When Hillary Dworkoski traveled from her home state of California to the bustling Big Apple for her first semester at New York University last year, she had never heard about chicken sandwiches and waffle fries. 'Chick-fil-A' was not in her vocabulary; neither was 'civic activism' or 'Dan Cathy.' She was an unknowing freshman in the Gallantin School for Individualized Studies, enjoying the wonders of living in New York along with the rest of NYU's Class of 2015.
Fast forward a few months. Hillary begins passing around a petition on change.org that calls for the end to Chick-fil-A's existence on the NYU campus. Somehow, the young freshman has found herself, along with a handful of other students, leading a University-wide protest against the organization for their reported donations to groups that opposed same-sex marriages.
But, after a Student Senate vote abstained the University from getting involved, the protests dulled for some time. Until the rest of the country began catching up with the protestors: with Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum standing behind President Dan Cathy's statements in defense of 'traditional marriage,' lines are being drawn on both the city and national level over the fast food establishment that is only closed on the Sabbath.
Although she is transferring to Los Angeles's Loyola Marymount University this fall, Hillary is taking the fight back home with her. As we speak, the sophomore is busy organizing a protest at a Chick-fil-A spot in West Hollywood; one that was overtaken by LGBT activists on the designated 'National Kiss-In Day' last week. In her mind, this has only just begun.
The Voice spoke with Ms. Dworkoski to ask what's next.
So when was this breakthrough moment in your freshman year, when you realized something had to be done about Chick-fil-A?
I don't remember exactly. I had heard from my classmates, "Oh, Chick-fil-A's bad, don't eat there." It was kind of out of curiosity that I looked it up so that's where I read an article about the donations, which led to the petition on change.org. I felt that, since Chick-fil-A was already in NYU's system, it was the system that had to change. And that was the only way.
Had you had any experience in protest before this or was this your first step into civic activism?
I'd actually never been involved in anything like this before. I came to NYU because I wanted to come to a very tolerant campus. And, at first, only I wanted was for people to know about it and that's all. I had no idea it was going to get this big.
In regards to the actual technicalities of it, like Chick-fil-A as an establishment, what do you think NYU or any city for that matter has the right to kick them out? Does homophobia as an ideology disqualify the privacy of a business?
Yeah, definitely. Alot of people have said that to me, like "Don't you think it's their right to have these opinions as a business?" The opinion argument only goes so far because there's a difference between love and hate. And Chick-fil-A is a hateful organization. I don't think a business has the right to discriminate against a certain sect of the students.
Now, with City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Mayor Bloomberg getting involved, how do you feel about it becoming a political issue in the City?
I've actually been in touch with a few people at the City Council. I might meet with them when I come to New York. I think that it's important that they know we're not going to stand for this kind of hateful attitude anymore.
Last week, Jesse Bering at Slate wrote, "Let August 1st, 2012, go down as a day of infamy and national disgrace. On that day, at-risk gay youth all over this country watched as an endless, self-righteous trail of Americans wrapped itself round and round Chick-Fil-A franchises across the land."
When you turned on the news last week and saw 'Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day' and all of these people coming out in swarms to support it, what were your first thoughts?
You know, there is not one opposing side and people have different feelings to this. But I definitely think taking pride in Chick-fil-A is... I'm not sure if self-righteous is the right word. I think it's sad that these people are so proud to stand by that company... really sad.
Well, now you have all these mayors coming out against the organization - the Mayor of San Francisco tweeted that Chick-fil-A shouldn't dare come near the city and the Mayor of Boston wrote a letter saying something very similar. Do you think all these mayors coming out is a positive step for the movement?
Yeah, definitely. While people argue that Chick-fil-A has the right of enterprise anywhere, the fact that these mayors are coming out to defend the LBGT communities of their cities is enormous for the cause.
The thing about the Chick-fil-A controversy is that it goes much more beyond the organization as a whole. Regardless of the chicken sandwiches and Dan Cathy, the basic question here is 'Can a business practice this?' It boils down to whether this is a human rights violation and if a business can have this 'hateful' ideology, as you mentioned before. Do you think that this is the only beginning of this discussion?
Definitely. The other day, there was an activist-led 'Starbucks Appreciation Day' because Starbucks respects the LGBT community by granting equal benefits to their employees. Now you see all these people standing behind companies and it's almost as if there soon won't be a company that hasn't taken a side on the same-sex marriage issue. You have to realize that every company has a political view of some sort. And anyone who thinks politics and business can be separate from each other is badly mistaken.
Now, with the incoming freshmen at NYU, they're going to enter the school system with a pre-meditated opinion about Chick-fil-A and what it's done with these anti-gay causes. Do you think this is going to affect the Student Senate's opinion and the student body at large?
I've heard that the Student Senate will revote on this issue next semester but that's still to be seen. I think alot of people do know about now and will stop eating Chick-fil-A. I know the kids on the campaign in New York are working on a protest come September, when everyone's back on campus, so the freshmen that don't know about it are going to get hit with it right after Welcome Week [NYU's orientation before classes start.]
I've heard some criticisms - it's very similar to what I've heard at the time Occupy was starting - about how these protestors owned corporate products but we're railing against Big Business. And then I was looking up what other organizations donate to anti-gay causes and you have the CEO of Urban Outfitters and Best Buy both donating to these homophobic affiliates. Now, you have the Best Buy nearby in Union Square and, on NYU's campus at least, Urban Outfitters is definitely a big deal. Why aren't we seeing the protests there?
People have said to me, "Well, why aren't you protesting this? And this? And this?" To which I respond: I can only protest so much. I don't shop at Urban Outfitters anymore but I think it's very easy to avoid eating Chick-fil-A - I know alot of people who already have. You have to pick your battles and pick what is important to you. And Chick-fil-A has become very important to me.