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All Aboard Amtrak – Except Queers

Traveling as an LGBTQIA+ individual or couple is hard enough in America these days without services like Amtrak making the experience even more treacherous.

Charles knew shortly after sitting down that he and Brian were going to get along well, which was good news considering that they would be seated beside each other for the next 24 hours on an Amtrak train traveling from Santa Fe to Chicago. However, the 24-h our trip home turned into a 48-hour trip from Hell after they were left stranded in Raton, New Mexico (pop. 7,000). What had they done so egregious that they were booted off the train?

Charles discussed his husband (the author) and told his seatmate about how they were looking forward to their new life in Santa Fe. However, the woman in the seat ahead of him objected to the conductor about their “gay conversation”; after she and her husband verbally assaulted Charles and Brian about being “faggots” (Brian is straight) and being “drunk and high”, Conductor Raul decided to kick off the “fags” and let the homophobes finish their trip on the train, undisturbed.

While there is more to the story than the brief synopsis above, the bottom line is that Amtrak’s timing in putting their discrimination on full display couldn’t have been worse. This event happened less than 24 hours after NBC aired a story about a gay couple being accosted on an Amtrak train by another passenger, who told the couple’s foster children that they were kidnapped and will be molested by their dads. One would think that Amtrak, still reeling from the loss of a huge discrimination lawsuit against the disabled two years ago, would advise their conductors and staff to handle issues of prejudice, hatred, and rabid-vocal homophobia with some diplomacy. If they did, conductor Raul didn’t get the memo.

Unfortunately, Amtrak isn’t the only provider of travel services that appears to have an issue with members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Incidents on airlines are not uncommon, many unreported, and both Lyft and Uber have faced accusations of discrimination against LGBTQIA+ people. The most common complaint concerning travel is the simple denial of service or the termination of service once it has begun, as was the situation with Charles. According to a study by Professors Jorge Mejia and Chris Parker, potential riders of rideshare apps were twice as likely to have their driver cancel their ride if the rider showed support for the LGBTQIA community in their rideshare profile, such as a rainbow in their profile picture.

While black riders were also more likely to have their rides canceled, perceived gay, lesbian, and trans riders experienced high cancellation rates in peak and non-peak times. In contrast, bigoted drivers seemed to overlook race during peak hours. The study acknowledges but doesn’t study how frequently rides are terminated once they have begun, but there are numerous accounts of drivers kicking riders out of their vehicles for exhibiting any sign of “gay” behavior. One male couple said their rider canceled the ride and kicked them to the curb after one gave the other a light kiss on the forehead.  

Traveling as an LGBTQIA+ individual or couple is hard enough without our travel providers making the experience even more treacherous. Yearly, more countries either move towards making themselves more accessible and gay-friendly, or they move in the other direction. (Recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings suggest the United States is in the latter group.) The website notes seven countries in which homosexuality is not only illegal but also a capital offense: Somalia, Yemen, Saudia Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Iran, Afghanistan, Mauritania, Nigeria, and Pakistan. In those last three countries, the prescribed punishment is death by stoning. Thus, anyone on the LGBTQIA+ list must take precautions about where they travel, learning not only about the tolerance level of the final destination but also the neighborhood, businesses, restaurants, and clubs they may visit.

After extensive research on the destination, one would hope that a traveler could know that they would arrive safely, but that’s not necessarily the case if that traveler is LGBTQIA+. One of the most common complaints from married queer couples is being separated on flights while heterosexual married couples are allowed to sit together. This has happened to my husband and me several times on American Airlines. Worse was the lesbian couple kicked off a plane for kissing and the gay couple who found the personal sex toy in their luggage removed, covered in oil, and taped to the outside of their luggage before being sent out into the baggage claim area. 

The primary issue with travel providers is that they have all the right words about non-discrimination on paper and in the company training manual, but the message fails to get from HQ down to the staff. This was evident in one incident with KLM Airlines. An employee on the company’s UK reservation team responded to a Twitter question about what actions would be taken if there was a complaint about a same-sex relationship on one of KLM’s planes. Aaron, the employee, said it would be up to the discretion of the cabin crew on how to act: “…with the same sex relationship that you gave as an example, if needed be the cabin crew can approach the said party and base on the response they were given, then they would act and respond accordingly.”

Uh, Aaron? Your boss wants to have a word with you, no doubt because KLM wasted no time throwing him under the bus: “We completely understand this reply is offending and we distance ourselves from it. We’re currently investigating the e-mail reply as it totally doesn’t represent our official point of view at all.”

This brings us back to Amtrak and the week of April 18 this year, a bad week to be a gay man on an Amtrak train. NBC, ABC, and Fox News reported the story of Robbie Pierce and Neal Broverman, a gay couple riding an Amtrak train with their two foster children when another passenger approached them and began screaming. “They stole you … They’re pedophiles … They’re rapists … They’re murderous … They’re an abomination,” the man reportedly screamed at the crying children, backing down only when train officials stepped in and removed him from the train. With reporters calling Amtrak asking for a response to the situation, Amtrak was quick to issue the following statement:

Amtrak strongly condemns this reprehensible act of hate. To ensure our customers feel valued and respected when riding our trains, we are conducting a full investigation on this incident. This includes potentially banning the customer from future Amtrak ridership.

However, the “reprehensible act of hate” committed against Charles and Brian was not only tolerated but rewarded.

During a casual conversation between the two men about Charles’ purpose for being in Santa Fe, which was to find a house for himself and his husband, the woman in the seat in front turned around and told them, “Now that you’re drunk and high, can you stop with your ‘gay conversation’?” Charles was neither drunk nor high, but she complained to the conductor that Charles and Brian were having inappropriate conversations in front of her ten-year-old son. The conductor moved the offended woman, her extremely embarrassed son, and her traveling companion to another part of the train. He then asked if any other passenger in that section had been offended by my husband’s conversation (no one was) and if anyone else wanted to move (no one did).

End of episode, right? The complaining woman is in another train car, her chance to find like-minded white heterosexuals with whom she can commiserate about the horrible gay black man and that his discussion of how he was happily married had permanently scarred her son. Yet, no. She and her companion returned to hassle Charles and Brian, this time armed with a litany of homophobic slurs and threats of physical assault.

I’ll be the first to admit that, when stoked, my husband’s temper goes to a volcanic level quickly, so I am sure that there were raised voices and a lengthy angry monologue involved. What neither my husband nor Brian did was return any threats or verbal assaults, so imagine their surprise when the train stopped at the next station, and two officers came on board to remove them. (The officers told them they didn’t think the men should have been kicked off but had orders to follow the conductor’s wishes.) Charles and Brian had to pay for a motel room in booming Raton, New Mexico, and then pay for another train ticket from Raton to Chicago to get home. At the same time, the complainer and her “Kick Your Ass” companion continued their trip uninterrupted.

In the following week, I spoke to four different customer service representatives for Amtrak, repeating each story and asking what resolution the company would offer. I was told the following:

  1. My complaints would be sent to corporate, who would contact me shortly.
  2. If I wanted corporate to know about the problem, I would have to contact them directly.
  3. The representative would take a report, and someone would call me back.
  4. Amtrak does not refund the costs of passengers removed from their trains.

Four representatives, four different responses. We gave up, and no, we never got a call from anyone.

It helps to know in assessing this mess that Amtrak launched a campaign to lure LGBTQIA+ passengers, called Ride to Pride, and crows about how it received an award from the Human Rights Campaign for workplace equality. Snooping around on their website, you’ll find lots of diverse pics – a happy lesbian couple laughing, two men sitting very close looking at brochures, a gay couple sitting with their child…or the kid they kidnapped. So again, we see the corporate office making all the right moves but failing to get the word down to the people in the trenches.

Suppose you are traveling and run into a conductor Raul or an indignant homophobe. What should you do? A few things are vital if you want a quick response. First, pull out that phone and record, not just the offender but the reactions of those around. Odds are the bystanders will be casting more disapproving looks at the bigot than the victim. Second, get names if possible. Bigots aren’t going to volunteer incriminating information (how many have gone viral only to find themselves out of a job?). Employees may not want to offer names, but look for name tags, and remember, the company has a record of who was working.

Most importantly, don’t be silent. Post videos on social media, tagging the offending company so they will see it (possibly) and describe the incident and what offensive acts or words you experienced in detail. Charles repeatedly heard one comment: “Why didn’t you record any of it?” If he had, it wouldn’t have boiled down to a “he said – she said” situation.

Finally, notify the local media. The more exposure, the more pressure put on the offending companies to make things right. For example, I sent portions of this article to the PR office at Amtrak, allowing them the opportunity to comment before I finalized the text. To my surprise, a representative from Amtrak did get back to me to let me know that they would be getting back to me at some future time. More significant, though, is that the next day, Charles received a text from a representative of Amtrak, letting him know that Amtrak had received his complaint in customer service and that they took any hint of “mistreatment seriously”. This representative had been assigned to do a full investigation of the incident and would provide Charles updates every 30 days, as such investigations may take months.

Sadly, though, no matter what corporate policies say, you need to prepare yourself because as an LGBTQIA+ person, you will face greater challenges traveling than your straight compadres. If you can stay cool and be the voice of reason in the face of stupidity, then it’s pretty difficult to make the case that you’re the one who’s out of line. Granted, it’s easier to say than do when faced with bigotry for the umpteen thousandth time, but remember there will be a time for anger and wrath later. Do what you need to continue traveling safely. Then raise hell.

Safe travels.

Works Cited

Mejia, Jorge, and Parker, Chris. “When Transparency Fails: Bias and Financial Incentives in Ridesharing Platforms”. Pubs Online. 2018.