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Homophobia Still Exists in Certain Parts of the Restaurant Industry

Anyone who's worked in the service industry will know it can bring out the best or worst in a person, and that it breeds a certain type of humor. If you're different, though, you can find yourself becoming the butt of the joke far too often.
Image via Flickr user Neil Conway

Welcome back to Restaurant Confessionals, where we talk to the unheard voices of the restaurant industry from both the front-of-house (FOH) and back-of-house (BOH) about what really goes on behind the scenes at your favorite establishments.

Anyone who's worked in the service industry knows that it can bring out the best or worst in a person. Back-of-house, in the kitchen, the air is not only thick with smoke, but tension. It's a test of strength—both mental and physical—and if you speak to any chef they'll tell you that they can experience the entire spectrum of human emotion during a night's service.

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A busy restaurant isn't just hard on chefs, though. Front-of-house, waiting stuff can also have a shit time of it. Not just from customers, but each other, and especially if you happen to be different. Whether that means being the only woman or the only gay person, there's something about the service industry that sometimes still has an antiquated air about it. It's a bit like the school playground—if you're slightly different to the flock, the flock will be sure to remind you of those differences.

It seems absurd in 2014 to say that homophobia is still a thing in any industry. But, like sexism and sexual harassment, it can seep in quietly or masquerade as something else. Quick asides might be repeatedly made, apparently in jest or as "banter," but the accumulative effect speaks of something more serious. We sat down with an ex-waiter who, over ten years working tables, felt his sexuality repeatedly made him a target for both his customers and fellow staff.

Male, 29, ex-waiter.

You were a waiter for about ten years, is that right? Yes, on and off. I've worked the full gamut of restaurants, from Café Rouge to one star places in Mayfair. It's all the same, really. Only the toilets are different.

The reason we're talking is that you were interested in sharing your experience with homophobia in the service industry. Right. Well, now I've had some distance from the industry—I am now, finally, a jobbing actor with enough of an income to support myself, which is why I was waiting in the first place—all the little day-to-day things that I experienced have bubbled to the forefront of my mind. Experiences that, at the time, seemed trivial or laughable, but now, the sum of all their parts makes me think that it's actually pretty shitty to have your sexuality become a topic of conversation, or at least hang in the air, almost every day. In all honesty, being a vaguely flamboyant gay male waiter was a bit depressing sometimes.

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What kind of stuff happened? I should preface this—although it shouldn't matter—by saying that I am not a straight-acting gay man. For reasons I can't explain—it just comes out of me as naturally as carbon dioxide: I am quite camp. I probably do mince. My beard and hair is immaculate (my father trained me well with a fine-toothed comb and Black & White Wax) and I feel myself pouting when I've said things that definitely do not warrant a pout. In short, I am basically a younger, trendier, hairier Julian Clary and I am completely at peace with that. But the shit I got from male chefs, my god. There was one in a decent restaurant in Soho where the chef would slap my arse; as a gay man, being slapped by a straight (although, who knows?) male chef with a pile of dirty plates in your hand is, apparently, banter. There was also a lot of the requisite sausage and banana waving in my face, lots of, "Ooh, better be careful bending over, Adam is behind you," and bartenders pretending to suck off cucumbers every time I walked past. That kind of thing.

How hilarious… I know, right? Sometimes it was funny, but on the thousandth time, it's like, yes, I put penises in my mouth sometimes, well done you! At some point, a straight man making repeated references to your sexual predilections while you're trying to do a job does become homophobic. There's no other word. And it was odd—the more I took umbrage to it and snapped, the more they found it funny. I am the kind of person who enjoys being the centre of attention, so maybe people—I am thinking of one in particular—picked up on that and assumed that I liked being a comedy prop during every shift.

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Do you think this is specific to the service industry, though? Not necessarily, no. Maybe it's because there's more physical props? [Laughs] I don't know. In my experience, though, me being very openly gay was a novelty in almost every restaurant I worked in. Of course, it would only be a minority of the staff that would point it out all the time—usually chefs, if I'm honest—but it often happened with customers, too.

Like how? Oh, just in terms of catching the tail-end of remarks. Trust me, even in 2014 (I stopped waiting completely last year), and even though homophobia equates to more than a few derogatory terms, people are still using the words "woofter" and "poof." It often wouldn't come from who you'd think, either.

Can you create an image of the archetypal homophobe? No, not at all. There are the old farts who come and eat alone (in Soho, I might add—you can't really get gayer) that just seem to find everything you say and do tiring, and then when someone else (a pretty girl or a nice straight lad) goes to serve them they suddenly brighten up. But when you serve a couple of nicely-dressed, well-spoken, and well-travelled looking middle aged women and overhear one of them saying, "Too bad we always get the little mincers," it's quite jarring. I am neither little—I'm 6'1"—nor vile. I'm fucking handsome. I mince, yes, but it makes me hold myself well. I'd stoop like a pensioner if I didn't clench my arse cheeks together when I walked—believe me, I've tried. Also, you need good posture if you're on your feet all day.

Did you say anything to these women? Surely something like that would make you snap. I served the ladies quietly and politely throughout their meal, but when I brought their bill I said, "I'm sorry there wasn't a strapping young stud to flirt with you today, ladies." They both looked at each other blushed from their—frankly crepey—chests to their ears, which was enough for me. I wasn't supposed to hear what they said, which doesn't make it okay, but it was enough for me that I'd called them out like that and that they'd leave ashamed.

Have you called other customers out before? Yes. But I prefer to do it with humor: It embarrasses people more. When a drunk table of city workers came in to one restaurant I was working in, they were appalled that they didn't have a pretty waitress (what is it about people coming into a restaurant and wanting someone to perve over?) to host them for the evening and, no doubt, be subject to various leery asides. "For fuck's sake, where are the game waitresses?" one of them asked. I asked him if he'd like me to cut to the chase and nip out the back and strap on a pair of fake tits for him to talk to all night. He was nice as pie for the rest of the night.

The kind of remark that those women made is one thing, but to call out someone's behavior as homophobic is a strong accusation. Where is the line for you? I agree, and I'd never throw the term around willy-nilly (pardon the pun). In terms of customers making remarks based entirely on my sexuality after having known me for around three seconds, I would say that is homophobic. I am someone who can take a joke, I really can, but I think for staff behavior it becomes homophobic when the references are all pointed towards the same thing over and over again (i.e., the fact that I like to have sex with other men). For any gay person, it begins to feel uncomfortable. That is discrimination.

Not everyone will have the balls to stand up for themselves with the finesse that you do, though. Exactly. That's why I wanted to do this chat. It might be 2014, but people often still have very antiquated humor floating around their brains, and restaurant kitchens—despite what anyone tells you—are renowned for an offensive, toilet-y kind of humor. That's just how it is. But while I find it quite easy to fend off abuse (which is what we're talking about here, really) with humor, a young gay or lesbian person working in a restaurant may not. In every walk of life humor is used as a buffer between people who are completely different, but if any gay person feels like their sexuality becomes the butt of the joke too often, they have to report it, and report it as widely as possible.