A prominent same-sex marriage advocate and his husband are the second gay couple in less than a month to accuse American Airlines personnel at a Colombian airport of wrongfully separating them before boarding a flight to the U.S.
Hunter Carter, who represents three Chilean couples in a same-sex marriage lawsuit before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and spearheads other efforts in support of gay nuptials throughout Latin America, and César Zapata told the Washington Blade on Monday an American Airlines ticket agent at the airport in the Colombian city of Medellín, where the couple has a home, asked them why they were traveling together as they tried to check in to their Miami-bound flight on Jan. 18. The men, who married in Connecticut in 2008 and again in New York in 2012, said they told the agent they were “a family traveling together.”
“She had this look on her face,” Carter told the Blade from New York. “She looked over to the manager and she said, ‘well I need to speak to the manager.’ We sort of knew something was funny.”
Carter said the manager whom he identified as Héctor Carmona told them they needed to separate because airline policy states only “male-female couples can be treated as legally married” and can go through pre-flight security screenings together. Carter told the Blade that American Airlines had never treated him and Zapata separately.
“We buy tickets together; we travel together,” said Carter.
Carter told the Blade that Carmona said to “do what you have to do” when he said he was going to file a complaint. Carter said Carmona then told Zapata to stand back.
“By now everybody was watching,” said Carter. “That was humiliating.”
Carter told the Blade he was given a luggage tag on which to write Carmona’s name.
He said Carmona approached him “intimidatingly close to me, face-to-face” after he took his picture and said he needed his permission to take it. Carter posted it to his Twitter page with a caption that read “Carmona separated us like strangers. Only MF=married. Homophobe or AA policy?” before he and Zapata flew to Miami.
“I said, ‘no, in fact I do not,’” Carter told the Blade as he recalled the exchange he said he had with Carmona. “This is a public place and you just humiliated me and I’m taking the picture for proof.”
The alleged incident took place less than five weeks after Ana Elisa Leiderman said an American Airlines ticket agent at the Medellín airport separated her from her wife, Verónica Botero, and their two small children as they tried to check in to their Miami-bound flight.
An American Airlines spokesperson told the Blade the company regrets “the circumstances” that Leiderman, Botero and their family faced before their Dec. 13 flight to the U.S.
The spokesperson said airport personnel in Medellín “followed existing security screening rules mandated” by the Transportation Security Administration.”
American Airlines stressed to the Blade it had “flagged for TSA” prior to the incident with Leiderman and Botero that “same-sex and opposite sex married couples faced different screening procedures.” The spokesperson added the company has recommended that TSA officials “revisit and update the process so that all married couples can be treated equally in the future.”
A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which oversees TSA, told the Blade it does not conduct airport security screenings outside the United States.
The two alleged incidents took place against the ongoing debate over marriage rights for same-sex couples in Colombia.
The country’s highest court in 2011 ruled lawmakers had two years to extend the same benefits to same-sex couples that heterosexuals receive through marriage. The deadline passed last June amid lingering confusion as to whether gays and lesbians could actually tie the knot in the South American country because the ruling did not explicitly contain the word “marriage.”
Colombian Inspector General Alejandro Ordóñez Maldonado has spearheaded efforts to challenge the handful of same-sex marriages that have taken place in the country since last July.
“The procurador (general inspector in Colombian Spanish) has become… for a certain segment of the population, a kind of hero,” Zapata told the Blade as he discussed the way he said Carmona treated him and Hunter. “I guess this guy felt like he was some kind of procurador trying to defend the morals of the country.”