By Beth Bornstein Dunnington
A disturbing thing happened at dinner the other night in one of my favorite restaurants in Hawaii. I was with my closest friend, and we hadn’t seen each other in a month because I’d been traveling. We had a lot to talk about and the table we were at (a table for two in the corner) was big, and we were too far away from each other. So I moved over to her side, a bench against the wall, to sit next to her… we had our heads together and were hunkered down in a deep conversation… and a fifty-something man with a big square jaw at the table next to us, who was there with two women and a baby, took offense to us sitting together like that and ordered me to go back to my side of the table.
It was shocking. Completely out of the blue.
He actually said, “You two have no class!” and “Go back to your fucking side, that’s why they HAVE two fucking sides!” There was so much background noise no one working at the restaurant heard what was going on, and we were on our own.
I did NOT go back to my seat on the other side of the table and it looked like a blood vessel was going to burst in his forehead, he was so enraged. I looked him in the eye and was not afraid, as crazy as this situation was. I stood my ground. I realized he must have thought we were a gay couple and that this was a small taste of what homophobia feels like. It blew my mind… really caught me off-guard.
While he was yelling at us he said I was “touching” his baby’s blanket, this big old flannel thing that was spread out all the way over to where I was sitting, which was far enough away from him and his family as these tables were not close together —but I knew that blanket had nothing to do with it. When I didn’t move, he had a tantrum. He was a bully. And a homophobe.
It seemed like the women at his table agreed with him… they didn’t try to shut him up and they didn’t seem afraid of his outburst, but maybe they were victims of his bullying, too. Maybe they put on a good act so as to not rock the boat even more. Maybe this is what he does all the time, everywhere he goes. I later found out that the baby was his, and one of these women was the mother of that baby.
If we HAD been a gay couple I would have kissed my friend at that moment, as dangerous as that sounds, and risked him jumping up, but I know most of the players at the restaurant (the owner, manager, and some of the staff) and I have no doubt they would have intervened at that point. It turns out this guy is a regular at the bar, but the manager said she’d never seen him behave like that.
If we had been with men, this never would have happened. If I had moved to sit on the same side as a man, this guy wouldn’t have said a word.
A sickening thing. And a sad state of affairs. Not the world I want my kids to grow up in.
I learned something about myself that night. I wanted him, later, to say something else so I could have it out with him, once I was over the shock of what happened… a stranger demanding that I move away from my friend in a restaurant… but once I turned my back to him, he ordered another beer and gave up on us. Once he realized I wasn’t going to move, no matter how many times he said fuck and tried to bully us, that was that.
Some people later said I should have kissed her anyway, or slapped him, or insisted that the restaurant throw him out. I didn’t do any of that, but I also didn’t kowtow and return to the seat he wanted me to sit in. For me— a straight woman who had never been the target of an attack like that —the saddest thing about the whole thing was the sudden visceral understanding that my gay friends… people I love… have to deal with this sort of thing all the time. That’s what breaks my heart. How far we still have to go.
The other thing I took away from that night: don’t move to the other side of the table or the back of the bus or the end of the line to make someone else more comfortable. Ever. Stay right where you are.
Beth Bornstein Dunnington is a performer / writer / director from the east coast who now lives on the Big Island of Hawaii. She leads the Big Island Writers’ Workshop —where writers “mine for stories” — in both Hawaii and numerous cities on the mainland. Beth’s essays have appeared in a number of anthologies, and she was a script writer and story editor, for many years, for animated TV series, including Tiny Tunes Adventures, Jem and the Holograms, Doug, Batman, GI Joe, He Man, Transformers, Thundercats, My Little Pony, and more. She recently had the pleasure of sharing a stage with Jen Pastiloff at the LA book launch of Amy Ferris’sShades of Blue, where she and Jen read from their pieces in that anthology. For more info, go to her website / blog: https://wakingupinhawaii.com