Back in the early 1990s, when my sister came out in a small town in exurban Pennsylvania, even teachers felt comfortable cracking gay jokes. The message from the people who drove onto our lawn to knock over our trash cans or broke the window she painted for the annual holiday-decoration contest was clear: She was decidedly not welcome.
Back then, the entire political system seemed to take the side of the bullies. In 1992, Pat Buchanan roared from the stage of the Republican National Convention that gay rights weren't the kind of change America needed, spitting the words “gay rights” as though they hurt his mouth. President Clinton's effort to end discrimination in the military collapsed, and he signed legislation that relegated same-sex marriages to second-class status. In our corner of the world, Rick Santorum won Pennsylvania's U.S. Senate seat; candidates from the religious right gained a majority on our school board. It seemed as though the kids who pushed my sister and other “suspected” gay people into the lockers every day were getting a hearty endorsement from circles of power.
Even a decade later, the notion of gay marriage was considered such a threat that President Bush used it as a mobilization tactic in 2004.
Seeing all of this, I felt demoralized. You could never have convinced me that the lives of gay people would someday matter to the larger culture.
Cut to 2015: I open Twitter and see a promoted tweet from Honey Maid, hitching a pitch for graham crackers to the cause of gay rights. “We serve everyone,” the image said, accompanied by an Indiana-shaped graham cracker.
A snack-food conglomerate—Honey Maid is one of many brands owned by Nabisco—is touting gay-friendliness as its branding strategy. I couldn't have imagined it 20 years ago. I wanted to take a time machine back to my high-school years and show the ad to gay kids struggling to come out.
The ad is the sort that Peggy Olson would be thrilled to pitch: clever, striking, informative with just a few simple components. (It also involves two of my very favorite things—map jokes and carbohydrates.)
Tweeting about Indiana isn't exactly a heroic act by Honey Maid. It's a marketing gimmick, but within that marketing gimmick is a clear sign of how much has changed. Graham crackers aren't a flashy product aimed at the hip and edgy; their image is traditional, kid-friendly, comforting, and all-American—downright square. (Rectangular, anyway.) The ad agency pitching Honey Maid wants the viewer to associate their snacks with those warm feelings. And they're betting that Americans will feel those feelings when they think about relationships between two men or two women. Honey Maid's ad campaign suggests that, like love between two people, the crackers they're pitching can be described with the tagline, “This is wholesome.”
Is it cynical? Opportunistic? Sure. But what's important isn't the intention behind the ad, it's that Honey Maid can expect that for millions of potential customers, everybody's love is welcome.
That welcoming, that opening of the human experience to include the experiences of gay people, is a new development, and it didn't happen by accident. It happened because a generation of gay men and women found the strength to come out and demand their humanity, in the face of real risks. Honey Maid isn't leading the charge—it's walking through a door that people like my sister were courageous enough to open.