NASHUA, NH - Ryan Manseau has learned to expect the unexpected.
For example, he walked into the Pheasant Lane Mall looking for a fight. He was all ready to metaphorically shake his fist at Chick-Fil-A over its corporate stance on gay marriage, something company CEO Dan Cathy recently said, invites "God's judgement on our nation."
Instead, Manseau ended up shaking hands with local franchise owner Anthony Piccola, so to speak, as they struck an unexpected deal.
"It started out as a prank," said Manseau, senior director of the NH Pride Fest, of his gay pride canvassing at the mall. His plan was to plant some NH Pride Fest flyers amongst the Chick-Fil-A catering menus outside the mall-based restaurant, for effect.
"After we made the rounds in the mall with the flyers, we circled back by Chick-Fil-A and we spotted a guy who looked like a manager holding the flyer," Manseau said, who was distributing flyers with fellow event organizers Matthew Richards, 19, and Tara Powell, 27.
"So we went up to him ready to talk, to stand our ground. Shockingly enough, he was the owner, Anthony Piccola. He sat down with us – and also with his gay marketing director – and he ordered us all lunch. Then he said, 'Are are you looking for sponsors for this thing?'" Manseau said.
And that's how the owner of a local Chick-Fil-A called for a truce in the midst of a national food fight that has nothing to do with food.
With his offer of event sponsorship, Piccola took a bold stance on what it means to be a part of the community he serves, Manseau said.
"Yeah, there's still paperwork to fill out, but it looks like Chick-Fil-A will be manning a 10-by-10 booth and giving out free food at Pride Fest," Manseau said.
Attempts by Nashua Patch to reach Piccola Tuesday night were unsuccessful. However, a statement quoting Piccola was shared by Pride Fest organizers:
“Chick-fil-A at Pheasant Lane Mall has gay employees and serves gay customers with honor, dignity and respect,” Picolia said. “We also don’t discriminate in giving back to the Nashua community, donating to a wide variety of causes. I would challenge people to come have a conversation with me before they make assumptions or boycott my restaurant.”
Manseau said the turn of events was the last thing he expected, but he's glad he took the time to sit down with Piccola.
"With all the national attention right now, it must be hard to be in his situation. I told him we're expecting 2,000 people at Pride Fest. This is not a little movement, but he's on board," Manseau said. "I was really impressed that he manned up and came over to us and, in his own way, made his own protest of what the CEO of the corporation has to say about homosexuality. It's astonishing."
Manseau said he doesn't think Cathy understood the gravity of his comments last week, or what the repercussions would be for franchise owners.
"What [Piccola has] been dealing with, since all of this started, is people in line for food saying, 'We love you because you hate the gays,' standing next to people in line saying, 'We won't eat here again because you hate the gays.' The thing is, Anthony's not politically or religiously motivated; he's just a business owner."
Fellow Pride Fest organizer Autumn Kent called Piccola's gesture "brave," and said it means a lot, in the scheme of things.
"It's brave of him and I think it's also wonderful, from the perspective of the local focus we've tried to have with Pride Fest, working with locally-owned businesses," Kent said. "Things are happening on the national stage, but when you get down to the local level, and people in our towns start connecting with each other, it's a different story."
"When the conversation starts, person to person, it changes the way we see the world," Kent said.
The Pride Fest, set for Aug. 11 in Manchester's Veterans Park, will feature a pride march, a family-friendly drag show, musical performances, speakers and a puppy drag parade, "open to all pets, not just puppies – we think it's the first puppy drag parade in the nation," added Kent.
Manseau, 21, said it's been a long time since New Hampshire has organized a pride fest, and never one of this magnitude. He has been working hard to get it off the ground, says Manseau, because it's time.
"When I was coming out, things were different. I decided it would be easier to be straight, so I did everything a straight high school student could do – and almost sacrificed my life a few times in the process," Manseau said.
"Finally, I stepped out and said I am just going to be gay and be happy. But I also realized that what would've made it so much easier for me was if there was a community there for me. When kids call you 'faggot' and 'homo,' and you're the only one standing there, you feel so alone. I'm hoping that by pulling together all the venues, the clubs, the organizations, and bringing this event to the park and making it huge, it will show people they aren't alone."
He said early on they were hoping to get 300 attendees, if that. But based on their most recent extrapolations from Twitter and Facebook response, it looks like the event could produce upwards of 2,000 people.
"And we want to shine a light on Anthony and Chick-Fil-A, because this is such a huge gesture," Manseau said.