Why are people mad at Chick-fil-A? A rundown of the chain's past and present anti-LGBTQ controversies

Chick-fil-A has prompted protests and boycotts for over a decade now. Here's why. (Photo: Getty Images)
Chick-fil-A has prompted protests and boycotts for over a decade now. Here's why. (Photo: Getty Images)

Chick-fil-A controversies have provided a frequent through line in the modern era of the fast food chain's 75-year history — most recently with Notre Dame University students petitioning to keep the eatery off of its campus, and New York State lawmakers vowing to ban the chain from being a vendor at renovated thruway rest stops.

But it's sometimes hard to keep track: What is it about Chick-fil-A that makes some people so mad?

The main, um, beef, is that leadership of the chain, founded by Southern Baptist S. Truett Cathy, who died in 2014 and was known for sticking to his rule of keeping the business closed on Sundays as a way of "honoring God," was homophobic, as per its evangelistic roots. It’s a narrative that really took off in 2012, when the debate about marriage equality was raging across the country.

This week, though, a spokesperson defended the chain, sharing the following statement with Yahoo Life: "Chick-fil-A does not have a political or social agenda, and we welcome everyone in our restaurants. We are proud to be represented by more than 180,000 diverse Team Members nationwide, and we strive to be a positive influence in our local communities. We do this, in part, by contributing $25,000 to food banks in each community where we open a new restaurant and donating more than 10 million meals through our Shared Table program."

A national
A national "kiss-in" day at Chick-fil-A restaurants in 2012 was one way people protested comments made by the company's CEO. (Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters)

But how did we get here? Below, a rundown of what’s happened, and where things appear to stand today:

It all started in 2010

It has been more than a decade since Chick-fil-A's antigay image began to take root, thanks to reporting by LGBTQ media showing that the corporation, through its religious WinShape Organization, had donated nearly $2 million to antigay groups, among them the Marriage & Family Foundation, Exodus International and the Family Research Council. That prompted more reporting from the New Civil Rights Movement (now part of AlterNet Media), revealing that Chick-fil-A had donated an estimated $5 million to antigay organizations between 2003 and 2010.

"Let's face it," declared BlackBook, in just one of many examples of media calling the chain out, "despite what the company's president says, Chick-fil-A is an antigay corporation."

The story really heated up in 2012

That's when president and COO Dave Cathy, the founder's son, appears to have first publicly come clean about his stance on marriage equality, saying on a radio interview: "I think we are 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.' I pray God’s mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about."

Then he addressed the idea that he supported the "traditional family" by famously retorting to the Baptist Press: "Guilty as charged." While not spelling it out overtly, Cathy added that the company is supportive of "the biblical definition of the family unit," and, "We know that it might not be popular with everyone, but thank the Lord, we live in a country where we can share our values and operate on biblical principles."

GLAAD, in 2012, summed up the bottom line this way: "Chick-fil-A has donated more than $5 million since 2003 to anti-gay groups, including those that have been designated 'hate groups' by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and those that push so-called 'ex-gay therapy,' which seeks to turn gay people straight." In response, then-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee organized a national Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day.

Eventually, reported ThinkProgress in 2019, "In the wake of the bad publicity, the company posted a Facebook statement that it would focus on making chicken and 'leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena.' Cathy wooed a prominent LGBTQ activist in 2013 and spun him into believing the company was scaling back its anti-equality giving." That wouldn't hold, though, until later that year.

Fast-forward to the end of 2019, when all appeared to be water under the bridge

That’s when the corporation announced, though not explicitly, that its charitable arm would stop donating to organizations with anti-LGBTQ ties, including the Salvation Army (which has also since been forgiven by some) and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and instead implement a "refined giving approach."

Instead, it would focus on donating to organizations that support education, ending youth homelessness and fighting hunger.

"On Monday ... for the first time ever, I was free to enjoy the delicious, Southern fried chicken of my choosing," rejoiced Esquire, echoing the relief of many.

GLAAD, though, remained wary. "Chick-fil-A investors, employees, and customers can greet today’s announcement with cautious optimism, but should remember that similar press statements were previously proven to be empty," Drew Anderson, director of campaigns and rapid response for GLAAD, told Vox. "In addition to refraining from financially supporting anti-LGBTQ organizations, Chick-fil-A still lacks policies to ensure safe workplaces for LGBTQ employees and should unequivocally speak out against the anti-LGBTQ reputation that their brand represents."

So, has the company really changed its ways?

That depends on whether or not you believe that a corporation and its CEO are one and the same. According to a June report by the Daily Beast about how the National Christian Charitable Foundation (NCF) has funded opposition to the Equality Act, which would expand federal protections for LGBTQ people, Dan Cathy, who was made Chick-fil-A CEO in 2013, was one of the group's "high-dollar donors." The chain, though, does not donate to the Christian charity or to political groups.

The NCF, the sixth-largest charity in the U.S., donates to thousands of organizations, including many fighting against the Equality Act, such as the Heritage Foundation and Alliance Defending Freedom. And Cathy has long supported the NCF, notes Business Insider: "According to 990 tax filings, the Dan and Rhonda Cathy Foundation donated $5,750 to the NCF in 2018, 2017, and 2016, the most recent years the filings are available."

To that, the Chick-fil-A spokesperson tells Yahoo Life, "While some of the 63,000 charities they support might be opposed to the [Equality] Act, NCF itself is a 501(c)(3) and by definition can't engage in political endeavors."

Nevertheless, the latest report has sparked what appears to be the most recent backlash — and is likely fueling the fight to keep Chick-fil-A out of New York rest stops and off the Notre Dame campus — with plenty reviving the fight on Twitter.

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