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Volume 15/Issue 20

by PlanetOut,, a Worldwide Online Community of Gay, Lesbian, Bi and Trans People

Cracker Barrel Denies Bias Now

Perhaps the U.S. employer most famous for discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation-next to the U.S. military-denies practicing such discrimination now, as they position themselves for a move into more diverse territories. Lebanon, Tennessee-based, billion-dollar-per-year Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, Inc. was in the spotlight again recently, when the Securities and Exchange Commission recommended reversing a series of its own procedural decisions regarding shareholder activism, which initially stemmed from early 1990's protests against the chain of 314 "family" restaurants found on interstate highways. But current Cracker Barrel president and CEO Ronald Magruder, discussing major expansion plans with the Wall Street Journal, says the discrimination against gays and lesbians is now history-in practice, if not by policy.

It was the very blatancy of Cracker Barrel's actions in 1991 that sparked continuing protest, as much as the actual firings of what are believed to be 12 - 25 gays and lesbians: corporate headquarters issued a memo instructing their restaurant managers "not to employ those...who fail to meet normal heterosexual values." The memo was ultimately withdrawn in the face of myriad protest actions and critical media coverage, but none of those fired employees has ever been rehired or compensated in any way. The protests still continue, including two recently defeated shareholder proposals: one to undertake an assessment of the costs resulting from the "continuing controversy" over the firings, and another to link executive compensation with progress towards diversity in hiring.

However, Magruder believes those activists are "beating a dead horse." He himself was not with the company until 1995, and so feels free to admit that the matter was "not handled well," but he also says that things are different now. He told the Journal, "We've got 35,000 employees. I'm sure we've got every kind of employee you can imagine working for us. Do we have gays and lesbians working for us? I'm sure we do. Is that a question we ask anymore? No, we don't." The Journal's reporter J. Alex Tarquinio implied strongly that this new appearance of openness was-like anticipated menu changes-a bow to the company's plans for major expansion out of its traditional Southern base into more Northern markets.

National Gay and Lesbian Task Force executive director Kerry Lobel told the Journal that her group still receives calls from people who find a new Cracker Barrel opening in their neighborhood. There are going to be an awful lot of those calls: the company is planning to add 50 new restaurants to the chain each year for the next five years. Seventy percent of those new locations will not be in the South.

Elton John Won't Tell Any More

The press corps had better get clear about this: openly gay singer-songwriter Elton John will not, repeat not, "be making any further public comments to the media concerning the deaths of his two friends, Gianni Versace and Princess Diana." John announced in a press release Sept. 22 that his current media appearances are strictly for the purpose of promoting his low-key North American tour introducing his latest album, "The Big Picture." Just how serious he is about stepping aside from exploitive coverage is demonstrated by his cancelling an appearance on the popular national NBC Today Show, after the network promoted his guest turn as one in which he'd discuss the deaths.

John is very ready to return to the business of entertaining, and taped a critically-acclaimed installment of a variety show for British television shortly before leaving for the U.S. that exhibited all his formerly familiar humor and outrageousness.

Meanwhile, his "Candle in the Wind 97" benefit single tribute to the late Princess of Wales continues to fly off the shelves in every country where it goes on sale. It topped the charts not only in Britain (where it remains number one in its second week) but also in France, Germany, Holland, and Sweden. Four million copies are available for the first time in U.S. stores now. And while it's probably an embarassment to John, in British stores those who arrived to find "Candle" sold out were buying whatever other albums of his were in stock, sending his year-old "Love Songs" from #44 to #15.

Lesbian Equality in Fertility

In a sort of reversal on past abor- tion controversies, the right wing has been lining up against fertility treatments for lesbian would-be mothers in countries where medical care is primarily supported by public funds. It's been a hot topic in Australia this year, sparked by a Brisbane lesbian's successful discrimination complaint and reaching as high as the federal Health Minister, who said in February that it was legitimate for states to examine the "morality" of paying Medicare benefits for procedures not required clinically. But in New South Wales, extensive discussion between the state's Anti-Discrimination Board and the Central Sydney Area Health Service (CSAHS) has concluded with a formal policy statement that lesbians, and other women not legally married, will receive equal treatment there.

CSAHS board chair Chris Puplick said, "Fertility services in the Central Sydney Area Health Service will be offered in a non-discriminatory way-they will be provided within the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act and will not discriminate on the grounds of marital status or sexuality.... If they fail to comply, now that it is CSAHS policy, they will be in breach of both their own policy and the NSW anti-discrimination laws." Both Puplick and the local service providers believe that in general lesbians have been receiving treatment without bias.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

U.S. President Bill Clinton has on several occasions met with groups of gays and lesbians at the White House, but now he's accepted an invitation to return the visit on their turf: he's agreed to appear as the keynote speaker at the annual black-tie fund-raising dinner of the nation's largest gay and lesbian lobbying organization, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC).

In announcing Clinton's acceptance of the Nov. 8 date, HRC executive director Elizabeth Birch said on Sept. 23, "President Clinton's participation in this event will be historic. The president's attendance will mark the first time a sitting president has participated at a gay and lesbian civil rights event."

It's also a situation guaranteed to surface gays' and lesbians' deeply ambivalent feelings about Clinton's mixed record: somehow whenever he goes where no U.S. president has gone before on behalf of gays and lesbians, first reactions tend to be on the order of, "why here and not there? ... why this and not that? ... and why wasn't it more and sooner?"

Birch responded to some of the president's critics by telling the San Francisco Chronicle that his keynote will have to be judged "from the vantage point of 100 years from now. The message will have to stand the test of time. These are the critical gay civil rights years, and they occur during President Clinton's tenure."

While it's dubious that any dinner speech will be remembered for anything like 100 years, it can at least be anticipated that Clinton will discuss homophobic violence, with his White House Conference on Hate Crimes scheduled just two days later on Nov. 10. His support of the re-introduced Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) is another likely agenda item. And indubitably, the presence of the president is nothing to sneeze at-however much it has raised the ire of those like ACT UP/Washington, DC's Wayne Turner, whose grievous disappointment that the promised Manhattan Project against AIDS never materialized (among other failed Clinton promises) has him considering how best to protest the event.

But mostly, it's politics, the kind of thank-you gesture most other supportive constituencies would have expected long since. The White House even had a convenient "trial balloon" for the current announcement in the form of Vice President Al Gore's appearance at a National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) awards event on Sept. 15. While the wire services carried the story, it caused no great splash. NGLTF is the Avis #2 to HRC's monolithic #I, and more geared to grassroots advocacy by contrast with HRC's greater focus on inside-the-Beltway work.

The HRC gala is the kind of setting where Clinton, a politician who loves to campaign, can feel right at home and do some of what he does best. There will be plenty of familiar faces for him among the 1,500 people at the high-ticket event (which was sold out even before the announcement was made)-not just the organization leaders who've met with him at the White House, and not just Ellen DeGeneres and her partner Anne Heche, who hung out with the president at the annual bash for the White House press corps. (DeGeneres will be receiving an award from HRC for her ultra-publicized coming out this year in both real and sitcom life.)

The crowd will be rife with some of those who made significant contributions to the several million dollars Clinton's presidential campaigns received from gays and lesbians, many of whom are more generally active Democratic partisans-the kind of people politicians nurture like prized orchids.

It's not a coincidence that Clinton's previous closest encounter with "a gay and lesbian civil rights event" was his video message to HRC's OutVote event held a little over a year ago in conjunction with the 1996 Democratic National Convention. Indeed, HRC has had to stretch to maintain any semblance of its valued non-partisan nature in this decade in which so much Republican campaigning has been specifically anti-gay.

Birch has said that Clinton's participation will "set the bar" for future presidents; and if his high jump record here is "first sitting president to participate at a gay and lesbian civil rights event," the next benchmark may be set by the first president to do the same thing during his first term in the Oval Office. Freed of re-election concerns, Clinton has less at stake now than if, for instance, he had joined about a million gays and lesbians who came pretty much right to his doorstep in the 1994 National March on Washington, DC (instead, he was out of town speaking to a business group that day).

But perhaps that's just a sophisticated way of saying, "why here and not there?...why this and not that?...and why wasn't it more and sooner?"

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