New transgender discrimination lawsuit marks decade of anti-LGBTQ controversies for Chick-fil-A

Trans employee alleges franchise owner said "it should be an honor ... that someone liked her enough to hit on her"

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published July 24, 2022 1:31PM (EDT)

An exterior view of Chick-fil-A during the coronavirus pandemic on May 12, 2020 in New York City. (Cindy Ord/Getty Images)
An exterior view of Chick-fil-A during the coronavirus pandemic on May 12, 2020 in New York City. (Cindy Ord/Getty Images)

Last week, the Washington Post reported that Erin Taylor, who is transgender, filed a federal lawsuit alleging discrimination and sexual harassment after being fired by a hospitality company that owns a Chick-fil-A franchise in Decatur, Ga.

According to the lawsuit, Taylor alleges that while she was in training to be director of operations at the Decatur location — which is overseen by IJE Hospitality — one of her colleagues made a number of lewd remarks. Taylor claims to have approached Joe Engert, the franchise owner, to report the alleged harassment, which was sexual in nature.

Taylor disclosed that she was transgender in that conversation, according to the complaint. Taylor claims that Engert told her "it should be an honor . . . that someone liked her enough to hit on her." Allegedly, Engert subsequently outed Taylor to her colleagues, including the employee whom Taylor had reported for sexual harassment. Taylor was later fired. 

In a statement to Insider, Taylor's lawyers said, "Ms. Taylor alleges that, instead of the 'positive and productive place to work' Chick-Fil-A says they strive for, she found a cesspool of hate and discrimination." 

While this location is owned by a franchisee rather than Chick-fil-A's parent company, as is the case with many of the chain's locations across the countries, it has reignited a now decade-long conversation about Chick-fil-A's charitable giving and what Vox once described as "its reputation as a homophobic purveyor of delicious chicken sandwiches" — both of which are important to understand as context for this case. 

Here's what you need to know:

When did allegations of "homophobia" against Chick-fil-A surface? 

In 2012, Dan Cathy, then-president and chief operating officer of Chick-fil-A, who is the son of the chain's founder S. Truett Cathy, appeared on The Ken Coleman Show, a syndicated radio talk show. In response to a discussion about some of the chain's stances tied to Cathy's religious beliefs— such as remaining closed on Sunday as it is "the Lord's Day," according to an archived Chick-fil-A press release — Cathy said he felt people were "inviting God's judgment on our nation" by supporting the legalization of gay marriage. 

"I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think we have the audacity to define what marriage is about," he added. 

But that "wasn't the first time the Cathys were accused of homophobia," Vox noted. As the outlet's Gaby Del Valle wrote:

A year earlier, a Pennsylvania Chick-fil-A's decision to donate food to a marriage seminar conducted by the Pennsylvania Family Institute, a group known for its anti-gay advocacy, prompted a nationwide boycott of the chain. Cathy issued a video statement in response to the boycott, in which he claimed the company "serves all people" and that, while he personally believes in the "biblical definition of marriage," his company doesn't have an "anti-gay agenda."

Citing Equality Matters, The Huffington Post reported that the WinShape Foundation, a charitable organization that was founded by S. Truett Cathy, had donated "nearly $2 million to anti-gay groups" in 2010. 

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Notably, the Foundation gave $1,188,380 to The Marriage and Family Foundation, a political advocacy group that "believes in marriage as a lifelong union between one man and one woman, an institution of God and a foundation for civil society." As Vox reported, the WinShape Foundation also donated $480,000 to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, an athletic organization that requires applicants to agree to a "sexual purity statement" that condemns LGBTQ people for living "impure lifestyle[s]."

However, 2012 was when Cathy appeared to lean more into publicly declaring his views for the first time. On July 2, about a month after speaking on The Ken Coleman Show, Cathy spoke with The Biblical Recorder, which is a Baptist publication. When asked about opposition to his company's "support of the traditional family," Cathy responded that he was "guilty as charged." 

"We are very much supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit," he said. "We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that." 

He continued, "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." 

How has the LGBTQ community responded? 

In 2012, following news of Cathy's interviews and Chick-fil-A's charitable giving, a number of gay writers and activists responded. 

"Let's face it: despite what the company's president says, Chick-Fil-A is an anti-gay corporation," Tyler Coates wrote for BlackBook. "And, on that note, I'm just going to have to assume that anyone who spends their money there are completely fine with the fact that an anti-gay corporation not only exists, but pushes money to other groups to continue the widespread practice of discriminating against everyone in the LGBT community."

In August of that year, a number of activists held "kiss-ins" at Chick-fil-A. As CNN reported at the time, an organizer named Carly McGehee wrote on Facebook, "I like to liken it to a married couple sharing a light kiss over a romantic meal, it's the same thing. We're here and our love is just as good."  

According to CNN, some participants noted that they had planned to pay with dollar bills marked "gay money," while others circulated the phrase "tastes like hate." 

Marci Alt, a protester at a suburban Atlanta Chick-fil-A, told the outlet that she would like Cathy to meet her wife and their two children. 

"We share some of the same kind of values," Alt said. "I think it would open his eyes to understand that just because we are a lesbian couple, we're really not any different than him and Mrs. Cathy."

Has Chick-fil-A ever responded? 

In advance of the 2012 kiss-ins, CNN reported that Chick-fil-A's Steve Robinson, executive vice president of marketing, issued a statement saying the company appreciated all of its customers and was "glad to serve them at any time."

However, in 2013 — the day after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage ActCathy tweeted, "Sad day for our nation; founding fathers would be ashamed of our gen. to abandon wisdom of the ages re: cornerstone of strong societies." 

He would go on to delete the tweet "shortly afterward," according to CNN. 

Cathy's vocal stance had some real-world implications. For instance, in 2012, Eater reported that Northeastern University's student government voted decisively to block a proposed Chick-fil-A from entering their student center. Other schools have since followed suit, including Elon University, Emory University, Johns Hopkins and Duquesne University

As CNN reported in 2012, the controversy didn't immediately hurt the chain's bottom line. Following the kiss-ins, conservative activists — including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican — held a Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day, during which the company ultimately set a sales record (they declined to release specific numbers at the time). However, Cathy's comments continued to be a PR thorn in the company's side. 

In March 2014, Cathy told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (in an article that is no longer available on their website, though it was archived by Restaurant News and covered by Forbes) that he regretted speaking out against the Supreme Court's rulings that recognized same-sex marriage. He claimed to have recognized that consumers "want to do business with brands that they can interface with, that they can relate with" and told the paper that the company didn't discriminate against employees or customers based on sexual orientation.

While Cathy said he had no intention of ridding the company of its Christian values — they will always be closed on Sunday, he said — "the bottom line is we have a responsibility here to keep the whole of the organization in mind, and it has to take precedence over the personal expression and opinion on social issues." 

In 2019, the Chick-fil-A Foundation announced a shift in its giving priorities. As Vox reported at the time, "The [company's] release didn't outright say the biggest change to Chick-fil-A's philanthropic giving plan: In 2020, the chain won't give any money to charities that take anti-LGBTQ stances." 

In an interview with real estate publication Bisnow, however, Chick-fil-A's president and COO Tim Tassopoulos made it clear that the company's new donation strategy was at least partly related to the constant backlash Chick-fil-A has faced over its donations.

"There's no question we know that, as we go into new markets, we need to be clear about who we are," Tassopoulos told Bisnow. "There are lots of articles and newscasts about Chick-fil-A, and we thought we needed to be clear about our message."

But "the company did not 'promise' to stop donating to anti-LGBTQ groups," according to a 2020 fact-check by USA Today. Tassopoulos told VICE in 2019 that "no organization will be excluded from future consideration — faith-based or non-faith-based."

What's next for the lawsuit in Georgia? 

Chick-fil-A's parent company hasn't been named in the current lawsuit, which was filed in federal court in Atlanta. When reached for contact by Salon Food, a representative from Chick-fil-A responded that "because Chick-fil-A, Inc. was not the employer and is not named in this lawsuit, all media inquiries regarding this topic can be directed to the franchisee's attorney."

IJE, which oversees the store location, hasn't yet replied to Salon's request for comment, though it did provide this statement to Business Insider

"IJE Hospitality has vigorous policies and procedures to prohibit harassment, discrimination, and retaliation and does not discriminate or harass, or tolerate discrimination or harassment, on the basis of any protected characteristic, including sex or gender identity," it said. "IJE Hospitality is committed to creating and maintaining a workplace that is welcoming, inclusive, and values all people. IJE Hospitality will continue to defend against these claims in court." 

While the court case was only filed last week, there's legal precedent that could be applied to Taylor's case. Employers in the U.S. are barred from discriminating against LGBTQ employees on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity following the 2020 landmark Supreme Court case Bostock v. Clayton County. 

Cathy was among those who topped the list of donors who bankrolled an effort in 2021 to kill the Equality Act, the Daily Beast reported. The Equality Act is a bill in the U.S. Congress that, if passed, would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing, public accommodations and education.

While similar in some ways to Bostock v. Clayton County, the Equality Act expressly states that sexual orientation and gender identity are included in the definition of sex under Title VII. Additionally, Bostock is merely case law, and as such, it could be reversed or limited by future decisions of the Supreme Court. The Equality Act would specifically codify these points as an express matter of statute.

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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Chick-fil-a Dan Cathy Deep Dive Erin Taylor Fast Food Food Lgbtq