Exclusive interview: Gay San Diego couple says United Airlines employee used slurBreaking News, Online Only, Top Highlights Monday, November 28th, 2011
Billy Canu and his husband, Michael Harbron were flying home after spending Thanksgiving away with friends and relatives. Harbron and Canu, the latter of whom is CEO and cofounder of a successful search engine optimization and Web-marketing firm with offices in San Diego and London, say they got a rude awakening about bigotry, and how it is alive and well – even within the ranks of corporate industry leaders such as United Airlines, which was one of the industry’s first to provide equal benefits to LGBT employees.
But while companies’ policies may appear to be on board with today’s standards of tolerance and equality; not all of their employees are.
United Airlines told LGBT Weekly the company immediately launched a review of Canu’s and Harbron’s complaint, but so far has found nothing to support the couple’s claims. However, the company would not disclose whether that review, which included eyewitness accounts, also included interviews of non-United employees.
“United does not tolerate discrimination of any kind and we take this customer’s complaint very seriously,” says the company’s official statement regarding the incident. “We immediately initiated a review of the alleged incident and are contacting the customer to follow-up. However, we have not been able to corroborate the customer’s version of what was said.”
Canu granted LGBTweekly.com and San Diego LGBT Weekly a local exclusive LGBT media interview today.
LGBTweekly.com: Can you tell us exactly what happened to you and your husband in Denver?
Billy Canu: Saturday, we were heading back to San Diego from Denver, waiting for a United Airlines flight. We’re both Gold Club members and wanted to get into the gold lounge there, but were told we couldn’t.
Was that when someone at United called you “faggot?”
No. That came later. First we were treated to this really condescending attitude from a woman – a customer service person – who told us that people pay a lot of money to come here. She was just really snide. Behind her were about five uniformed United staff – all snickering.
So they were making fun of you guys?
It sure felt like they were having a good laugh at our expense. So, we went to the customer service counter, where we were told there shouldn’t be a problem.
But there was a problem.
Yes, and it went downhill from there. First a guy explained to us that there were different Gold Club levels, and this was a premium-level club that we weren’t eligible for with our membership level. That was fine with us; not great news, but we understood.
So you left?
We were about to leave when a guy who said he was the customer service manager, Rodney Hill, came up with a really confrontational attitude. Right off the bat, even before he got up to where we were all standing, he practically shouted “You guys gotta leave, or I’ll have you removed from the airport.”
Did you leave then?
As I said we were about to. Before Rodney Hill got involved, the conversation between myself and the United employees was at a simmer. When he injected himself into the conversation, he set to boil immediately.
Did that make you want to assert yourself or match his blustering?
Not at all. I explained to him that we just wanted to find out why our Gold membership wasn’t good enough for us to go into the lounge, and that we understood now.
But that wasn’t good enough either?
I guess not; he said: “That doesn’t matter. You got to go, or do you want to be removed from the airport. You can complain about it on united.com.” So we walked away.
So when did the F-bomb get dropped?
As we were walking away, I realized I would never be able to file a complaint with the airline, unless I had a name.
You went back?
Did the customer service manager seem surprised?
Yeah, he did look pretty surprised. And, to be honest, it was kind of scary, because the last thing I wanted, because my partner is bi-national, from England, was to be removed from the airport or even arrested. But I we did go back and asked him for his name.
Is that when he used to the word “faggot?”
Yes. As I said before, this guy went overboard. I got his name, Rodney Hill; and we started walking away. But I stopped and turned around when I heard him say “idiot” in a voice loud enough for us to hear.
That’s rude, but not really a slur.
True, but when I said “what?” he said: “What faggot?” with that “what-are-you-gonna-do-about-it?” tone of voice.
Editor’s note: Be sure to read the rest of our interview with Billy Cantu in this week’s San Diego LGBT Weekly newsmagazine, available Thursday at newsstands, 7-11 Stores, and CVS Pharmacy locations throughout San Diego. In it, you’ll find out how the experience of allegedly being bullied by the airline with which he and husband Michael Harbron are frequent fliers made him feel; and whether all the media attention this customer service horror story has elicited comes as a surprise to the couple.
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