Gay couple kicked off plane in the U.S.

According to one of the men, James MacDaniel, the only reasonable explanation is that it was an act of homophobia. Adding that he will never again take for granted the freedom and safety he experiences in Iceland.

James McDaniel and his boyfriend Hafsteinn Himinljómi Regínuson, well-known in Iceland as the drag artist Ragna Rök, where sitting comfortably in their seats on board an airplane from Southwest Airlines on December the 22nd when three policemen approached them and ordered them off the plane. Explanations were unclear but the most reasonable one that James can come up with is that it was an act of homophobia. 
James has been writing about the couple’s experience on his Facebook-page. GayIceland got in touch with James to get more details on the incident as well as getting his permission to publish parts of his Facebook-posts.

James McDaniel and his boyfriend Hafsteinn Regínuson had boarded a plane going from Baltimore to Alabama when they were approached by three policemen who told them that they had to leave the plane immediately.

“We were on our way from Iceland to my family in the States to spend Christmas with them and had booked a flight from Baltimore to Atlanta with Southwest Airlines,” James recounts. “We boarded our flight to Atlanta on time and were getting cozy, glad to be on the last leg of our trip. My older brother and mom were at the airport in Atlanta to meet us and I was so excited to be back in the states to see my family, especially since I have not seen my father or younger brother in two years.
Then, while we were sitting in our seats on the plane three police officers came onto the plane and told the two of us we had to leave immediately. They wouldn’t tell us why. Then they started saying Haffi (Hafsteinn’s nickname) had thrown stuff at the flight attendants.

“… we will be so happy just to step back on to Icelandic soil tomorrow … the freedom and safety I feel in Iceland, let’s just say I won’t ever take it for granted again after this experience.”

We tried to ask them what they were talking about as it seemed they must have got us mixed up with someone else. They said if we didn’t leave they would take Haffi away in handcuffs. It was unclear why they were targeting him and not me. It is still unclear why.

They took us off the plane. Haffi started to cry, holding his hands up to his face. They told me that if he didn’t calm down he would be arrested. Somehow, my survival instincts kicked in and I was able to talk them down and get the two of us out of the airport without him being taken away. They told me I could leave on the flight, but ethically there is no logical reason to abandon your partner three days before Christmas in a foreign country to him, so of course I stayed with him.”

James and Haffi were able to find a hotel to stay the night and eventually booked a train ride, that lasted 18 hours, to get to James’ family in Alabama. But what reason did the airline give for kicking Haffi of the plane?
“We still are not exactly sure as they would never give us a clear explanation. That being said, we were looking into this company, an airline called Southwest, and there seems to be an alarming trend of homophobic behavior of some employees. There seems to be a complete disconnect between their corporate office policies and behavior at the customer facing levels.”

On their way home the couple stopped by in Washington D.C. to meet Haffi’s friend.

So James can’t but help speculate if the explanation they were kicked out might be that they are a same-sex couple.
“The main difference between us and other passengers was that we were openly gay. Not in an over the top or publicly disrespectful way, but in a way that we are used to living in a free country like Iceland. We hold hands when we walk together. We might take a brief kiss now and then. And on the flight, Haffi has a tendency to curl again my shoulder and nap. All things which if course are normal between a healthy loving adult couple no matter what part of the sexual spectrum they are, whether straight or gay. When we asked the police officers for a reason they said Haffi threw something at a flight attendant.

But, having seen videos of how police can treat people on a plane, we cooperated and left. Holding Haffi outside the airport as he sobbed asking me just to get him home to Iceland. For the rest of my life I don’t think I will ever be able to forget the pain, fear, and humiliation in his voice.

It’s just so confusing that they would let Haffi through immigration, then back through security. Then he even went through security a second time because he is a smoker and had to go outside the airport to have a smoke. So even going through security twice, then still being let on the plane. Then they say he threw something at a flight attendant. But if they actually believed he had attacked a flight attendant they wouldn’t have hesitated to arrest him and probably me as well. It just doesn’t add up.”

When we contacted James he and Haffi were on another 18 hour train ride back to the airport to fly home to Iceland. Has there been any development in the case, has Southwest offered an apology?
“No not yet. The latest was they referred me to another customer service department for further investigation, but I haven’t heard back yet.”

“In the airport we won’t hold hands, or hug, or share a brief kiss like we did on the way here, and it makes me sad that we have to hide who we are just to feel safe.”

And you did not get a refund?
“No refund. Most likely we will have to contact a lawyer, if it goes similarly as other cases with Southwest. Just this past week a family was denied boarding on their way to Disney world when other passengers accused their child of having head lice. So it seems rather arbitrary when they chose to remove a customer on another customers request.”

How did you guys feel after experiencing this in the States?
“At first I was just so ashamed and saddened, but the more I thought about it, the less surprised I was. When you look at the number of people killed by police in the U.S., almost 1,000 this past year, it’s pretty clear there is a problem with abuse of authority.”

I see from the response to your Facebook statuses that some people have doubted that homophobia is the reason for this treatment, what have you got to say to them?
“Even I wasn’t aware of the extent of increased in violent crimes against same-sex couples and trans people recently. I always want to give people the benefit of the doubt when I interact with them. Some people felt we were being dramatic, but they took an openly proud and visibly same-sex couple off a plane right before Christmas, tried to seperate us, and threatened to arrest Haffi for being too upset. If our crime is simply existing, then the only word we have for this in English is homophobia. It’s just unfortunate that this was Haffi’s first experience in my homeland. It felt like being forced back into the closet.”

The couple look forward to traveling back to Iceland.

So this was Haffi’s first visit to the States – do you think you two will visit there again?
“Most of my family is still there so I know I will go back someday. But currently, we will be so happy just to step back on to Icelandic soil tomorrow. I’ve only been an Icelandic citizen for two months, but the freedom and safety I feel in Iceland, let’s just say I won’t ever take it for granted again after this experience.”

And right now you are on your way to the airport again, do you or Haffi feel anxious?
“Yes, I think it will be a little bit painful or nervous to be back in that same building, especially since last time it was just three armed police men slowly following behind us from a distance till we left the building. But I think once we get to the Wow air waiting area we will feel a little better.

In the airport we won’t hold hands, or hug, or share a brief kiss like we did on the way here, and it makes me sad that we have to hide who we are just to feel safe. I just really hope our coming forward with our story will help anyone traveling to the US soon to understand what they are getting into. And really hope no one else will have this kind of experience again.”

Main photo: James, on the left, and Haffi on board a plane from WOW air, traveling from Keflavík, Iceland to Baltimore.

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