Out, But Not About.

Independent publications across the country are having a hard enough time as it is, but in Nashville one, called Out & About, is having distribution difficulties of its own. After setting up a distribution deal to have the free newspaper made available in local Kroger and Harris Teeter stores, the publisher was told that Kroger would not allow the publication to be distributed in any of their Middle Tennessee stores, even after it had been distributed in the stores for three weeks. According to Kroger spokesperson Melissa Eads, the chain has a policy of not allowing distribution of any publications “that promote political, religious or other specific agendas.”

sparks.jpgWhile Out & About is aimed primarily at the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) community, it doesn’t promote a “specific agenda”, and there’s no explicit material. In fact, you’ll find more explicit articles in the magazines next to the grocery store cash register. Each issue of Out & About has serious reporting on local government, civil rights, and general articles that could be of interest to the entire community regardless of sexual orientation. The most recent issue of Out & About has a front-page article about actor Hal Sparks, and Kroger stores in Atlanta allow the distribution of a similar publication called Southern Voice. So what’s the problem? Kroger’s spokeswoman wouldn’t answer questions. While this may not technically be discrimination, there are serious questions about how Kroger stores apply their policies, and they deserve honest answers.

It’s probably unrelated, but ironically this is also occurring at the same time that serious questions are being raised about the nomination of Dr. James Holsinger for the position of Surgeon General. Holsinger has misused his position as a physician to claim a scientific basis for his moral opposition to homosexuality, going so far as to write a paper for the United Methodist Church about the supposed inferiority of homosexual relationships that was intentionally misleading and pulled evidence out of context. In the kind of political spin that’ll make your head spin, defenders of Holsinger are claiming he’s a victim of discrimination. This also comes at a time that some ministers and churches are repeating false statements made by the American Family Association, claiming that a new hate crimes bill before Congress would limit their freedom of speech. Even if it were true it smacks of hypocrisy: anyone who insists on silencing others has no right to complain when their own rights are attacked. (In fact the American Family Association’s claims are so far from the truth that they’ve attracted the attention of the urban legend site Snopes.com.)

Back to Kroger, though, if the store decided to pull the publication because of customer complaints they should admit that rather than hiding behind a vague and, if that’s the case, inconsistently applied policy.

The Nashville Scene, which was my original source for this story, is distributed in Kroger stores, and includes, among other things, the unabashedly liberal This Modern World and (to some) the unabashedly offensive Ask A Mexican, as well as articles that are both critical of and supportive of government at the local and national levels. A few years ago grocery stores also decided to use partly opaque plastic covers on magazine display racks because magazines like Cosmopolitan, with their minus-sized cover girls barely wearing low-cut gowns and articles on how to drive your husband wild in bed, were, understandably, offensive to some shoppers. The stores didn’t pull the publications; they just covered the covers.

Of course I’m not saying that any store should be forced to distribute or sell any publication if it doesn’t want to. Is it too much to ask, though, that they be honest about their reasons? If Kroger is going to claim that they’re kicking a local publication out into the street–and even going so far as to refuse to allow distribution boxes to be placed on the sidewalk outside, which, technically, belongs to the city and its citizens, not the store–because it’s their policy they should make their policy clear. Or they should have the nerve to admit that they really are responding to customer complaints. If they did that, though, then they have to listen to the complaints of some of their other customers who are out and about and, from now on, doing their grocery shopping somewhere else.