When musician Sir Ari Gold and his boyfriend Timothy Nelson boarded a Shortline bus at New York City’s Port Authority terminal to visit his family in the Catskills last Sunday, he couldn’t have foreseen that the couple would soon be at the center of a possible civil rights violation.
The two men who were seated next to one another near the front of the bus, holding hands and listening to music on a shared iPod, soon caught the attention of the allegedly homophobic driver. The man demanded that the couple move to the back of the bus. And when Gold refused, the driver pulled over and called police.
Fortunately another passenger offered to be a witness for Gold and Nelson, and The Advocate has exclusively corroborated the men’s story with Florence Mattersdorfer of Livingston Manner, NY. Mattersdorfer says she and her husband have been longtime advocates of LGBT equality, and so she was disturbed by the way Gold and Nelson were treated. She says it was completely without provocation.
"It was certainly unprovoked in my opinion and it was [due to the driver's] personal bias," Mattersdorfer says. "He was offended by them. And I don’t believe that had it been a man and a woman he would have made an issue out of it because they were not doing anything at all that was inappropriate in my opinion."
Mattersdorfer does reveal that, besides holding hands and listening to music, Gold had his leg wrapped over Nelson's, which Gold later confirmed. A representative from Shortline sent a response to The Village Voice's Michael Musto, who broke the story, saying the company does not condone the actions of the driver and they plan to investigate. Gold shares with The Advocate his account of the event last Sunday and the outcome he hopes to achieve.
The Advocate: So you two were just sitting on the bus listening to music and holding hands when the driver noticed you and ordered you to a seat in the back?
Ari Gold: Yes. My boyfriend quickly pulled away from me because he got scared. I took his hand back and said no, we’re not going to move to the back of the bus. The driver said he was going to have us kicked off the bus and was going to call the state troopers.
Is it possible that you were distracting the driver in some other way, maybe your music was too loud?
No, we were listening to music on headphones and there were witnesses around. We were not disturbing anyone else. It was very, very clear to everyone else including the state trooper that the driver just had a problem with two men sitting arm in arm.
Where were you seated in relation to the driver?
We were in the very front row seat by the side of the driver. The driver had no reason to even be looking at us. We were not behind him disturbing him; we weren’t even in his mirror sight.
Then how did he see you?
All he had to do was turn his head and look at us. He was the second driver. He came on to the bus [when] they switched drivers. When he came on the bus my boyfriend and I were already sitting together, so he could have seen us when he came on.
What did you say to the driver when he told you to move to the back of the bus?
He said if you want to sit like that you can sit in the back. We told him we didn't want to. He said if we want to sit like that he'd call the state troopers and have us kicked off the bus.
How long was the bus stopped while waiting for the police to arrive?
About 15 minutes.
What was the response from the other passengers?
No one knew why the bus was delayed. One girl behind us may have known because I think she saw everything going on. She just looked at us and said, “Don’t worry. You didn’t do anything wrong.” But nobody else knew anything. I asked my boyfriend if I should stand up and say something. Before we pulled over the bus driver was talking on the phone angry about this while he was driving a bus full of people.
What was he saying on the phone?
The only thing I heard him say is “I don’t know if they’re lovers.” So I got up in front of the bus and said the reason we’re being delayed is because the bus driver has a problem with the way my boyfriend and I are sitting.
How did the other passengers react to that?
At that point, people got pretty pissed and said: “You have rights, too.” Someone else said, “I’m going to miss a concert.”
What did the state trooper say to the driver?
He said that nothing we were doing is illegal. The bus driver kept asking the trooper, “Is there nothing you can do?” The trooper said no. Then the state trooper again gave us the option of moving to the back of the bus. Even though the trooper didn’t arrest us, we didn’t feel particularly protected by them because at that point I asked if we could file a report so it was all written down. It was so clear that the driver described that his problem was with us sitting there. It was clear that it was the fact that we were two men holding hands. We hadn’t been kissing or anything like that. Since we had the trooper as a witness I wanted the report to be filed, but he wouldn’t file it.
What reason did he give for not filing it?
He just said, “No, no, no.” He wouldn’t give us his badge number, so we just wrote down the name we saw on the badge. He said the only thing we could do is file a complaint with the bus company, then they quickly left.
Did you and your boyfriend remain in the same seats?
We then had to stay seated for the rest of the trip. We didn’t listen to music anymore because we were so freaked out. We just sat there for another hour.
So there was another hour left on the trip?
I think so. I was very freaked out so I’m not 100% on the time frame. It was at least 40 minutes.
So you stayed seated where you were and continued traveling to your destination. Were there any comments from the other passengers?
Not while we were on the bus. Everything was very still and quiet for the rest of the ride. Both my boyfriend and I could swear that he was going really, really fast and making crazy turns. We were scared. We thought that maybe this was the moment that he was going to take his life and the lives of everyone else on the bus. [Laughs] When we got off the bus a few people came up to us very outraged about what had happened. One woman who is a Catskills resident gave us her contact info. She was sitting two seats behind us and said if we need a witness to let her know because what he did was wrong.
Did anyone else get off the bus where you and your boyfriend got off?
The whole bus gets off at Monticello.
Did anyone make comments to the driver when they exited?
Not that I’m aware of. My boyfriend was really angry. My heart was racing. I tend to stay pretty cool in this type of situation, but my boyfriend doesn’t. I had to do everything in my power to make sure he didn’t say anything to the bus driver, and he didn’t.
Have you had any contact with Shortline since the incident?
I made a phone call to them but I’ve only gotten voice messages. Michael Musto who picked up the story from my Facebook got a response from them. They haven’t done anything to try and at least reimburse us for the cost of the tickets.
What do you hope is the outcome of this?
For me, the first thing I thought of is that I was outraged that a company like Shortline wouldn’t properly train its employees to know what rights they have and how they should treat their passengers. They should have sensitivity training to know there are certain kinds of things they’re not allowed to do, whatever their personal beliefs may be. The fact that they don’t have this kind of training and the fact that the driver thought it was within his rights to not only tell us to go to the back of the bus, but that if he called the police they would actually do something about this, that’s where it falls on Shortline as a company.
So what do you want from Shortline? An apology, reimbursement, and sensitivity training for their employees?
Yes, I would like to make sure they’re being trained. Also looking back on it, our civil liberties were being abused and I don’t think the state trooper showed any concern about this. He left us and the safety of all the passengers in the driver’s hands after he was making this very unjustified claim. I think that was pretty irresponsible.