March 24, 2009 -- 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.
The Gay Couple Should Leave, or Else
"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.
"Imagine being a man in this scenario," Keating said. "Sitting at a table and looking over and seeing two men behaving in ways that violate my expectations of what it is to be a man. And now I see someone who is harassing that very couple. What do I do? Do I side with the harasser? Or do I side with a couple who looks like they're really just there for having a good time?"
'That Disgusts Me'
Later that evening, across the bar, two other bar patrons faced the same dilemma but they dealt with it very differently.
Cousins Joey Tulko and William Paltan didn't hide their obvious disgust as they watched St. Amand and Benevento interact affectionately.
Tulko even told our actress Hovel, "It's just sick. ... I've never seen anything like that in my life ... that disgusts me."
Yet, when our cameras came out, Tulko's tune began to change. "I don't care about that sort of thing. ... Whatever, it's their thing," he told "What Would You Do?" anchor John Quinones. "I'm not going to get all nasty about it. ... I didn't care if they were kissing each other."
'They're Not Doing Anything Wrong'
As our experiment continued, we found other headstrong patrons who weren't afraid to confront August, or our gay couple, directly.
Later in the evening, we added one additional twist by telling bar owner Robert DeStefanis to ask the couple to tone down their affections because they were making other customers uncomfortable.
Sharon Steele, a local real estate agent, was out celebrating her birthday with a large group of friends. Even as they all gathered around her and the late-night crowd at the bar grew ever louder and larger, she managed to overhear the demeaning exchange.
"The people that are offended should leave," she told DeStefanis steadfastly. "They're [the couple] not doing anything wrong. ... What are you going to do? Kick us all out? There are 20 of us."
Steele was unmovable, even positioning herself in between the couple and their aggressors.
In the course of our two-day ethical dilemma, we saw a diverse suburban community stand up for a gay couple who was being verbally harassed.
Hate crime laws exist both federally and at the state level to protect victims of crimes based on gender, religion and race. Only 31 states, however, include statutes for victims of sexual orientation bias and there is no federal legislation that protects them. Hate crime laws allow the FBI to intervene in these incidents and also enable the prosecution of these crimes to be more severe.