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Gay Rights Leaders Not Buying Chick-fil-A CEO's Evolution

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To LGBT leaders, Dan Cathy's purported enlightenment regarding equal rights looks like opportunistic damage control.

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This week, USA Today grabbed our attention with breaking news that a spiritual sea change was under way within the hallowed headquarters of Chick-fil-A.

The quick-service chicken chain, according to the story, is "recalibrating its moral and culinary compass. It wants to go from old school to almost cool. It wants to evolve from a place where gays once picketed to a place where they'll feel comfortable going to eat."

Could it be true? Did the famously unapologetic anti-gay CEO, Dan Cathy -- who publicly warned "we're inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say we know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage," and who has spent millions through his WinShape Foundation to fight LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) marriage -- really forsake his entrenched belief system for one that embraces equality?

What exactly did Cathy tell USA Today that would convince the gay community it wasn't swallowing its values along with one of those chicken sandwiches?

Within the space of an hour-long interview, Cathy provided three quotes that could be loosely interpreted as, at best, tolerant: "All of us become more wise as time goes by," "We sincerely care about all people," and "I'm going to leave it to politicians and others to discuss social issues."

Also see: Ahead of the Curve: Public Companies Whose CEOs Supported Gay Rights From the Start

Perhaps not surprisingly, LGBT groups aren't biting. They feel Chick-fil-A's "new direction" is really about the chain's revamped strategy to claim the ever-important "millennial" demographic. That includes an upcoming 108-store expansion into younger markets such as New York City, along with trendy interior touches and a healthy product line makeover. "If we can't do it in New York, we have no business going anywhere else," Woody Faulk, Chick-fil-A's vice president of design and innovation, told the newspaper.

And given the battle that protesters waged against the city's single Chick-fil-A location on the NYU campus, Cathy's purported enlightenment looks like opportunistic (if bare-minimum) damage control to LGBT leaders. "He promises silence on social issues like equal rights in exchange for business, made even more apparent by tacking his 'apology' onto a larger story about rolling out new menu choices," Chris Hayden of the NOH8 Campaign (pronounced "no hate") tells Minyanville. "Chick-fil-A gladly accepted money from LGBT patrons, only to turn around and spend a percentage of that money trying to extinguish those patrons' rights [through WinShape's antigay activities] -- and Dan Cathy's 'apology' and silence moving forward does nothing to change that."

Also unmoved by Cathy's latest comments is Stuart Gaffney, communications director of Marriage Equality USA, who points out that the statements did not include "an actual explicit apology or change of opinion." Still, Gaffney and others at his organization haven't abandoned hope.

"We have to believe that people who are not for equal rights can change their mind," adds Brian Silva, Marriage Equality USA's executive director. "In fact, it's what our whole movement is based on. And so when there is a sincere change of heart, we then support people who move from being anti-equality to being in favor of treating people equally."

Cathy did manage to make a convert -- indeed, an avowed friend -- out of one gay activist. Campus Pride's executive director, Shane Windmeyer, believes he and Cathy have worked to develop a personal mutual respect for one another. The relationship at least seems to be mutually beneficial: Windmeyer offers the CEO his influence over that coveted college-student market, and the unlikely friendship gets the advocacy group a lot of media attention.

Still, Windmeyer -- who went so far as to lift Campus Pride's boycott on Chick-fil-A -- isn't putting much stake into what Cathy said to USA Today. "In order for Chick-fil-A to be embraced by LGBT people (including millennials, gay or straight) -- or, more broadly, urban market consumers in blue states --  there is still more work to be done," says Windmeyer. "That work will need to be in the way of actions, not just words. Dan and Chick-fil-A [have] taken that step forward, and I am proud of that. I don't think any of us know what the future holds, but I hope to be part of that new path ahead."

Though that "sincere change of heart" may be a ways off for Cathy, the backlash against Chick-fil-A seems to have motivated discretion in his antigay rhetoric (at least in mixed company) and, possibly, spending. According to IRS 990 tax forms, 2011 was the last year the restaurant's WinShape Foundation made grants to known anti-LGBT organizations; in 2012, those donations disappeared.

But, as The Advocate noted, WinShape's 990s may not tell the whole story about Chick-fil-A's antigay giving. WinShape found a way to skirt direct donations to groups such as the Marriage and Family Foundation -- which lobbies to block same-sex marriage -- by instead hosting fund-raisers for them.

The Marriage and Family Foundation was started by Dan Cathy's brother, Donald, who's a senior VP at Chick-fil-A. The foundation's address is 5200 Buffington Road in Atlanta, Georgia -- which happens to be the location of Chick-fil-A's corporate headquarters.
No positions in stocks mentioned.

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