Those who oppose anti-discrimination statutes for LGBTQ people frequently claim that such protections are unnecessary because gay people rarely face discrimination. Even if we take that as true—which it isn’t—I’ve always thought that such statutes remain useful as an affirmation of gay people’s equal dignity under the law. Discrimination is painful, embarrassing, and demeaning; at the very least, the state should deter, not permit, such contemptible bigotry.
If you want to learn just how demeaning state-sanctioned discrimination can be, just ask Collin Dewberry and Kelly Williams, a gay couple living in East Texas. After finishing their meal at Big Earl’s Restaurant in Pittsburg, Texas, their server told them that “we don’t serve fags here.” She then instructed them that “here at Big Earl’s we like for men to act like men and for ladies to act like ladies, so we want you to never return.” That phrase, it turns out, is posted on the door of the restaurant.
Earl Cheney, the owner of the restaurant, has confirmed the story—and defended the waitress, who happens to be his daughter. According to Cheney, the couple were barred from the restaurant because they touched legs, which is “just not appropriate in a family restaurant.” (It’s unclear whether Cheney has ever ejected a straight couple from his restaurant for touching legs.) Cheney also stood up for his daughter’s slur, explaining that “she’s just a young lady, didn’t know what else to say, and they just kept on and she finally said we just don’t like fags.” He also issued a warning to any other LGBTQ people who might venture to eat at his establishment:
You’re welcome to come and eat, but a man act like a man and a woman act like a woman. Dress appropriately and act appropriately when you’re in a public place.
I suspect the Christian right would defend the couple’s ejection from the restaurant as an exercise in “religious liberty”—presuming Cheney could come up with some religious pretext for his policy—while dutifully condemning the use of the word “fag.” The true humiliation of the experience, however, lies not in the use of a single word, but the action as a whole, a public act of shaming designed to degrade the couple’s dignity in the eyes of the community. At its core, discrimination like this seems, to me, to be guided less by religious principles than by a startling lack of empathy and compassion.
Those, at any rate, are the stakes of the debate over “religious liberty”: The freedom to discriminate, to kick out gay couples who dare touch legs in your restaurant, versus freedom from discrimination, the liberty to live one’s life relatively free of prejudice-based indignity. You can decide for yourself which side has the better argument. But I’d seriously reevaluate my conception of morality before throwing my weight behind the Earl Cheneys of the world.