Why ‘what ifs’ are important, and why CATS needs to clarify their policy

On Friday, we wrote a small post on qnotes‘ blog asking if CATS’ policies and regulations on transit bus and train advertising was inclusive of LGBT-owned or -friendly businesses.

At the center of the concern are portions of the policy which prohibit ads conveying “information about matters of general interest, political issues, religious, moral or environmental matters or issues, or other public matters or issues, or expresses or advocates opinions or positions upon any of the foregoing.”

Also at issue is the portion of the policy that prohibits ads “for products or services related to human reproduction or sexuality, including but not limited to contraceptive products or services, other products or services related to sexual hygiene, and counseling with regard to pregnancy, abortion, or other sexual matters.”

The policy is overly vague and open to wild misinterpretation, misapplication and abuse.

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qnotes attempted clarifying the policy with CATS spokespeople. We asked them two fairly straightforward questions:

  1. Would advertising be allowed from lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) owned businesses (e.g. restaurants, coffee shops, nightclubs, event promoters, or even this newspaper)?
  2. If such advertising were designed to reach out to LGBT customers/consumers (e.g., clearly identifying the business as LGBT-owned or picturing an image of a same-sex couple) would the advertising be allowed?

Neither qnotes nor FOX Charlotte, which covered the issue on Monday night’s 10 p.m. newscast, have received definitive answers or clarification on these questions.

Olaf Kinard, CATS’ marketing and communications director, did tell FOX, “We don’t get into ‘what ifs,'” and followed up by saying, “CATS has not refused an ad that adheres to its approved advertising policy.”

In fact, Kinard told qnotes over the phone yesterday that CATS did run one LGBT-themed ad in the late 1990s. We are awaiting his official response for more information and CATS answers to the original, as-of-yet unanswered questions, which he said he’d have to us soon.

Kinard’s insistence, however, that they “don’t get into ‘what ifs'” is just as dangerous as its vaguely written policies. For minorities like LGBT people, “what if” is a common if not everyday question. For most of our lives, we have lived, worked and learned asking “what if” in the absence of real, concrete and legal protections.

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CATS’ advertising policy prohibits ads that contain discussion or presentation of matters that are political, religious, moral or sexual in nature. Those terms are largely undefined in their policy and open to misinterpretation by whoever just happens to be enforcing them at the time. And, it is just a plain fact: Sometimes well-meaning people, including government officials, have the wrong and misguided assumption that any discussion of gay or transgender people or issues is automatically or inherently a discussion of political, sexual, religious or moral matters. In such a situation, an LGBT-themed or targeted ad could be rejected if it pictures two men or women holding hands or the advertising official deems the gay-themed material to contain political or moral messages. Such decisions would be protected by CATS’ overly broad and vague policy, leaving LGBT citizens with little or no recourse.

Plenty of past examples of real discrimination show us that LGBT people and issues are often painted broadly as “sexual.” In 2006, Rowan-Salisbury (N.C.) Schools prohibited all gay-straight student clubs by defining them as “sex-based” and passed a policy banning all “sex-based clubs” from the school system. Around the same time, the ACLU was pursuing a legal battle in a Florida school district which had also prohibited gay-straight student clubs under an overly broad policy that banned, you guessed it, “sex-based clubs.”

Even the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy banning openly gay or lesbian servicemembers and the debate around its repeal serve as a salient reminder of how LGBT people are discriminated against by a prejudice that minimizes our lives and our families to mere sex acts and positions.

The reality of the matter is that many people still view anything LGBT as inherently “sexual.” Instead of seeing LGBT people as fully human with full lives and families, we are reduced to sex and only sex. How many times have you or I heard heterosexuals’ admonitions for us to “keep it in the bedroom”?

CATS needs to be more clear, and it needs to state plainly that it will not discriminate against LGBT-owned or -friendly businesses and that it won’t discriminate against LGBT-targeted advertising. Because CATS policy is open to personal interpretation and abuse, having a clear, concise and on-the-record statement of inclusion would go a long way in ensuring no discrimination, whether intentional or not, happens under the authority of CATS advertising officials. That statement of inclusion for all citizens including LGBT people is not a matter of “what if” and it surely shouldn’t take days to formulate, because, at its core, such a statement is merely a simple, cut-and-dry matter of governing with principle and courage.

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Posted by Matt Comer

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.