Air homophobia

Southwest Airlines, rated last month by Fortune magazine as the nation's second-best place to work, may be less than gay-friendly.

Both gay and straight employees of the Dallas-based airline were outraged in December when a vitriolic letter in the company pilots union newsletter blasted a corporate proposal to offer domestic-partner benefits for unmarried couples, likening it to "a stab in the back of the American family."

The incident brought to a head long-simmering tensions between Southwest's flight attendants, many of whom are gay men, and pilots, long accused of harboring anti-gay sentiments and treating male stewards both gay and straight with disdain.

Heeding a torrent of criticism from employees, Southwest President and Chief Executive Officer Herb Kelleher on January 24 ended longstanding company resistance and amended Southwest's equal employment opportunity statement to include sexual orientation as a protected class. While gay employees are pleased with Kelleher's swift action and see it as a symbolic step forward, the wounds remain.

"Why does our company feel the need to perpetuate the demise of the family by encouraging morally questionable behavior 'domestic partner' insurance and pass privileges?" wrote Capt. Gary S. Ward of Dallas in Reporting Point, the newsletter of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association.

Ward, whose letter asked for petition signatures, continued with this query: "Considering the homosexual community alone is a high-risk group medically, how much will medical claims increase?"

Earlier, union leaders complained after Ward distributed his letter by hand in Dallas and was seen discussing the plan in earshot of passengers. But the Reporting Point letter was the "last straw," says Dean Hervochon, an openly gay man and first vice president of Dallas-based Transport Workers Union Local 556, which represents all 5,600 Southwest flight attendants.

By running the letter, Hervochon says, the pilots association "institutionalized" homophobia at Southwest and escalated tensions to the point that safety was possibly endangered. So the transport union filed a grievance with the airline. Capt. Ward declined comment to the Dallas Observer, as did the pilots association, which tried to distance itself from the missive with a claim that it doesn't have editorial control over letters it publishes.

Transport union leaders scoff at the assertion, pointing to a box on the same page as Ward's letter that says "letters are subject to editing for content, accuracy and length." Hervochon says he asked John Kramer, the pilot association's president, whether the letter would have been printed had it featured disparaging remarks about blacks or Jews. He reportedly replied, "No, it wouldn't have been.'"

Indeed, male flight attendants at the airline complain that many pilots often give them a cold shoulder. "They'll say hello to the two female flight attendants and not me," says Hervochon, an 18-year Southwest veteran.

Other times, the pilots refuse to let male flight attendants serve them in the cabin. "There are pilots who will say, 'Do not serve me. Have the female come and do it,'" one flight attendant told the Gay Financial Network, an online news service. An unnamed gay pilot told the Web site that discrimination wasn't a problem at Southwest, but said the pilots said "routine homophobic things about how they wish we could get rid of these guys and hire more girls."

Occasionally, relations get so frosty that male and female flight attendants boycott the cockpit together. Other airlines have encountered similar friction. "The pilots had to break down and deal with the gay male population or go without food or drink," says Scott, a gay America West flight attendant who says pilots' attitudes have changed dramatically at his airline in recent years. (He spoke on condition that his last name not be used.)

For years, Southwest's Kelleher resisted adding "sexual orientation" to the list of protected classes, arguing it was unnecessary. "At Southwest, we judge people by the quality of their work performance, not by their 'status,'" he wrote in an older memo. But furor over Ward's letter changed his mind, and he added the clause to "assuage whatever uncertainty, ambiguity, anxiety might have existed on this score."

At a meeting with union officials, Kelleher expressed shock over complaints of bias, and personally apologized to Hervochon and Michael Massoni, health and safety coordinator of Local 556, for complaints of pervasive homophobia. "He had tears in his eyes and hugged each of us," Hervochon says. "He said, 'Can you tell me why I don't know this? What have we done that I don't know about this?'"

Hervochon says he literally had to "educate" Kelleher, who is well liked among employees and lets them call him "Herb." But it wasn't too difficult, Hervochon says, because Kelleher is a rare progressive among business leaders who likes unions and has a framed picture of Franklin Roosevelt in his office. "This is a bunch of b.s.," Kelleher told the two union leaders. "I'm not going to have this in my company."

At the end of the meeting, Hervochon says, he jokingly asked Kelleher whether he would be grand marshal of Dallas' gay pride parade. Kelleher laughed and didn't rule it out, Hervochon says. A month later, another union leader thinks Kelleher's decisive move clamped down on homophobia by setting an example. "It took Herb to come down and put something in writing to get things done," says Paul Sweetin, president of Local 556. "Herb is Herb around here."

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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Jonathan Fox
Contact: Jonathan Fox