Air homophobia

A gay-bashing pilot prompts a change at Southwest Airlines

The company should decide whether to instate domestic-partnership benefits this spring, spokeswoman Ginger Hardage says.

Southwest, the nation's fourth-largest airline, joins several other major airlines, including United, American, U.S. Airways, Northwest, Delta, and Continental, that have broadened their antidiscrimination policies to include gays and lesbians, according to Daryl Herrschaft, an analyst with Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group. Without clear statements protecting gays, he says, "people with homophobic tendencies may think they have carte blanche to bring their homophobia into the workplace."

Federal law doesn't shield workers from termination because of their sexual orientation, so companies take an extra step when they offer protections and benefits to gays and lesbians that surpass the law. But they don't necessarily do it because they are socially enlightened. "Companies implement these policies," Herrschaft says, "because they have a direct effect on the bottom line through increased productivity, retention, and hiring."

Why do some pilots dislike gays? Too many have "not made the transition from being a military pilot to a professional pilot," Hervochon says. "But what goes on at Southwest goes on at every other airline."

America West's Scott, however, thinks Southwest's pilots are a special case. "Southwest pilots are known for their arrogance not only in the air, but on the ground," he says. Scott encounters them when they take advantage of reciprocal "jumpseat" policies among airlines, which allow flight crews to fly for free when commuting between airports.

He protests homophobia by having them sit in the cockpit rather than in the passenger cabin, and claims stewards at other major airlines are doing the same. "Since they are offended by our lifestyle, we do not want to offend them any more by having them in the cabins of our aircraft," he says.

Hervochon, however, says Southwest's pilots are more accepting when he chats with them about family and relationships after work on layovers, when flight crews go to the swimming pool and do other activities together. "They just don't have any exposure to [gays and lesbians]," he says.

But he is appalled by the pilot association's decision to print Ward's letter, since unions are usually at the forefront of civil rights issues. The pilots union did sign a statement of principle against discrimination and harassment, however, after Ward's letter drew criticism.

"Other pilots are disgusted," Hervochon says. "I'm very interested to see whether they'll reform their own group."

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