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Being trapped on a plane with a homophobe for 12 hours made me reconsider everything

Being trapped on a plane with a homophobe for 12 hours made me reconsider everything

I was stuck in a confined space with an anti-gay douchebag. It sucked.

Fag. Flamer. Friend of Dorothy. Or as I’ve been called before, ‘daffodil.’

We all have one – that one, derogatory term for an LGBTI person that we simply can’t stand.

All of those words make me laugh. But there’s one such antiquated slur that makes my skin crawl. It pushes my buttons like no other.

Certain members of my family have used it against me, as did kids in the playground. I hate it so much, I can’t bring myself to type it even now.

I heard it for the first time in over a decade recently – at the beginning of a 12-hour flight with Thai Airways from London to Bangkok.

We’d just taken off; it was early afternoon. Keen to adjust to the Thai clock, I reclined my chair to try and get some sleep. It bolted back in that embarrassing, aggressive way airline seats do.

I turned to apologize to the person behind me, but stopped dead in my tracks. Staring back at me was the acid, red-faced expression of a snarling, vicious man. (Who looked to be in his 50s, and possibly, drunk). I realized it was going to be a long flight.

A verbal altercation ensured. No shouting, but it wasn’t hushed. That word was used, among others. The people around us looked the other way, visibly uncomfortable.

I tried to defend myself, but I couldn’t find the words. My voice went high. I got ‘uppity’. Meanwhile, he just sat there and smiled a smarmy smile, his point proven.

I haven’t encountered homophobia since school. (Aside from being told I’d dropped my gay card in the street a few years ago.) I’d forgotten what it was like. But being stuck on that plane with that man? It took me straight back to being a teenager.

Locking myself in the bathroom, I began to cry. And I am categorically not a crier. I looked at myself in the mirror, and the scared, ashamed, dramatic, self-conscious 14-year-old boy I used to be looked back at me. It was one of the strangest moments of my life.

Pulling myself together, I reminded myself of all I’d fought for – that we’ve fought for, that the people before us fought for. Yes, I was thinking in cliches. But in moments of great clarity, you do, don’t you?

I can’t say I did much with my newly-repoliticized attitude, besides writing this. I considered going back for round two, but that could’ve been an absolute disaster.

Instead, I asked a stewardess for help, and she was lovely. ‘We’re flying to the country of the third gender!’ she exclaimed, exasperated at the irony.

She offered to move me to a different seat, which she did (although not far enough away for my liking). Also, she offered to collect my hand luggage, but I did this myself. Although she followed me, glaring at him all the way.

I’ve since reached out to Thai Airways for comment and a spokesperson said the following.

‘Thai Airways believes all passengers deserve to be treated equally regardless of their age, race, colour, gender or sexual orientation.

‘We are saddened to hear of this incident and the distress it caused, but reassured that the hostess involved responded in a sensitive and appropriate way.

‘The safety and comfort of all our passengers is always our main priority in the event of rare incidents like this on board one of our planes.’

I appreciate the statement, and the stewardess gave more than satisfactory help. Although arguably, she could’ve done more.

But what? I’ve thought long and hard about what the protocol should be in such a scenario. What would such training look like? Should she have confronted him? Could he have been moved? Should she have reported him to the authorities? Or is that my place? For the love of god, was I the victim of a gay hate crime, or am I being ridiculous?!

Things would have escalated if she had gotten involved. I know that. He wasn’t physical, but I could see him getting that way. So perhaps all was as it should have been.

Working for the gay media I write, talk, think about homophobia on a daily basis. I’m routinely outraged by stories of LGBTI youth committing suicide because of anti-gay bullying. But unbeknownst to me, my ability to empathise had faded. I’m not proud of that.

I live a safe, privileged London life, surrounded by other queer people and liberal, modern friends. I’d become jaded or complacent about sexual equality.

But what I learned is that all it takes is one word, in the right scenario, to pull the rug out from beneath us. To reduce us and our standing.

Jamie Tabberer
Jamie Tabberer

The prejudice I experienced was a long way off that of LGBTIs in countries where it’s illegal to be gay, or where queer rights records are a joke. But for their sake and for our own, we need to remember: homophobes are lurking everywhere, and that an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us.