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Gays on a plane

Gays on a plane


Two guys in love snuggle in their seats. A flight attendant reprimands them. An ugly incident ensues. Dreading this kind of embarrassment, many of us "cover"--hide our love in public. But if we're hiding, how can we make progress?

We all have a breaking point. One American Airlines purser found hers on August 22 on Flight 45 from Paris to New York City. I imagine it was like Snakes on a Plane. Only it wasn't snakes; it was gays. I envision her paraphrasing Samuel L. Jackson's character: "Enough is enough. I have had it with these motherfucking gays on this motherfucking plane."

The gays in question were a couple--TV journalist George Tsikhiseli and writer Stephan Varnier. They had been together for only four months, so they were still in a doting mood. Shortly after takeoff, Varnier nodded off with his head on Tsikhiseli's shoulder. A flight attendant came over and told them the purser wanted them to "stop that." Varnier didn't know what she was talking about. The flight attendant specified that they should stop "the touching and the kissing," and she walked away.

The couple hailed the purser. To their surprise, she said she had made no such demand. She asked them to point out the flight attendant, whom a passenger seated behind them described to the purser as having "Texas hair, like from the 1960s." According to David Leisner, a man seated behind the couple, the purser rolled her eyes and said, "Oh, say no more. I know." After listening to a description of what they had been doing, she agreed that their behavior had not been out of order.

Tsikhiseli then asked if the flight attendant would have hassled them if they had been a straight couple. The purser, they say, "became very rigid" and opined that "kissing is inappropriate behavior on an airplane." She left them to take care of other passengers. When she returned half an hour later, she said other passengers had been complaining about their behavior. [For a statement from American Airlines, see page 45.] Though pressed by the gay couple, the purser refused to identify the passengers, name the flight attendant, or arrange for an American Airlines representative to meet them when they landed. She then said that if they did not settle down, the flight would be diverted. Half an hour later, the captain reaffirmed to Tsikhiseli that he would indeed divert the plane if they did not drop the matter.

When asked to comment, an American Airlines representative defended all three employees: "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 also elaborated that the airline's "understanding is that the level of affection was more than a quick peck on the cheek." But as Leisner clarified in an update posted on the Internet: "You can assure anyone that questions the degree of affection these guys were showing that it was very innocent--hand-holding, resting one's head on the other's shoulder, and repeated kissing (but not French kissing)."

I first encountered this story in The New Yorker's Talk of the Town, a section to which I repeatedly turn for consolation after confirming that I have once again failed to win the Cartoon Caption Contest. I found the story oddly riveting. A spin through the blogosphere showed I was not alone. Why was the incident so compelling to so many? I came up with three answers.

First, the gays on the plane expected equal treatment. When Varnier was woken from his happy slumber on his boyfriend's shoulder and told to "stop that," he didn't know what "that" meant. Before that rude awakening, he didn't think of his "kissing" and "touching" as extraordinary. It was less like a gay kiss-in than a 1980s straight honeymoon.

The right to canoodle is not in the Constitution. The couple's assumption that they had that right, however, marks a milestone in gay rights. When I teach gay history to my students I tell it as a history of weakening demands for conformity to straight norms--the demand to convert, the demand to pass, and the demand to cover. Through the middle decades of the 20th century gays were routinely pressured to convert to heterosexuality, whether through psychoanalysis, electroshock therapy, lobotomies, or even castration. After the rise of the gay rights movement the demand to convert shifted in emphasis toward the demand to pass--we were told that we would not be witch-hunted out of our closets so long as we spent our entire lives in them. And at the turn of the millennium the demand to pass is shifting toward the "demand to cover"--sociologist Erving Goffman's phrase for how people experience pressure to downplay known stigmatized traits, even after we reveal them. Gays are increasingly told that we can be openly gay so long as we don't "flaunt" our sexual orientation by being too "flamboyant," too "militant," or, as in this case, too "public" in our displays of affection for each other.

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

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Kenji Yoshino