The gay marriage initiative and Sean Penn's Oscar-winning performance in "Milk" have stirred up emotions on both sides of the gay rights debate … but it's one thing to deal with an issue at a distance and quite another when you're forced to choose sides, or do nothing. And that's exactly the point of this "What Would You Do?" ethical dilemma.
At a local sports bar in Linden, N.J. We hired actor Vince August to play a homophobic patron. Dusty St. Amand and Dominic Benevento, a gay couple in real life, played the targets of his slurs. Two additional actors, Traci Hovel and Brad Lee Wind, played a heterosexual couple at the opposite end of the bar.
To test Americans' increasing open-mindedness, we staged a verbal gay-bashing scenario at a local sports bar in Linden, N.J. We hired actor Vince August to play a homophobic patron. Dusty St. Amand and Dominic Benevento, a gay couple in real life, played the targets of his slurs. Two additional actors, Traci Hovel and Brad Lee Wind, played a heterosexual couple at the opposite end of the bar.
During our auditions, we met many homosexual couples who had experienced prejudice and anti-gay rhetoric. Several couples described neighborhoods, even in big cities, where they did not feel comfortable holding hands or walking together. St. Amand and Benevento described rude and presumptuous comments strangers had made about their clothing and mannerisms. They were all too familiar with the kinds of language our actor August used.
In an age when many still don't recognize derogatory language toward homosexual couples as a hate crime, we wondered if anyone would even recognize the attacks, let alone confront the perpetrator.
One Friday at lunchtime, a group of six men entered the bar for a quick break before heading back to work. They became friends with August as he regaled them with stories from his trip to the Super Bowl a few weeks prior. As St. Amand and Benevento entered, taking seats nearby, August's demeanor changed markedly and he launched into a steady stream of anti-gay commentary.
"Is this common for the area?" August sneered to his neighbors.
At least one of the six men, Gerald Kennedy, appeared to agree, telling August, "I hear you. I've been here a lot of times. First time [seeing this] for me."
The others remained quiet. When August started hurling his insults directly at the couple, Kennedy excused himself and, upon returning, stopped paying attention to August.
Ten minutes later, one barstool over, David Ball leaned over and said loudly, "I feel like hitting him."
In the control room where we were watching, it wasn't immediately clear who Ball wanted to hit: August, St. Amand or Benevento. As August persisted, we received a clear answer.
"We don't need to hear you constantly saying stuff, OK? I'm getting tired of hearing you, just shut up," Ball told August.
August then resorted to an ultimatum: Either the gay couple leaves or he leaves. Without hesitating, Ball said emphatically, "It's probably going to be you."
Carrie Keating, professor of psychology at Colgate University, explained that intervening on behalf of a gay man is often harder for heterosexual men than it seems.