Advice: The Right Way to Defuse a Bully, Refer to a Lesbian Couple

In this week’s two-fer, Mr. Manners deals with a homophobic restaurant confrontation and answers a tricky etiquette question: Can you refer to a lesbian couple as Mrs. and Mrs.? You’ll be surprised.

BY Steven Petrow

July 03 2012 5:00 AM ET

Question: My partner and I were in a quiet restaurant trying to have dinner near two straight guys, one of who was carrying on a very loud, endless cell phone conversation.  We asked them to keep it down. Then one of them, drunk and obnoxious, came over and tried to pick a fight. He leaned over our table and started to “gay bait” us. Do we: 1) tell him to f*ck off, 2) engage in the verbal battle, 3) ignore him, or 4) accept the invitation to step outside and duke it out?

Answer:  The best choice is: 5) Ask your server for assistance — which I understand from our follow-up conversation that you did.  You wrote: “I asked the waitress if she could talk to the cell-phoners, and she was very uncomfortable with that — and it continued. Finally, one of the guys comes over to our table and says, ’Let's go outside, I am going to smack you one.’ The exchange continues and he then leans over the table, in my face, and threatens:  ‘If you are nice I will show you my big fat d*ck.’ I respond:  ‘Did you say that because we are gay?’"

At this point the situation has become completely out of hand. So let me back up before diving in, because this kind of potential explosion needs to be defused before it gets to DEFCON 1 threat level.

You know those signs in restaurants and stores everywhere that say, “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.” This is precisely why they exist – so management can throw obnoxious, homophobic bullies out on their rear-ends with impunity and no liability.

When encountering rude or intrusive behavior in public venues, your best bet is to have someone in authority run interference for you. In a restaurant, that’s your server; in a theater, it’s an usher; on a plane, it’s a flight attendant. I can understand why your server was reluctant to put herself in the line of fire, but she should have taken it up the food chain, to the host, maître d’ or manager. If she refused to act, you, too, could have escalated the complaint to the manager on your own. That’s one of the reasons managers are there, to managesituations like these.  When it comes to putting the lid on someone disturbing the peace, a request (or threat) from the staff does the trick 98% of the time.

If management won’t intervene, or if the big mouths won’t stop, you have a couple of choices, including pulling out the video cam on your smartphone and alerting the jerks that it’s time for their close-up:  “Did you hear what's happened to those bullies who picked on the grandma bus monitor? You, too, can become an overnight YouTube sensation if you don’t leave us alone!”  Still, I would recommend this only for big mouths, and not big fists – once a physical confrontation is imminent you don’t want to provoke someone further.

In your case, your loudmouthed neighbor (no doubt emboldened by some rocket fuel) upped the ante once he said, “I’m going to smack you one.” That changed an etiquette problem for management into a threatto be handled by the police.  As antigay bullying experts will tell you, verbal abuse often leads to violence, especially when alcohol is involved.   So, safety first and:

•  Do not leave the restaurant to “take it outside.” Don’t antagonize them further. Just calmly dial 911 and report that you’re being threatened.

•  Don’t exit the restaurant until police arrive, even if the bullies take off. They might be waiting for you outside.

•  Make sure you give your name and address to the dispatcher so that they can follow up with you.

•  Get a written police report, with witness statements, to get the incident on record and to hold the restaurant staff accountable for their failure to intervene.

As for the restaurant, I’d take to social media after the fact and write up your experience on Yelp or Chowhound. Any establishment that leaves a patron to fend for himself against an abusive bully deserves what they get on a public pillory. By the way, under these circumstances you certainly had my permission to leave without paying your bill. I hope you did.

 

Bonus Question: Is it ever proper to address a married lesbian couple as “Mrs. and Mrs.”?
Answer: Ha! I’ve gotten this question in my mailbox more than a half-dozen times in recent months, especially as there seems to be more of a trend of both lesbian and gay couples taking on one of their family names. A couple of years ago when I answered this question I suggested, entirely tongue in cheek, that we revert to the French and deploy “Mesdames” for such a situation. But times move on, and now when Helen Schiller marries Marguerite Rivera, they may become the Schillers (or the Riveras). They may be properly addressed, if they so choose, as Mrs. and Mrs. Schiller. Or Rivera.

 

STEVEN PETROW is The Advocate’s manners columnist and author of Steven Petrow’s Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners and can be found online at www.gaymanners.com. or contact him on Facebook and Twitter. Got a question? Email Steven at [email protected].

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