In Columbus, Ohio, this past August, I had a very different experience from the one detailed in a recent HuffPost blog in which Joel Diaz describes the positive experience of witnessing fellow customers and staff at a pizza restaurant come to his defense when an anti-gay customer began harassing him and his friend Ethan for holding hands while waiting in line. I don't want to be a naysayer, but before we use their experience as a barometer of social change, let's consider my not-so-rosy tale of harassment at a fast food joint in the same city. Joel describes his and Ethan's experience as "incredible," and mine was, too -- as in "unbelievable."
Every year, I deejay at a deluxe private event thrown by a large corporation in Columbus. Because they also fly in dozens of other staff from NYC, they always put us all up at the same airport hotel. I stayed an extra night because I'd booked a show at the city's big gay club the night after the party I'd spun for. In my show I use Chicken Mcnuggets as a prop, so I went across the street to McDonald's to order them. I'm a sissy even out of drag, and one guy behind the counter could not stop gagging at my appearance. He was alerting all his coworkers to take a peep at me, and I just said nothing. (When you're effeminate and choose not to hide it, you let a lot of shit roll off your back.) He got the attention of his manager, who turned around, looked at me and rolled her eyes plainly in my view. When the manager then tried to take my order, I'd had enough.
I complained to her that I was a customer there and didn't appreciate being mocked by the staff and explained what I'd just seen this guy do. She played dumb, even though, at this guy's insistence, she had just joined her whole staff in poking fun at me. So I asked for the manager. She said that she was the manager, so I asked her for her name. She refused to give it. By now other customers were looking on, because the discussion had become quite heated, as I was demanding to know whether this was how paying customers were normally treated at this establishment under her watch. Getting nowhere, I left and went back across the street to my hotel. I was so angry and shaken up that I was complaining to a friend on my phone outside the hotel. Then the police pulled up and got out of the car. The McDonald's manager had called the police on me!
The cops asked me whether there had been an altercation, and I said no, explaining that voices had been raised but that there had been no threats. They asked me for my ID, and I explained that it was upstairs in my room. So they made me wait outside the hotel while they ran a background check on me as if I were a criminal. I don't have a record, but imagine what would have happened if I did! I mentioned the name of the corporation I was in town working for, and that raised the policemen's eyebrows, because my employers are a very well-known and very respected backbone of Columbus industry. After that, the police seemed to soften up a little toward me, but I was still forced to wait, because, for some reason, they couldn't find me in their system given my name and address. I was already late for work thanks to the encounter at McDonald's and was now forced to wait for these inept cops, who seemed more concerned with a manager who couldn't control her own rude staff than with being fair to someone who is gay.
My visit to Columbus wasn't in the gay-friendly district in which Mikey's Late Night Slice is located, so I was very happy to return to my own gay-friendly bubble of NYC. In truth, that's why many gays move to big cities, to avoid the frequent harassment that is so common nationwide. Let's be real: Joel and Ethan's pizza story is heartwarming precisely because it is an exception to what usually happens. And though people's attitudes toward gays are slowly softening, go a few miles outside a city center and you get much less friendly treatment. I wasn't snuggling with my male friend; I was by myself, trying to get some fast food. I'm aware that if I were hassled every time I went for fast food, I might lose some weight, but imagine what would have happened if I hadn't been working for a prestigious Columbus business titan, if I'd had a police record, if I'd been a little angrier or a little less articulate with the police, or if I were trans, a leather queen in costume, a queer person of color or anything else that these somewhat clueless cops might have found distasteful or suspicious. (They can apparently detain anyone for anything.) I feel like I barely escaped being taken into the police station, which would have forced me to cancel my gig.
Back in New York, a friend who owns a McDonald's franchise gave me contacts so that I could send letters describing my Columbus experience to all the bigwigs at the chain's national headquarters. He advised that, because McDonald's execs despise paper trails, I cc everyone on each of the six letters. He said I'd definitely hear back from that Columbus location's manager, but I never did.
Though I normally choose my battles carefully and am used to letting sneers roll off my back, I'm not accustomed to having the cops called on me when I complain to a manager about being openly mocked by her employees. So while I cheer Joel Diaz's feel-good story, my experience just a few miles up the road from his was far from heartwarming. And imagine all the people whose negative stories are never even told, out of shame. Sadly, I think those experiences are still the norm.