Cookies and Savvy Politics

Many years ago, when I first became what we now call a “straight ally,” working for equal rights for gays and lesbians, the only members of the community who were politically visible tended to be “in your face” activists. These were not people who appreciated nuance. Of course, this has been true of every political movement, from civil rights to women’s rights; they were started by the more passionate—okay, the more strident—members of the group suffering discrimination. As cultural attitudes changed and the mainstream became more receptive to the message, the movements themselves became more strategic. The movement for gay equality has been no different.

Case in point: a recent episode in Indianapolis, Indiana, involving—of all things—cookies.

The controversy occurred when “Just Cookies,” a bakery with a lease in the Indianapolis City Market, refused to fill an order for cookies with rainbow sprinkles. The order was placed by the local university’s gay rights organization, to celebrate Coming-Out Day. (The owner—clearly not the sharpest knife in the drawer—said he had two young daughters and couldn’t fill the order because he needed to model “morality” for them. I’m not sure what is immoral about rainbow sprinkles, and the daughters turned out to be college-aged, which certainly didn’t help, but bigotry is seldom logical.)

The City of Indianapolis has a human rights ordinance, passed relatively recently, that prohibits discrimination based upon sexual orientation, and there was an immediate hue and cry, accompanied by lots of publicity featuring individuals leveling accusations of discrimination. The Mayor’s office promised to investigate whether the Ordinance had been violated. That in turn animated the usual suspects—the local unit of the American Family Association among them—to leap to the defense of the owner and his right to his religious beliefs. It seemed likely that the controversy would devolve into the usual name-calling and righteous indignation, allowing the right-wing to generate anti-gay hostility and ramp up their fundraising.

But then, the gay community and its allies did something politically brilliant.

The sponsors of the Human Rights Ordinance and the presidents of two major gay rights organizations wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper. That letter made several points:

  • The Ordinance prohibits discrimination—for example, a refusal to sell cookies to gay groups or individuals.
  • The Ordinance does not—and constitutionally could not—require a business owner or individual to support a political cause with which he disagrees.
  • Just Cookies had never (to the authors knowledge) refused to sell cookies to gay people or groups; it had, however clumsily, declined to endorse a political position.
  • The authors strongly disagreed with the political position of the owner, but—echoing Voltaire—defended his right to hold that position. (To which they added the hope that those who disagreed with their advocacy of equality would be equally supportive of their rights.)

The letter was both legally correct and politically brilliant. The Indianapolis Star—never noted for a pro-gay-rights bias—ran a favorable front-page story and an editorial, the latter commending the gay community for its “graciousness.” Both the story and the editorial made the bigots look small and extreme. The electronic media followed suit. Rather than the typical “fringe vs. fringe” coverage such conflicts tend to generate, the gay community came out looking mainstream and reasonable, and the anti-gay activists were deprived of a favored tactic: accusing those of us who are pro-gay-rights of “religious bigotry.”

And at the end of the day, thanks to the amount and kind of publicity generated, a lot of people will demonstrate their disagreement with the owner’s political position—which he has every right to hold—by buying their cookies elsewhere. Which they have every right to do.

A consequence sweeter than cookies.