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Gay Couple Asked To Sit In Back Of Bus Gets An Apology

A gay couple who were asked to sit in the back of a bus in New Mexico because they were holding hands have received an apology from the company that operates the shuttles at the Albuquerque International Sunport, where the incident took place earlier this summer.

The couple, Ron McCoy and Chris Bowers, live in the Portland, Ore., area and had begun a vacation days after the U.S. Supreme Court issued historic rulings that strengthened gay rights. The pair's visit to Albuquerque was timed to coincide with the city's Pride Festival.

"We were just on vacation in New Mexico," McCoy told KRQE TV. "We weren't trying to be Rosa Parks."

A report from that day shows they held hands and sang at the airport. But being told to move to the back of the bus took an emotional toll, McCoy tells Portland's KATU TV. He said "the sadness, the anger" that lingered after the encounter was hard to overcome.

The airport released a police report about the incident, which The Albuquerque Journal quotes:

" 'One of them indicated he was so happy to be in the Sunshine State he started to sing,' the officer said in the report. ('Sunshine State' is a former nickname for New Mexico.) 'The bus driver indicated I am not going to have this on my bus and told them to go to the back of the bus.' "

McCoy says the driver seemed angry. He and Bowers went to the rear of the bus, but they came forward again at the end of their ride to ask the driver to explain his actions.

"I said, 'I think it was because you didn't like the fact that I was holding my partner's hand,' " McCoy told KRQE TV last week. "He goes, 'See, now you're telling on yourself.' My partner responds, 'Well, that's discrimination,' and the driver responds, 'You're telling on yourself again.' "

This week, Standard Parking issued an apology to the couple for the driver's actions, saying:

"We sincerely apologize to Mr. Bowers and Mr. McCoy for any disrespectful treatment they received in New Mexico. Standard Parking respects the equal rights of all customers, and we do not condone or tolerate discrimination of any kind against any of our customers or employees, whether relating to sexual orientation, gender, age, race, nationality or religion."

The company added that the driver in question had been suspended, and that all its transportation employees are reviewing their sensitivity training.

After KATU reporter Hillary Lake read the apology aloud to McCoy, he said, "Wow. That's a total change. OK, it's hard to process, because in public statements and interviews ... even as of last week, they were still defending the driver."

McCoy credits a fellow passenger on the shuttle bus, Bernadette Aguirre, for standing with the couple against the driver and confirming their version of events. They had never met before that day, but McCoy says, "If it wasn't for Bernadette — one lone person speaking up — we would not have this apology today."

"I told the bus driver ... that I was completely appalled that anybody would be treated this way," Aguirre told KATU. The driver reportedly responded by indicating the men's behavior was more appalling.

Officials from the city and its airport have called the driver's actions unacceptable.

"This does not reflect Albuquerque, New Mexico. And as the mayor I'm upset about it and we want to make sure we get to the bottom of it," Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry told KOB TV 4 yesterday.

Berry has asked the city's human rights office to look into the incident. The state's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has also expressed interest in the case, according to multiple reports.

Despite the apology, McCoy says he isn't entirely convinced that Standard Parking made the statement in earnest.

"In some ways it makes me feel like what they really regret is the attention they're getting," he told KATU.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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