Monday, September 25, 2006


A piece in The New Yorker this week relates the story of a gay couple who caused a recent furor for public displays of affection on an American Airlines flight from Paris to New York. One of the guys was dozing off and was resting his head on his partner's shoulder. They also had exchanged an on-flight kiss at some point.

After a flight attendant asked them to "stop touching each other," the guys started asking for name, rank and serial number of the airline staff who were harassing them. The situation escalated to the purser and even to the captain, both of whom threatened to, get this, divert the plane (to where? Fire Island?) if the men didn't fall into line:

Half an hour later, the purser returned, this time saying that some passengers had complained about Tsikhiseli and Varnier’s behavior earlier. The men asked more questions. Who had complained? (She couldn’t say.) Could they have the stewardess’s name, or employee number? (No.) Would the purser arrange for an American Airlines representative to meet them upon landing at J.F.K.? (Not possible.) Finally, the purser said that if they didn’t drop the matter the flight would be diverted. After that, Leisner said, “everyone shut up for a while.”

Maybe an hour later, the purser approached Tsikhiseli and said that the captain wanted to talk to him. Tsikhiseli went up to the galley and gave the captain his business card. The captain told Tsikhiseli that if they didn’t stop arguing with the crew he would indeed divert the plane. “I want you to go back to your seat and behave the rest of the flight, and we’ll see you in New York,” he said. Tsikhiseli returned to coach.

Tim Wagner, a spokesman for American Airlines, said that the stewardess’s injunction to the men was reasonable, and would have been made whether the couple was gay or straight. “Our passengers need to recognize that they are in an environment with all ages, backgrounds, creeds, and races. We have an obligation to make as many of them feel as comfortable as possible,” he said. (He added, “Our understanding is that the level of affection was more than a quick peck on the cheek.”)

But a customer-service representative named Terri, reached last week on the telephone, offered the opinion that kissing on airplanes is indeed permissible. “Oh, yeah! Sure. I’ve seen couples who are on honeymoons,” she said. “They just don’t want you to go into the bathroom together.”

There are several reasons why this story is disturbing. The first is that it's a reminder that gays are still, in so many ways, every day, second-class citizens. Will and Grace and Ellen and Rosie and Lance Bass and all the others aside, there is a homophobic force in straight society that doesn't want to see gay people as we really are – meaning, just like them: people who kiss their loved ones and hold each other's hands. Straight people get to do that without a thought in the world as to who's watching.

Unfortunately, gay men and lesbians often do have to think about who's watching. And that's the second and more personal reason this story got my heart beating fast as I read down the page. It forced me to confront the internalized homophobia that I allow to enter my own thoughts each time I go to kiss my husband in public or hold his hand. Yes, I am often affectionate with him in public, but I also stop myself from doing it more times than I care to admit. Why? Personal safety, I like to tell myself, but if I really examine it, there's a piece of me that's uncomfortable in that situation because I know holding hands walking down the street, or planting a lip-lock on my husband in public, isn't socially acceptable – even though straight people do it all the time. So I hold back.

That's not an easy thing to admit, but it's true.

If there's a lesson in the story about American Airlines Flight 45, it's that we do have the right to be who we are, every day, in every way – and we need to be, even if we have to fight for it.

- Kenneth Hill, Managing Editor, AOL Gay & Lesbian’s Worth Repeating

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