N.C. gay rights group plays big role in Chick-fil-A controversy

The Charlotte ObserverSeptember 27, 2012 

A small Charlotte-based gay advocacy group has found itself at the heart of the ongoing national controversy over Chick-fil-A and gay rights.

Officials with the nonprofit Campus Pride organization recently traveled to Atlanta to talk with Chick-fil-A executives about concerns for campus safety at colleges with Chick-fil-A franchises.

“Our work has been pretty effective. It led to Chick-fil-A reaching out and saying, ‘We may not agree but let’s try to find some common ground,’” said Campus Pride executive director Shane Windmeyer.

After Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy made anti-gay marriage comments, Windmeyer decided to take on the restaurant chain.

Windmeyer launched an educational campaign known as Five Simple Facts about Chick-fil-A, which provided materials to college campuses that highlighted donations to groups such as Eagle Forum, Exodus International, Family Research Council and Focus on the Family.

The donations had a direct impact on his target service group, since many college campuses contract to have Chick-fil-As on campus.

Educational materials for the campaign were distributed to about 70 campuses nationwide, said Windmeyer.

It quickly gained the attention of Chick-fil-A executives. Thus, when the recent controversy emerged, Campus Pride was one of the first organizations that the Atlanta-based company contacted.

Windmeyer said he has met with Chick-fil-A executives – including Cathy – twice in Atlanta.

During his last visit, the company showed him documents that pledged to cease donating money to anti-gay organizations.

Shortly after, Windmeyer suspended his Five Simple Facts campaign.

“In order to listen to someone you have to put down your sticks,” said Windmeyer. “I didn’t want to continue the campaign without at least acknowledging that they’re making a good faith effort to reach a common ground with us.”

Officials with the company did not return calls from the Observer seeking comment.

“As we have stated, the Chick-fil-A culture and service tradition in our restaurants is to treat every person with honor, dignity and respect – regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender,” the company said in a memo made public on its website.

Shaping opinions

Windmeyer started Campus Pride after several years of advocating for gays during various speaking engagements.

After coming out to his fraternity brothers in Phi Delta Theta as an undergrad at Emporia State University in Kansas, Windmeyer went on to write several novels, including “Out on Fraternity Row” in 1998.

After graduate school, he began working as UNC-Charlotte’s assistant director of student activities.

Thanh Le, who now works as an assistant director for student activities at UNCC, remembered Windmeyer as a staunch supporter of gay rights.

“He would challenge people’s vocabulary. Even some of the slightest things that you wouldn’t think was insulting. Like people would say, ‘I’m so straight’ to mean ‘I’m fine’ and he really challenged that and asked, ‘Is that the right word to use?’ ”

Windmeyer eventually quit his job at UNCC in 2001 and started the Campus PrideNet website, a clearinghouse for members of the gay community.

In 2006, a friend suggested he start a nonprofit organization for gay rights and equality on college campuses. Campus PrideNet officially became Campus Pride and received federal tax-exempt status in 2007, said Windmeyer.

Last year, the organization worked with 1,200 colleges to make campuses more LGBT-friendly.

The organization advocated for an end to gay bullying following the suicide of Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers student whose roommate secretly videotaped him while visiting with a male companion.

It also has gained notice for its Campus Pride Index, which rates colleges on how gay-friendly they are.

The report considers colleges’ LGBT-friendly policies, programs and practices, including counseling, campus safety and housing.

Today, Windmeyer remains the only full time employee for the organization, making about $39,000 a year.

Windmeyer and other local gay advocates said they’re waiting to see whether Chick-fil-A will hold to its promise to stop funding anti-gay organizations.

“I want to believe them but actions will speak louder than words,” said Dan Mauney, a local gay rights advocate.

Despite the suspension of his Chick-fil-A campaign, Windmeyer said he plans to keep a close watch on the company and is open to restarting his anti-Chick-fil-A campaign at any time, he said.

For now, Windmeyer is hoping that the controversy surrounding Chick-fil-A will help bring other gay rights issues to the forefront.

“Anytime there’s a threat to campus safety and a climate where a student’s academic success can be affected negatively, Campus Pride is going to be there,” he said.

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