When Out & About newspapers hit newsstands at local Kroger and Harris Teeter stores last month, gay rights advocates called it a stride toward equality in Nashville. Just three weeks later, however, Kroger yanked the publication from its racks, citing a need to remain neutral on political, religious and other “specific agendas.”
And while Kroger officials refuse to fully explain (with the exception of a vague written statement) the decision to pull the publication, critics believe this is likely the work of religious conservatives pushing an anti-gay agenda.
Out & About Publisher Jerry Jones says he spoke with a local Kroger employee who indicated the newspaper could no longer be distributed at the chain because of complaints from a member of the religious right who said they would “unleash a fury they had never seen if they didn’t remove the publication.”
It’s a theory that’s been echoed by others speaking on behalf of the newspaper, and one that Kroger has not denied.
“I am disappointed and sickened and surprised,” Jones says of Kroger’s decision, adding that his paper went through all the proper channels to arrange for distribution. “They make it sound like we went out and hijacked a bunch of stores and put our newspapers there, which is absolutely not the case.”
The Nashville-based publication, which covers the region’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, first arrived at 34 local Krogers and three Harris Teeters on May 9 after entering into an agreement with DistribuTech, the company that manages and delivers free publications to the two local supermarket chains. On May 31, the local distributor contacted Out & About’s publisher and said the publication was being pulled from the stores temporarily, pending reevaluation.
“I believe there has been a call from some people in the religious community who have said take it out or they’re going to make waves,” says Kim Council, an independent media consultant who helped Out & About arrange for distribution at the two grocery chains. Although Council says she anticipated some degree of backlash, she is shocked and disappointed at Kroger’s response. “Kroger says it promotes diversity as one of its core values, but that definitely isn’t the case here.”
Although Harris Teeter did not ban the dissemination of Out & About, it appears distribution was halted there as well because the chain was included in the same contract as Kroger.
A copy of the contract reveals Out & About agreed to pay DistribuTech $1,720 a month to deliver the papers for one year. When contacted for this story, DistribuTech’s Nashville manager, Rob Taylor, said he couldn’t comment and promptly hung up the phone.
In an email to the Scene, Melissa Eads, a spokeswoman for Kroger’s Nashville office, states: “The free publication racks in many Kroger stores are managed by an outside organization that arranges distribution agreements with individual publications. We have had a long-standing policy in place that prohibits the third party from distributing publications that promote political, religious or other specific agendas. If a publication is offered that does not meet the guidelines mentioned above, we do ask the distributor to remove it. That is what recently happened when this publication was placed on our free rack.”
Eads declined to answer questions, including whether a final decision has been made, or whether this is the result of customer complaints about the publication, adding, “At this point that is all we are in a position to say.”
The suggestion that Out & About is a political or agenda-based entity is ridiculous, says Brent Meredith, the paper’s editor and creative director. The paper is a news outlet that targets a specific audience, he says, which is no different than other free publications distributed at Kroger stores, including the Scene.
News in Out & About’s May issue includes an article about a committee working to increase the number of openly gay politicians, another about drag queens uniting behind presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani, as well as a story applauding the launch of the newspaper’s distribution at local Krogers and Harris Teeters. As for sexually explicit ads in the paper, none was racier than those routinely in the Scene. One Scene ad last week advertised $10 phone sex with “ebony honies,” “coeds,” and “Asian babes.”
“I think that Kroger is making a bad business decision and they are also applying their own policies in a discriminatory fashion,” says Christopher Sanders, president of the Tennessee Equality Project. Sanders points out that not only does Kroger allow similar publications to be distributed at stores in other cities, but that the company even advertises in some of those papers, such as The Southern Voice, Atlanta’s gay newsweekly. “That means that the rationale that Kroger is giving for pulling Out & About is either false or they are ignorant of what is going on throughout their chain.”
Kroger’s decision has angered Nashville’s gay community and its allies, and some are threatening to boycott the store. In addition, the controversy is garnering national attention. Troy Masters, publisher of the country’s largest gay newspaper, New York City’s Gay City News, contacted Kroger this week to dispute the claim that company policy prohibits publications that push a particular point of view on social issues. He went on to cite two news articles (including one from the Scene about state legislators’ attempts to ban the sale of dildos) that could be considered offensive to some, yet were nonetheless allowed in local Kroger stores. After receiving no response from Kroger, Masters, a native of Nashville, contacted New York City’s comptroller’s office, which has a policy prohibiting the city from investing in any company that engages in discrimination.Apparently, New York City is a major shareholder in Kroger, holding more than $89 million in the supermarket’s stock. On Tuesday, Masters asked a spokesman for the city’s comptroller’s office if this was worth investigating, to which he responded, “Absolutely. I’m going to call their investor relations people.”
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