One Day at Chaffin's

An incident at a Tucson diner stirs up debate in the LGBT community

It took just days for news of an alleged anti-gay incident at a Tucson diner to hit the inboxes of hundreds of people.

Gary Rhine, a gay man who lunched at Chaffin's Family Restaurant, sent an e-mail to friends and associates about a run-in he had with the establishment's owner, James Chaffin. That message was soon forwarded to listservs, friends of friends and beyond--until both Rhine and Chaffin said they were inundated with calls and letters from people expressing a range of opinions about what supposedly happened.

Not surprisingly, Rhine and Chaffin had different accounts of what transpired at the 24-hour restaurant at 902 E. Broadway Blvd., on Monday, Feb. 13.

Rhine stated in his original e-mail that he told Chaffin he wasn't coming back to his establishment after Chaffin berated a woman who wanted an application.

Rhine said at a public forum--held at Wingspan on Monday, Feb. 20, to discuss what occurred--that Chaffin immediately became hostile, telling him to "get the fuck out of here." He alleged that Chaffin pushed him several times and said he was going to "kick (Rhine's) faggot ass" and that he "didn't want fag lovers in there (his restaurant)."

The quarrel, with Chaffin's daughter chiming in with insults, spilled over into the parking lot of a nearby Office Max, Rhine alleged.

"This took a few minutes," he told attendees at the forum. "This wasn't like a 30-second altercation, because I wasn't running. I was walking."

For his part, Chaffin told the Weekly that the restaurant has a procedure whereby potential employees give him a phone number, and then his son, who does the hiring, calls them down to fill out an application. He said the woman, who was illegally parked in a handicapped space, became "argumentative" and threatened to sue when he wouldn't give her an application to take, so he told her to leave. Then Rhine stepped up, he said.

"The guy was trying to tell me how to run my business," Chaffin said.

He alleged that Rhine pushed him and made threats. Chaffin characterized the fight as "a personal confrontation" and denied using the word "faggot."

"I didn't even know he was gay--how do you know if someone is gay?" Chaffin said. "It wouldn't make any difference, anyway. It's just not true, and it's unfair."

Chaffin said he has friends who have undergone sex-change operations and has many satisfied gay and lesbian customers.

"I don't care what their outlooks are, as long as they want food, so long as they can pay," he said. "There are some people who can't pay, and I feed them, too. My main thing is to feed people. I have no animosity toward any group, be it religion, politics, race, sexual orientation, age."

He said his daughter phoned police when the confrontation escalated, but neither party ended up pressing charges. Chaffin's son later presented Rhine with an apology he had written himself, bearing both his and his father's name.

Rhine told attendees at the Wingspan forum that he didn't press charges, because he didn't feel injured by the incident.

"I'm not interested in prosecuting against that," he said. "I don't feel that I was hurt by that. I know there are some others who might have been. I've been called a faggot for 35 years, and I've had much worse treatment. I've had the crap beat out of me because I'm gay."

Forum attendee Paul Ramsey said he told Chaffin's son that his father was invited to attend. However, Chaffin said a few hours before the forum started that although he had heard about the event from a friend of his son, he was not invited. After some thought, he said the forum should have been held in a neutral place--not Wingspan, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community center--but that he would have gone if asked.

Most people at the forum seemed convinced that something disturbing had transpired at Chaffin's. They wanted to take positive measures to combat the perceived roots of societal prejudice against the LGBT community.

One man, who asked that his name not be used, as he was the victim of an anti-gay assault and rape, said that hearing about "people pushing and screaming faggot" was painful for him.

"For some of us in the world, this is reminiscent of other experiences we've had," he said.

However, that same man said he and his partner had frequently eaten at the restaurant and had pleasant interactions with Chaffin himself.

There were other voices of disbelief in e-mails obtained by the Weekly. According to Rhine, many people--lesbians in particular--were confounded by the allegations against Chaffin. They said he had always been accepting and gracious toward members of the LGBT community.

"I am really surprised to hear about this incident," one woman wrote to a UA LGBT listserv. "My partner and I often go to Chaffin's for brunch on weekends. Chaffin's has been a very welcoming space to us, and we are out and obvious. We've gone alone, with other lesbian couples, with straight friends and with kids, and we have always been treated with the same friendly service."

At least two others, however, recounted crass or discriminatory comments made by Chaffin.

One lesbian wrote to a UA listserv that, upon hearing about the incident, she and her partner called Chaffin to ask if his establishment is LGBT-friendly.

She said Chaffin immediately told her that her question must be connected to the incident with Rhine. According to the woman, he said as long as people have money and "they aren't having sex on the tables," he could care less about their sexual orientation.

Chaffin said his comments were "ill-spoken."

"I'm just not used to being attacked so much," he said. "Come on, lay off me. I've had enough. I didn't say those exact words, but I implied just what I've been telling you--I don't care about a person's sexual orientation, their political views, their age, color or any of that stuff. I'm just here to sell food."

Taana Abbitt told the Weekly she was thumbing through books that were laid out for people to peruse during a visit to the restaurant with a friend two years ago. Chaffin walked over to their table to ask if they liked the books, and Abbitt said she commented on how he didn't have anything written by women.

"He said, 'Well, women can't write, and I don't read that kind of stuff,'" Abbitt said. "I'm a writer myself, so I was surprised by that. Then he walked away. I sort of thought that was bad, and he was an idiot, but OK.

"I don't let anybody I know go there if I can have a say in it. My husband used to go there pretty often, and he doesn't go anymore. We certainly won't be going back, and I don't think any of our friends will, either."

When asked about the incident, Chaffin said he likes to read history, fiction and Westerns.

"I prefer men writers, yeah. So lynch me, kill me," he said.

It's unclear if the allegations will cost the restaurant in the long run, but there have been short-term ramifications. Chaffin said a lesbian who had recently reserved space for 25 to celebrate her birthday only had half of those invited show up, due to the flurry of e-mails.

At the forum, Rhine said it was fair game to not spend money at Chaffin's, but he discouraged people from making hateful calls or going down to the restaurant in full drag and waving protest signs.

"I think that's probably counterproductive to the message we're trying to put out as a community," he said. "I don't know how James Chaffin feels about the gay community, and I don't need to know. I do care about how he treats me, but I don't need to change how he thinks."