Thursday, September 10, 2009

EXCLUSIVE: Ashlee Gowriluk shares her story of discrimination on city bus

Gays and lesbians continue to be victimized by acts of discrimination, whether it be equal access to housing, employment or being assaulted - verbally and physically - while simply walking down the street. This is inspite of the fact that in 2005, same-sex marriage was legalized in Canada, something that has been a significant cultural and political achievement for gay rights in this country.

Our entree into full citizenship status has given gay people increased visibility in media and in contemporary Canadian society. It has also provoked a wave of discrimination, directed more frequently toward openly gay and lesbian couples, and often in situations where they least expect it.

Ashlee Gowriluk knows this too well. Last month, she filed a formal complaint with Vancouver's Coast Mountain Bus Company when she and her common-law female partner found themselves subjected to sexist and homophobic discrimination by a city bus driver. They were refused service and forced to leave the bus. In her complaint, Ashlee is asking for the bus driver to be suspended for his actions.

When I posted about the incident, after reading a news article on, I found myself in empathy with Ashlee and her partner. Quite frankly, I couldn't believe that in this day and age in Vancouver - a very culturally diverse city - incidents like this were still occurring.

In this exclusive, Ashlee Gowriluk shares with us her story about the incident on that city bus and what has subsequently happened as a result of her going public with a complaint against the bus driver.

QTC: Hi, Ashlee. Thank you for doing this interview. Let's recap briefly for our readers...

Vancouver's regional transit system is owned by Coast Mountain Bus Company and operated by TransLink. TransLink has a Sunday policy that allows adult holders of monthly FareCards (passes) to board any of its vehicles - bus, Skytrain, SeaBus - with a 2nd, gender non-specific adult and up to 4 children, for one fare. You were boarding a bus in Vancouver on Sunday, August 9, 2009 with your common-law partner, Natalie, and when you presented your monthly FareCard, the driver told you that Natalie would have to pay to board the bus. The driver then said that Natalie had to be a man for the Sunday rules to apply, is that correct?

Ashlee: Yes that is correct, he said that it was only for husband and wife. I argued that she and I were in a common-law relationship which was no different. He stated it has to be husband and wife and that 2 girls are NOT husband and wife.

QTC: In the report you're quoted as saying, "He sat there for a good five minutes and announced to everyone on the bus they should tell us to get off."

Ashlee: He did sit there for about 5 minutes and announced that the people on the bus would become angry with us because they had places to go and would want us to get off.

QTC: How did that make you feel and what was the reaction of the other passengers?

Ashlee: It was slightly humiliating because although I was very angry and wanted to stand my ground, I did sympathise with the other passengers and felt bad about them having to wait. No one on the bus said anything; one woman looked back but no words were exchanged and I could not tell if the look was of sympathy or irritation.

QTC: You disagreed (with the bus driver) and called TransLink to confirm that you were right?

Ashlee: I called TransLink while I was still on the bus and they confirmed that I was right and assisted me with finding out the route number so I could identify the driver. After speaking with them I went and informed the driver and asked for his name and badge number, both of which he refused to provide.

QTC: What did you and your partner, Natalie, say to the driver after he refused to give his name and badge number?

Ashlee: At this point we were getting off the bus and we repeated ourselves many times, demanding his badge number, until he began to try to close the door on us so we had to get off the bus. We were visibly angry and informed him that we filed a formal complaint, with or without the badge number.

QTC: reported that Derek Zabel, a spokesman for Coast Mountain Bus Company, said that the company will investigate the complaint and offered a verbal apology. Did he offer the apology to you and Natalie personally?

Ashlee: No, we have not heard from him personally.

QTC: What is the status of the complaint?

Ashlee: The woman who contacted us initially regarding the complaint was very quick to brush the situation off, stating that the bus driver most likely, "just didn't know". We pushed the issue further with her, stating that it was not just that he (the bus driver) didn't know the rules, but that if he honestly thought that it had to be a couple to use the pass, that I informed him that we were a couple and he still would not let us ride. She apologized but stated, "its not like he's going to get fired." I requested something be done and she informed me that she could have his supervisor contact me, which I did finally receive a contact from.

QTC: Derek Zabel says that they are investigating the complaint. He's also quoted as saying that he's not sure if it was a case of discrimination or if the operator simply didn't know the rules. How do you respond to that?

Ashlee: If this operator simply didn't know the rules then the situation should have ended when I clarified that my partner and I were together and no different than husband and wife.

QTC: Did Coast Mountain Bus Company give you the driver's name and ID?

Ashlee: No, I have been informed that they keep their drivers identities secured.

QTC: When you made your complaint to Coast Mountain Bus Company, did they mention anything about an anti-discrimination policy?

Ashlee: No, the woman stated that she could understand that I was upset and apologized but made it quite clear that nothing would be done about it.

QTC: What's your take on that?

Ashlee: I don't feel that the woman I spoke with took the situation seriously at all.

QTC: What has been the reaction of family and friends regarding this incident?

Ashlee: Slight disbelief that this would even happen.

QTC: It still takes a brave person to come forward and complain about discrimination in a public forum; how are you coping with all of this?

Ashlee: I felt that this was important to be brought to the public attention because so many other people would have just gotten off the bus and waited for the next one. Someone should not have to go through that, so I feel like us coming out about that may prevent this from happening to someone else in the future.

QTC: Do you think this was just an isolated incident of discrimination or do you feel that it is symptomatic of a wider spread problem of anti-gay discrimination in Vancouver?

Ashlee: I for the most part feel comfortable in Vancouver, but do encounter discrimination from time to time, mostly from males in the evening. I feel like at this moment in time, Vancouver is not as completely accepting as the city portrays itself to be.

QTC: Why do you think the bus driver responded the way he did?

Ashlee: I feel as though for the most part, as cliche as this sounds, this man seemed as though having a woman correct and challenge his actions upset him even more [whether] he understood our relationship and just didn't feel it was valid, or whether he did not understand our relationship, either is just as bad. Ignorance would be no excuse for discrimination.

QTC: Thank-you, Ashlee, for sharing your story with us.

Once again, we have a clear example of why we can't ever take our rights for granted in this country. Whether it is a vicious, hateful act of thuggery in Thunder Bay, or being refused service on a city bus in Vancouver, we always need to be ready to stand up for our rights. Ashlee Gowriluk did just that. Every day, we must make ourselves visible and vocal because we can't allow ourselves to be bullied or victimized.

During the interview with Ashlee, she mentioned an upcoming meeting with a Coast Mountain Bus Company representative. QTC contacted Ashlee after that meeting to ask her about the outcome.

Ashlee: I did meet with the transit authorities and they took a statement from me and apologized. Apparently, not only was the driver's conduct wrong, but the person who contacted me regarding the complaint coded it wrong (as a Priority 3 when it should have been a Priority 1) and this was why I didn't receive a contact back immediately... they can not tell me about any action that they take on the driver.

I applaud Ashlee for defending herself and her partner by asserting their rights as a lesbian couple and as women. Although Coast Mountain Bus Company has apologized to Ashlee in person, it appears they are reluctant to share that apology with the public. They further don't want to reveal what, if any, action they have taken against the bus driver.

My queer two cents: Do I believe the bus driver should be suspended as a result of this incident? Absolutely.

What if this had happened to you? What would you have done?

If you've ever encountered a situation similar to what Ashlee and Natalie experienced, and would like to share your story, please contact us:


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