As director of the Safe Zone program at Pfeiffer University, Chip Palmer is the one who listens when students want to talk about their sexual orientation and feelings of discomfort because of discrimination.
In that role, Palmer said he’s heard stories from gay and lesbian students who’ve been verbally abused as patrons of small, family-owned diners in Stanly County, about 40 miles east of Charlotte.
Although Palmer hasn’t heard of students being denied service, he said they have reported that, when they leave, they’ve been called “faggot” or asked “Why are you here?”
Palmer, an openly gay man, believes the complaints, because he’s experienced similar behavior himself.
About a year ago, Palmer and his partner (now husband), Zachary Palmer, stopped for lunch at a small restaurant near campus. When they entered, he said, the 50 or so patrons got quiet.
Palmer said he and his partner were not holding hands or showing affection in any way. But they became instantly uncomfortable. “It was very, very obvious that we did not belong.
“There was nothing ever said to us,” Chip Palmer said, “but when a waitress would take everyone’s order around your table except yours ... it was very noticeable.”
He said it took longer for them to be waited on than some customers who arrived later. And they noticed a difference in the treatment they received compared with others. Usually, the waitress brought food to the table, returned to refill drinks and ask if the patrons needed anything else, then brought the checks. At their table, Chip Palmer said, she brought the check at the same time she served their food. “To me, that’s a symbol of, ‘OK, eat and leave.’ ”
It was subtle, he said. “But anytime you make someone uncomfortable and not welcome, even if it’s nonverbal – because communication is mostly nonverbal – I believe that is considered discrimination.
“We stayed, we ate our meal, and we left,” Chip Palmer said.
Through Safe Zone on campus, Chip Palmer said, Pfeiffer provides a safe and confidential place for LGBTQ students to talk about discrimination. “I have never had anything reported on campus,” he said. “We embrace people for who they are.”