Mexico Travel Worries for Gay Families?

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Continental Airlines tries to block travel by lesbian couple without "father' of their children
October 10, 2000

(NEW YORK, October 10, 2000) — Regina Quattrochi, Priscilla Lenes and their two children arrived at Newark International Airport, with tickets and valid proof of United States citizenship for each family member, prepared to begin a vacation in Mexico; they were not prepared for airline agents demanding permission from a non-existent father before they could board their flight.

Continental Airline employees persistently and publicly interrogated the two women, responding with disbelief and uncooperativeness as the couple repeatedly explained that their lesbian-headed two-parent family does not include a father. The agents said they were implementing an apparent Mexican travel restriction – in the wake of the international custody dispute over Elián Gonzalez – that refuses entry to parents traveling “alone” with minor children unless they can provide the other parent’s written permission. No one from Continental had mentioned any such restriction when the women bought or confirmed their tickets.

“Continental needs to recognize the many families headed by lesbians or gay men that travel, ask questions that respect and take them into account, and have clear answers ready for them about how to cope with any foreign travel limitations that the airline is enforcing,” Ruth E. Harlow, deputy legal director for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, wrote in a letter on behalf of the two mothers to Continental Airlines President Greg Brenneman.

This family was “subjected to an extended, rude, threatening and invasive interrogation by Continental personnel,” Harlow informed Brenneman, who has yet to respond to Lambda’s September 28 letter, despite a request for a reply within seven days.

To convince the check-in personnel that the children had no father, Quattrochi had to explain that they were conceived with donated sperm. Rather than assisting the family in complying with any travel requirements, the Continental agents repeatedly said that they all would be sent back by Mexican authorities and the airline fined, if they were to board the plane. This long exchange took place in front of not only other passengers waiting to check-in, but also the couple’s two children, ages 10 and 5.

Finally, an agent allowed the women to fill out a form that the airline uses to verify birth and residence information if a passenger does not have proper travel documents. Continental then charged the family $10 for notarizing the form, a document they had no idea they might need until confronted at check-in. With that in hand, they were allowed to board the plane. For the duration of the four-hour flight, the children needed reassurance that they were not going to end up in a Mexican jail and the women worried whether they would be sent back.

“Continental treated us with disrespect and was clearly unprepared to provide its services to diverse families,” said Quattrochi, adding, “The worst part was having to constantly reassure the kids that they had done nothing wrong, and that we weren’t going to be arrested when the plane landed. No parent should have to go through that.”

Once in Mexico, Lenes and the couple’s daughter passed through customs without any questions. An officer did ask Quattrochi whether she had the father’s permission to travel with her son, and she simply told him that there was no father. Without requiring any other answers or documentation, the agent waved them through as well.

“Continental needs to take airline-wide steps to ensure more appropriate treatment of all travelers,” said Harlow, adding, “Gay and lesbian families shouldn’t be subjected to unnecessary questioning or documentation requirements, but where forms are needed those should be disclosed ahead of time and with respect for all families.”

Lambda has asked the airline to develop policies “to help all families cope with [any real travel] restrictions well in advance of travel,” and to train and direct its personnel to treat gay or lesbian parents with respect. Lambda also requests that Continental apologize to the family and compensate them for this unfortunate experience.

Lambda’s letter points out that the antagonistic and inflexible approach taken by Continental’s representatives in this case would have caused difficulties and stress for any number of families, including those in which a father had just died, or in which a mother does not know the whereabouts of an uninvolved father. At the same time, Lambda is investigating whether federal advisories to the airlines are part of the problem as well.

Lambda is the nation’s oldest and largest legal organization serving lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV/AIDS. Headquartered in New York, Lambda has regional offices in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta.


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