First published at 365gay.com on December 19, 2008
Marjorie Christoffersen seems like a nice enough person by all reports, including those of gay friends and acquaintances.
But Christoffersen made a $100 donation to Prop. 8, which stripped marriage rights from gays and lesbians in California. Now some customers of El Coyote, the landmark Los Angeles restaurant where she worked for two decades, are boycotting.
After angry protests, Christoffersen has tearfully resigned. Meanwhile, some of the other 88 employees have had their hours cut, and business is down about 30%.
Is this outcome the predictable result of taking rights away from a community that has been burned once too often? Collateral damage in an ugly culture war?
Or is it a step too far—punishing an entire business (and a gay-friendly one at that) for the private act of one employee, a generally decent person who can’t quite yet wrap her mind around gay marriage?
A few facts are worth noting as we ponder these questions.
Christoffersen’s small contribution was a personal one, not supported by the restaurant (except rather indirectly, insofar as it pays her salary).
True, she is the owner’s daughter and a familiar fixture there, but at El Coyote she kept her Prop. 8 support to herself (unsurprisingly, given the sympathies of her coworkers and patrons). It became known only as activists scoured donation rolls for “hypocritical” Yes-on-8 donors.
Indeed, in the wake of the controversy over Christoffersen, El Coyote has given $10,000 to the efforts to repeal Prop. 8—a substantial public penance for their employee’s private $100 “sin.”
El Coyote has many gay employees, including managers. While they were aware of Christoffersen’s Mormonism and her conservative political beliefs, they got along well with her. They report that (apart from the marriage issue) she was supportive of her gay friends and coworkers.
Some of those gay coworkers are now hurting. And it’s not just because they miss Christoffersen or hate seeing her so upset—she can’t discuss the incident without crying—but also because, with business slowing down, they fear for their jobs.
Meanwhile, opponents of marriage equality have begun to use Christoffersen as an example of how gay-rights advocates want to destroy freedom of religion, speech, and conscience.
What do I think?
I think Margie Christoffersen sounds like a basically good person, someone who is wrong on marriage equality but is (or at least was) possibly winnable on that point someday.
I also think the simplistic black-and-white approach that suggests “You’re either with us or against us” works even less at the level of day-to-day life than it does for, say, George Bush’s foreign policy.
I think punishing El Coyote for the contributions of a single employee—one whose views on this subject hardly seem representative of its management or staff—is certainly overbroad and probably counterproductive.
And yet I also appreciate the outrage of those who want nothing to do with anyone and anything even remotely associated with “Yes on 8”—a campaign which not only took away marriage rights, but did so by despicably portraying gays as a threat to children.
Against that ugly backdrop, it’s hard to get worked up about a diner’s business slowing down.
What concerns me most, however, is not misdirected punishment of El Coyote, or the occasionally harsh words for Christoffersen.
What concerns me most is the right wing’s misusing this case as Exhibit N in their ever-growing catalog of alleged threats to their freedom.
For example, in the National Review Online, Maggie Gallagher refers to the protests and boycott as “extraordinary public acts of hatred” and criticizes “the use of power to silence moral opposition.”
But nobody “silenced” Margie Christoffersen. She expressed her viewpoint by contributing; others expressed theirs by boycotting. That’s how free expression works.
So call the boycott counterproductive if you like, or reckless, or even mean-spirited. I might quibble with some of your characterizations, but I see your point.
But please don’t call it a violation of anyone’s rights. Neither Christoffersen nor El Coyote has a pre-existing right to anyone’s patronage.
Don’t call it a violation of her religious freedom, unless religious freedom means the freedom to strip away others’ legal rights without their being free to walk away from you.
And for heaven’s sake, don’t call it a violation of her freedom of conscience.
Christoffersen is free to think, speak, or vote however she likes. Others are free to avoid her.
In the culture war, as elsewhere, freedom is a sword that cuts both ways.