Ray is a 53-year-old African-American waiter. He understands that the correct term these days is “server”, not “waiter”, but he’s been in the business so long that he still goes by the old terminology. In fact, restaurant work is all that Ray has ever done. He’s extraordinarily good at it, and he’s worked in the city’s most elite restaurants. Any of his customers with a half-ounce of awareness will recognize that their waiter is gay; however, his charm and wit quickly overrides any homophobic feelings diners may have.
Ray is hardly an anomaly; the service industry is populated with LGBT servers, bartenders, chefs and bussers. Years ago, someone mentioned to me that a student at the university where I worked had said that he wanted to get through college without having any gay or lesbian professors, to which I thought “Good luck with that, kid, because it’s most likely not going to happen.” The same can be said about dining out. You will have an LGTB server at some point, unless the only place you eat is some place like Bobby’s Fisherman Catch in Eva, Alabama, population 508. (And even then, who knows?)
The LGBT community has been working in the service industry for decades. It’s a tantalizing industry for those who don’t want to have to take work home in the evening, and tipped positions offer the benefit of allowing one to always have cash on hand, good for going out to the clubs or bars after work. However, even today, in many corners of the service industry, hiding one’s sexual orientation is still a requirement. Many businesses don’t want to be identified as a “gay business”, which can happen if the staff comes across as “too flaming” (male employees) or “too butch” (female employees). This is true even if the business is LGBT-friendly; the fear is that straight customers will be scared away if they believe that the majority of staff and customers are queer.
Such fear is heightened by right-wing prognosticators. According to Michigan’s gay rag Between the Lines, one group is particularly concerned with the abundance of gay waiters, particularly in Washington, D. C., claiming that “Gay waiters are bringing America to its knees collectively. They are infiltrating traditional family meeting places where food and drinks are blatantly seasoned with ‘campy’ encouragement to recruit others to the Gay Agenda… Such open access to our governing representatives—especially at the Supreme Court level—is accorded to none other of our citizenry; yet gay waiters can go about their nefarious business seemingly unmolested.” (“God Bless Gay Waiters”, by Charles Alexander, 19 July 2012)
The most infamous incident of restaurant discrimination comes from the popular family chain Cracker Barrel, whose informal hiring guidelines practically screamed “We Hate Homosexuals and So Do Our Customers!” and who actively fired LGBT employees or shuffled them to the kitchen, never to be seen by their cream cheese customers. After much pressure (and, one imagines, an in-house study of how many million dollars would be lost through a prolonged LGBT boycott), Cracker Barrel reversed its policy in the early ‘00s. Now, my neighbor assures me that her favorite waiter at the local Cracker Barrel flames more than Pyro from X Men, yet the chain is still low on the Human Rights Campaign’s rankings of businesses with inclusive and non-discriminatory policies.
Other establishments have yet to learn Cracker Barrel’s lesson (see Chick-fil-a). In the last few years, numerous discrimination lawsuits have come forward, including ones against the Summer House Saloon and Restaurant in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware (for refusing to serve a gay couple), Sisters Gourmet Bistro in Van Buren, Arkansas (for cancelling a scheduled event by a local LGBT group, comparing it to the KKK), and Cleo Restaurant in Hollywood (for harassment of lesbian chef Keyon Wilson). In a video posted on YouTube, an individual recalls a friend who applied at a local eatery, only to be told that they didn’t “hire fags”.
Others, however, have different opinions. The same Between the Lines article goes on to quote restaurateur Peter Mel: “It’s been my extensive, but modest, experience with gay waiters I’ve encountered that they can usually hold their own… I’ve found my older customers like to be serviced by them. It’s been nothing but positive word of mouth about their legendary efficiency above and beyond the call of duty.” Further accolades for those servers with gay sensibilities come from the Frothygirlz website article “In the Weeds: I Heart Gay Waiters”:
“Is there anything better than a gay waiter? I mean, honestly. Not only are they a blast to work with, always with the snarky jokes and hatred of children, but a gay waiter truly knows how to handle a table. A gay waiter has that perfect blend of attention to detail, well-timed humor, ever-so-slight superiority and ungodly amounts of food and wine knowledge.”
(Not surprisingly, a Google search for lesbian waiters yielded nothing but links to faux lesbian porn.)
According to a 2004 Harris survey, 70 percent of LGBT persons said they would consider a business’ workplace policies in deciding whether to support that brand. The question restaurants must answer is whether the loss of LGBT business can be off-set by business from anti-gay factions (reported in Nation’s Restaurant News, 15 April 2005). Increasingly, that answer is No, as friends and families of LGBT persons are now more likely to join such boycotts to show solidarity. Plus, consumers have become savvier. They may not approve of what their lesbian server did the night before, but they also realize that they may not approve of what their heterosexual server did the night before, either. Just bring me my food and keep the coffee cup full, please.
Of course, LGBT individuals aren’t just working in the front of the house (dealing with the public, as opposed to the back of the house, where chefs, cooks, and dishwashers tend to stay). This has been made evident with the craze of cooking shows and cooking competitions. Although the sexual orientations of the contestants or cooks isn’t always made evident, it’s not hard to guess. The girls’ team on the current season of Hell’s Kitchen has enough lesbians on it to populate a softball team (one assumes, based on appearance and demeanor), which I find mind-boggling, as most of the strong lesbian types I know would have planted a butcher knife in Gordon Ramsey’s skull by the end of the first episode.
Several out LGBT contestants have popped up on such shows, although none have parlayed their television appearances to long-term fame and fortune. Top Chef Miami‘s Dale Levitski made The Backlot’s list of the top 15 favorite gay reality stars. Top Chef shows appear to have featured the greatest number of LGBT contestants, including the greatest number of lesbian chefs. While none of these contestants have become stars in their own right, Top Chef season nine contestant Ty-Lor Boring did get a few extra minutes of fame when nude pics of him popped up on the internet. (We’ll pause while you go Google them).
Still, only two out and proud LGBT individuals have hit the big time as chefs (on TV that is; many have achieved personal success): Iron Chef Cat Cora and Top Chef host Ted Allen. Both have succeeded due to their exceptional knowledge and skill, not because of their sexual orientation or any network’s compelling urge to have a token queer cook. They are not TV’s only LGBT cooks, though. Staten Island Cakes followed the efforts of gay baker Vinny Buzzetta as he opens his own bakery with the support of his partner Spiro Grammatikopoulos, while Cake Boss featured a gay intern in its first season, Tony “Tone Tone” Albanese,
Years ago as a college student, I worked in a family restaurant located just a few miles from now-disgraced televangelist Robert Tilton’s mega-church, and it was not uncommon for us to be swamped once the services were over. The servers at the restaurant always waited with dread to see who would have the unenviable task of waiting on Tilton’s cold and judgmental sister-in-law, whom we nick-named “the Ice Princess”. Ms. Princess made it clear that she looked down upon us all, not because of sexual orientation, but because we had the audacity to be working on a Sunday (which begs the response, “If it weren’t for sinners like us, your ass would be eating at home right now”). The point is that haters are going to hate, if not based on sexual orientation, then on some other ridiculous criteria—tattoos, hairstyle, weight, yadda, yadda, yadda.
As with all areas of life, a visible and amicable LGBT presence results in increased acceptance, so bring on the bisexual wanna-be Food Network Star or the tranny cocktail mixologist. You can sling crap their way if you want to, but don’t be surprised if they sling it right back at you. Just remember, they’re the last person to “handle” your food before you put it in your mouth.