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What happened on
Flight 45?

What happened on
Flight 45?


The couple at the heart of the controversy tell their story.

As veteran travelers, boyfriends Stephan Varnier, 34, and George Tsikhiseli, 29, were expecting long lines and increased security when they arrived in the early morning of August 22 to board an American Airlines flight from Paris to New York. What the couple wasn't expecting was to be singled out--in mid-air--by a flight attendant and told to stop "touching and kissing." The two men, who began dating in May, were baffled. "I had my head on George's shoulder and we were talking quietly," says Varnier. "He would lightly kiss me on the forehead or the lips--it was definitely not a make out session." They complained to the purser to no avail, and soon enough, the captain was telling Tsikhiseli that if they didn't drop the matter, the flight would be diverted and they would be escorted off the plane. "One of the passengers sitting near us used the word 'surreal,' and that is exactly what it was," says Varnier. "It just got worse and worse."

After conducting an internal investigation, American Airlines concluded the crew acted reasonably. "Basically the gentlemen were a little too amorous," says airline spokeswoman Mary Sanderson. "Based on a customer request, a flight attendant tried to discreetly intervene, which didn't work real well. At the end of the day, we have to address the needs of all our passengers, so it was decided that if they couldn't settle down, the crew would have to consider taking further action." Both American's LGBT employee group and the Human Rights Campaign Workplace Project released statements supporting the airline--which, not incidentally, has a strong track record on LGBT issues.

Varnier, a writer who, ironically, once worked as an American Airlines flight attendant, and Tsikhiseli, a Russian television journalist, have since hired an attorney. They spoke to The Advocate at Tsikhiseli's downtown Manhattan home.

How did the incident get started? Varnier: George surprised me in Paris, where I was visiting family, and we arranged to be on the same flight back to New York. We were quite tired, so we just got in our seats and made ourselves comfortable. I was trying to get some sleep, but maybe fifteen minutes after takeoff the flight attendant came to us and said, "the purser wants you to stop that." I asked her, "stop what?" And she said the touching and the kissing. And she left. The people around us couldn't believe what had happened.

Has anything like this ever happened to either of you before? Tsikhiseli: Absolutely not.

Varnier: No, we are the discreet kind.

Stephan, you actually worked for American Airlines.Varnier: Yes, I was a flight attendant from 2000 to 2004. Even after I left, I still felt like part of the family. Which made this whole thing feel that much worse. I was naively hoping for a personal apology, but they wouldn't even acknowledge the fact that I use to work for them.

Did you ever encounter a situation like this when you were a flight attendant?Varnier: Never. I remember passengers, straight couples, doing exactly what we were doing--trying to get some sleep and occasionally kissing--and we'd never even discuss if we should say something.

How did it feel when you were told you were engaged in inappropriate behavior?Varnier: The whole thing was very humiliating--you start to think, did I act inappropriately? But the people around us kept telling us, "you didn't do anything wrong. You didn't do anything wrong."

You were refused an apology or even an explanation. Was it frustrating not having any recourse?Varnier: Basically we were denied everything--our version of the story was non-existent. They wouldn't tell us their names or employee numbers. We couldn't even get a representative to meet us at the gate. We had no rights whatsoever. Whatever we would say--

Tsikhiseli: We were just wrong.

What happened once you landed?Varnier: We sent letters. George sent a letter, I sent a letter--the other passengers who sat near us sent letters too. We did not get a response for the longest time. Not until the article in The New Yorker came out, about three weeks later

George, in making this story public you had to out yourself. Was that a difficult decision?Tsikhiseli: Well, normally, you come out when you feel the time is right. But I knew we had to take this step because it was the right thing to do. Being Russian, I was kind of afraid of this situation, but my friends have supported me. Some people, especially on Russian websites, have not been so supportive. But it's something I was expecting, even though it is upsetting.

Varnier: We knew that if we didn't say anything, it would be like saying whatever happened was okay. And it's not. We know it's not okay. But before we talked to The New Yorker, believe me we thought about it a lot. We didn't want this responsibility, but it feels like we are in a position were we might be able to do something. And again, it's about doing the right thing.

Has the incident changed your relationship?Varnier: It's definitely brought us closer, but there's a lot of tension.

Tsikhiseli: It's the thing you go back to again and again. It doesn't make your life any prettier.

Has this made you think twice about being demonstrative in public?Tsikhiseli: We think about it all the time. It changed something.

Varnier: When it happened, the relationship was still a work in progress. Holding hands--that didn't come so naturally. So, we were working at showing affection and then suddenly someone tells us what we're doing is wrong.

A lot of gay people are afraid of holding hands for that exact reason.Tsikhiseli: Yes, exactly. In Russia, you could have been punished or put in jail. It isn't an easy thing to do, holding hands with another male.

So does this whole experience mean you'll never fly American Airlines again?Varnier: Never say never.

Tsikhiseli: Never say never. I have nothing against the company. I have things against the situation. The situation was wrong, absolutely wrong.

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