Comment)

By Badgett, M. V. Lee | The Nation, February 10, 2003 | Go to article overview

A Win at Cracker Barrel. (Comment)


Badgett, M. V. Lee, The Nation


A lonely Cracker Barrel restaurant stands alongside the highway that runs near my house. I always wonder who eats there, given that it's just a few miles from Lesbianville (aka Northampton, Massachusetts). I have my own doubts about its Southern cooking, but mainly I know that the chain has been a target of boycotters for more than a decade to protest discrimination against gay and lesbian employees.

In 1991 Cracker Barrel Old Country Store implemented a now-infamous policy of firing gay employees, regardless of their performance. Cheryl Summerville, a hardworking cook with a mortgage to pay and a son to raise, received one of the eleven pink slips. Our image of gay civil rights battles dropped out of the realm of middle-class comfort and security and landed in the working class, demonstrating that we're all vulnerable to bigotry. After many protests and the boycott, the company rescinded its discriminatory policy but never rehired Cheryl and the other fired workers. The boycott quietly continued. In the meantime, Cracker Barrel stubbornly refused to add sexual orientation to its nondiscrimination policy.

Not much changed until late November, when pressure from company owners--the people and institutions who own shares of stock in Cracker Barrel--pushed the company to promise not to discriminate. A majority of shareholders voted to add sexual orientation to the company's nondiscrimination policy over the management's wishes, an embarrassment that prodded the company to take action on its own.

On the surface, this looks like a victory for economics over politics. Who needs the messy world of organizational politics when we can marshal our vaunted gay economic clout in the service of social change? On closer examination, though, the Cracker Barrel victory shows the promise--but also the limitation--of gay people's economic power. We certainly took business away from the chain. My decision to avoid their restaurants, despite their convenient allure on long cross-country drives, wouldn't have mattered a bit. But collectively, with leadership from gay organizations, widespread gay determination and the help of our allies, we got the word out. Lots of people avoided the restaurants and learned about the need for new laws to prevent this from happening again. …

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