Anyone who’s read my work on civil rights knows I’m an openly gay man. If you haven’t read those pieces… Surprise! Now you know. Normally, when a story such as the “Love Wins…Fag” cake hits the news, I’m all over it as I (and my employers) have no tolerance for discrimination of any kind. So, when this story was delivered to me last night, I thought, “Well, it’s odd that Whole Foods in Austin would do such a thing but if they did, I’ll take them to task for it.” Something (several somethings, in fact) just didn’t “feel” right about this one, though. I’ll be the first to speak out against discrimination of any kind, but I also have a strong desire for things to make sense; something friends and family have often told me can be a fault in my personal life. However, in this job, I consider is to be a strength. That’s why this story is different for me. I share in the confusion as the hate cake inspires mixed reactions across the U.S.
If you haven’t heard the story yet, Pastor Jordan Brown, the openly gay, African American leader of the Church of Open Doors in Austin, Texas, bought a cake from Whole Foods. The cake, personalized, should have read, “Love Wins.” Pastor Brown said (and showed via YouTube video) that it actually read, “Love Wins Fag.”
Pastor Brown said he was in a hurry and didn’t notice the slur until he was in his vehicle. Further, he went home and called the store to complain, then made the video to show the box was sealed, preventing anyone from tampering with it. Pastor Brown said the Whole Foods manager apologized and asked that the matter be handled internally (a wise PR move). Two hours later, the manager called back and said no action would be taken as the employee did not write the slur. Let’s label this paragraph, Point One. I’ll get back to it later.
Pastor Brown then retained Austin Kaplan, a local attorney, to help him. After getting no substantive response from Whole Foods’ corporate office for over three days, the pastor and the attorney filed suit against Whole Foods.
In a statement, Mr. Kaplan said, “Pastor Brown never asked for this to happen. He continues to be overwhelmed by the feelings of pain, anguish, and humiliation because of this incident. He frequently shopped at Whole Foods, which makes this all the more shocking and disappointing. What really concerns him is knowing that unless some action is taken, this kind of thing could happen again, and that someone else might have to go through a similarly excruciating experience.”
Whole Foods issued the following response: “The team member wrote ‘Love Wins’ at the top of the cake as requested by the guest and that’s exactly how the cake was packaged and sold at the store. Our team members do not accept or design bakery orders that include language or images that are offensive. Whole Foods Market has a zero tolerance policy for discrimination.”
This response was updated as follows (call this section Point Two):
“After a deeper investigation of Mr. Brown’s claim, we believe his accusations are fraudulent and we intend to take legal action against both Mr. Brown and his attorney. Here’s what we know:
- Our bakery team member wrote “Love Wins” at the top of the cake, which was visible to Mr. Brown through the clear portion of the packaging. That’s exactly how the cake was packaged and sold at the store. Whole Foods Market has a strict policy that prohibits team members from accepting or designing bakery orders that include language or images that are offensive.
- Mr. Brown admits that he was in sole possession and control of the cake until he posted his video, which showed the UPC label on the bottom and side of the box.
- After reviewing our security footage of Mr. Brown, it’s clear that the UPC label was in fact on top of the cake box, not on the side of the package. This is evident as the cashier scans the UPC code on top of the box, which you can view here.
- We stand behind our bakery team member, who is part of the LGBTQ community, and we appreciate the team members and shoppers who recognize that this claim is completely false and directly contradicts Whole Foods Market’s inclusive culture, which celebrates diversity.”
Here’s where my, and judging by commenters on other news sites, YouTube and the church’s Facebook page, confusion begins.
- All of the footage, stills and video, clearly shows the word “Fag” on the cake. It’s written in the middle of the cake, which is clearly visible in the middle of the clear plastic “window” of the box.
- Most custom cakes are shown to the customer for approval before purchase.
- The security footage released by Whole Foods shows Pastor Brown looking down at the cake box while carrying it to the cashier’s lane.
- Pastor Brown, while in a hurry, didn’t immediately return to the store when he noticed the slur while in his vehicle in the store’s parking lot.
- His YouTube video makes a very strong point of pointing out that the box is sealed and the location of the UPC sticker sealing the box.
- Whole Foods’ response points out that, in Pastor Brown’s video, the UPC sticker is on the side and bottom of the box.
- Whole Foods’ further points out that, in the security footage, the UPC sticker is on the top of the box and it’s clearly visible that the cashier scanned the top of the box.
- Granted, just because one is part of a given community (in this case, the LGBTQ community) doesn’t mean one likes every other member of that community. However, it is interesting to note that Whole Foods’ (hopefully with that team member’s consent) said the person responsible for decorating Pastor Brown’s cake is a member of the LGBTQ community, too.
- Further, in a comment posted by someone who presumably knows this team member, said team member is in a long-term committed same-sex relationship and was, in fact, part of the team that helped develop the store’s sensitivity training program.
- As mentioned in Point One, the security footage shows Pastor Brown looking down at the box as he’s at the cashier’s station.
I hate writing stuff like this piece. Honestly, I do. The evidence points to Pastor Brown trying to pull a scam on Whole Foods. There are even commenters from Whole Foods who say a bag of the same color icing was sold to someone later that day, though the commenter couldn’t ID the customer (take that one with a grain of salt). However, there are several professional cake decorators in the various comment sections who stake their reputation on the opinion that the word “Fag” was not written by the same person who wrote “Love Wins.” And, despite time spent searching for the story and coming up empty, I read one comment that claims Pastor Brown did the same thing to a pizza restaurant some time ago and that claim was thrown out.
Another point of confusion (and contention) is motive. Obviously, if Whole Foods hired a homophobic gay (i.e., self-hating) cake decorator, discrimination would be a motive. Or, perhaps the cake decorator just doesn’t like African American gays? The race of the decorator isn’t known to me at the time of this writing. Given the level of sensitivity training required by Whole Foods and the fact that the employee is also LGBTQ, it doesn’t fly with me.
That leaves Pastor Brown. Did he do this himself? The evidence suggests he may have (different writing style, UPC sticker moved). But why? Monetary gain? Certainly, a liberal company like Whole Foods would not want such bad press and, if truly at fault, would likely settle faster than I could eat that cake (very fast, just give me a fork and stand back).
Some have suggested that the axiom, “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” applies. By which they mean that this would be one way to get a lot of press for the Church of Open Doors and possibly even some new members. Independent churches are known for meeting in unique locations, but a maps.google.com search of the church’s address shows it to be a private apartment building. A search of the church’s website resulted in an April 3 “Join us” (click the link at the top of the webpage) at a different address, so maybe the church’s official address is Pastor Brown’s apartment but meetings are held elsewhere.
I don’t like things that don’t make sense. And, frankly, none of this whole story makes a bit of sense to me. I despise discrimination and not just because I’m gay. I despise all forms of discrimination. I also despise hypocrisy, cheating and playing the “victim card” when there’s been no victimization.
Something just smells fishy about this whole, sordid mess. I very much doubt it’s Whole Foods’ seafood department.
Whatever the truth is behind this story, I look forward to learning it soon, if possible. Given Pastor Brown’s lawsuit and Whole Foods’ countersuit, I expect we’ll be hearing more.