Surrounded by more than 150 friends and allies, Waterloo residents Jenny Kirby and Zoey Heath shared a kiss in front of the downtown Huether Hotel on Saturday.
Two weeks ago, that same display of affection earned the young couple scorn from the owner of the hotel restaurant, leading to a grassroots rally and “kiss in” to highlight homophobia in the region.
“One incident of homophobia isn’t the problem. The problem is that it happens a little bit every day,” says Kirby, 18, a student in psychology and film studies at Wilfrid Laurier University.
She says she and Heath weren’t looking to cause a commotion when they locked lips at Café 1842 on a Monday night two weeks ago.
The couple had finished an evening of studying and were about to leave the restaurant when they gave each other a long goodbye kiss.
“It was a closed mouth, non-sexual kiss,” says Heath, 24, a photography student at Conestoga College.
“Suddenly, from behind us we heard someone say ‘What’s going on here?'”
It was restaurant owner Sonia Adlys, who promptly scolded the pair in front of the other customers.
“She said, ‘Stop that. This isn’t the place to do that,'” Heath claims.
Adlys told The Waterloo Record she intervened because the two women were “carrying on” in front of seniors and children.
“If you want to make love, you go behind closed doors, not in the middle of a family restaurant,” she said.
“We are a family restaurant. We have been here over 57 years, and I don’t care if there are two males, two females or a female or a male. I would treat everyone the same.”
After reading about the incident through Heath’s Facebook page, local residents Terre Chartrand and Evan Coole decided enough was enough. They called on Waterloo to “come out as a community against hate and discrimination” on April 10.
“We saw two people who were willing to talk about their experiences with hate in the region, and we wanted to provide a forum for others to do the same,” says Coole.
By the end of the week, they had speakers lined up from the Waterloo Region Labour Council, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Amnesty International and the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region.
Chartrand said the event was intended to focus broadly on discrimination against minorities, and not to single out any particular individual or business.
“A lot of us have been feeling unsafe on our own streets for some time now,” says Chartrand, whose Facebook group Taking Action Against Homophobia in Waterloo Region has more than 3,200 members.
However, she said Kirby and Heath’s experience highlights what many in the community have said for some time: “The queer community is accepted here, as long as it’s invisible.”
The speakers who gathered at Waterloo Public Town Square took pains to emphasize the shared experiences of those fighting discrimination.
Tahbit Chowdhury, a Waterloo Muslim and representative with Amnesty International, told the crowd that tolerating discrimination against the queer community was akin to sitting idly by while “your neighbour’s house is on fire.”
“I can’t just sit there while decent peace-loving folks get cussed off, threatened, harmed and chastised for just being as they are,” Chowdhury said.
The message had a double meaning. Last month, Waterloo’s only mosque suffered thousands of dollars worth of damage after vandals broke into the building, smashing windows and spray-painting anti-Muslim screeds on the walls.
Given the intolerance of some, it’s important for those who are different to stand together, Chowdhury said.
“I am here for not only tolerating differences, but accepting, celebrating and embracing these very differences,” he said. “We are the many parts of an unbreakable spirit. Today, we are here to broadcast a message of unity.”
After the rally, residents marched down King St in front of the Huether Hotel, where about 75 couples smooched simultaneously.
The owner of Café 1842 wasn’t in, but employee Dave Wellhauser tried to get into the spirit, sporting a pink feather boa and a cardboard picture frame with “free kisses” written on it.
Wellhauser said the incident with Adlys was a “misunderstanding,” but he was happy to see residents “confronting a serious issue in a constructive way.”