The American Family Association is boycotting McDonald's because one of the company's executives has joined the board of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. Out & About Today, which is Out & About Newspaper's cable venture with WTVF, has asked me to come on the show and talk about the effectiveness of boycotts and my thoughts on this one.
I have a little experience with this sort of thing. Last year about this time, the Tennessee Equality Project and the Nashville GLBT Chamber of Commerce led a coalition of organizations and businesses in a Save-your-receipts campaign when some grocery chains pulled Out & About Newspaper from their racks. The idea was basically for supporters to save their grocery receipts from any place other than the two stores that had pulled Out & About. We then pooled the receipts and attempted to show one index of the community's buying power. The action was mostly effective in that the two chains started carrying the paper again, although I should point out that one chain only returned it to selected locations.
In 2004, Focus on the Family brought its Love Won Out conference to Nashville. These events are held all over the country and the message is that GLBT people who want to change can do so. The conference organizers also say that they are calling the Church to a more compassionate approach to sexuality than has usually been present. I worked with a group of academics and activists to put on a program the same day to debunk the idea that these change efforts are successful or warranted. Love Won Out got about 1000 attendees. We had 175 at Vanderbilt. But the press coverage was equal and we successfully challenged change therapy in the media. We also threw one of their conference organizers into fits. He emailed the Chancellor demanding equal time. We had the element of surprise on our side because I believe, to that point, no one in the other cities had challenged the conference in this way.
I don't know that either event really constitutes a boycott. In the Save-your-receipts campaign, we never told anyone where he or she could or couldn't shop. We also realized that we wanted to show our buying power to help persuade the grocery chains to change their practices. The conference at Vanderbilt was what I believe is called "counter programming." Again, we never told anyone not to attend Love Won Out. But we wanted to show the other side. We also never told anyone to picket either the conference or the offending grocery chains with signs and whatnot, although a few did.
I think both actions were effective because they were local responses led by local people. We also communicated with the media significantly better than the other side. Both generated significant local coverage and some national coverage. And that brings me to national boycotts. I think it's hard to make them work. People get most excited about events in their own communities. They also like to be given concrete, positive things to do instead of following orders about what not to do.
I think the American Family Association's boycott, in which they are asking McDonald's to "remain neutral in the culture wars," has a huge symbolic problem as well as the other issues that come with national boycotts. Here's what one Southern Baptist leader, while acknowledging that consumer choices are up to the individual, had to say about the boycott and issues of stewardship: "Yet as Christians, we should be consistent in living out our values, rooted in God's Word, even if it means we have to sacrifice." The problem with that is Christ's own example. Jesus' practice of eating with those considered sinners in his day was a potent act emblematic of the Kingdom he was proclaiming. To boycott a restaurant because of its outreach to the GLBT community might run counter to the very narrative of God's Word to which the AFA and others appeal. I hope it's a theological problem they will chew on a bit while they're abstaining from those Big Macs.