Henry Amador-Batten, a 52-year-old gay man, and his five-year-old son, Benjamin, were on the last leg of their trip home to Raleigh, North Carolina on May 20. The two had just come from Puerto Rico visiting Amador-Batten's ailing father, who passed away during their visit. Wearied from heartache and traveling since the early a.m., the two sought solace in some shut-eye. Benjamin slept against his dad's broad shoulder and laced his small arm around his dad's large one. Wrapped in his favorite blanket—the one his grandmother made him—Benjamin fell asleep with his father's hand resting over his blanket on his lap.
Amador-Batten never could have imagined that an attendant on their United Airlines flight would accuse him of having his hand too close to his son's genitals, but that’s exactly what happened.
Midway through their flight, a male flight attendant walked by and gazed at them quizzically, but moved on. About fifteen minutes later, the same attendant walked up to them and asked Amador-Batten if he and Ben were traveling with the people in the row ahead of them, which included two women, one man and one child. "No," he replied, "it's just us."
"I think he was trying to create a normalized picture," Amador-Batten tells ELLE.com, "If I'd been traveling with the people ahead of me: it would have been two women, two men and two children." That is—two heterosexual families.
As the one-hour flight connecting from Newark, New Jersey began to descend into Raleigh, the pilot offered the usual salutations and 'thank yous' over loudspeaker, but said there was a "situation at the gate," which would delay deplaning.
"When we got to the exit of the plane," Amador-Batten recalls, "I noticed in the corner of my eye that one of the flight attendants put her hand out behind Ben and I so that no other passengers could follow us out." Even in that moment, Amador-Batten had no idea what any of this meant—not even when he went up the ramp and a small band of policemen began following them. He remembers thinking: 'Well, that was the thing at the gate the pilot mentioned.' But when they reached the top of the ramp, a police officer asked Amador-Batten to follow him. "That's when I started thinking: 'Wait, are we the situation at the gate?"
"Ben started getting nervous. He said, 'Daddy, what is going on?' I said, 'I don't know baby.' Then the officer walking with us said, 'Sorry that we have to do this, but there was an allegation made on the flight that you were seen—and he said all of this in front of my son—with your hands too close to that child's genitals."
When Amador-Batten told the officer that Ben was his son, the officer said, "Can you prove that?" As a gay man and adoptive dad who's hyper aware of his vulnerability to discrimination, Amador-Batten always travels with his adoption decree, Ben's birth certificate and he and his husband Joel's marriage license. After nearly an hour of questioning, the officers released him.
(United said of the incident: "In this instance, the crew believed it was appropriate to ask authorities to meet the plane and interview the customer. After speaking with the customer, authorities determined that no further action was necessary. Our customers should always be treated with the utmost respect and we have followed up with our customer to apologize for the misunderstanding.")
Three months after the traumatic experience, Amador-Batten thinks it was just as much about gender discrimination as it was about heterosexism and homophobia.
"There's no doubt at all in my mind," he says, "that if I had been a female this never would have happened. Never," he emphasizes.
It's hard to argue with that assessment. The only instance I can think of where a woman traveling alone with a child on a plane might fall under the eye of suspicion would be if she were intoxicated or exhibiting behaviors that suggest an inability to properly care for the kid entrusted to her. I can't imagine a scenario remotely similar to Amador-Batten's where a woman would be called out and questioned.
The reasons why are manifold. First, there's the enduring essentialist belief that women are children's most suitable caretakers, which extends from the biological fact of pregnancy. The thinking goes: Women are physically designed to create children and are therefore their rightful and proper guardians. Within this framework, men, or fathers, are seen as marginal players and less equipped to oversee offspring. (Think of all the dumb movies where dads are seen as bumbling fools without mommy.) Consequently, a situation without a mom may seem askew or suspect. Alongside the cultural narrative that reifies and center-stages motherhood is the false and perniciousconflation of homosexuality and pedophilia, which may have also played a part in putting Amador-Batten on the flight attendant's radar. Finally, men are more likely to molest children than women – thus women are seen as less threatening.
Continue reading Amador-Batten’s harrowing experience at ELLE.com