A new rural Manitoba restaurant is suddenly closing its doors following a series of homophobic verbal attacks against the two gay owners.
Pots N Hands just opened for business last December in Morris, located about 60 kilometres south of Winnipeg. Customers learned last week the eatery will now serve its final made-from-scratch meal in mid-April.
Morris Mayor Gavin van der Linde told the Free Press he was stunned to learn a handful of local citizens had essentially run the business out of town.
"It's very sad this has happened, that people have been small-minded enough to make them feel unwelcome," van der Linde said Monday. "It certainly doesn't reflect well on the community."
The two owners are from Winnipeg and felt they were filling a void with their restaurant, which specializes in home-cooked lunch and dinners. But they weren't prepared for the bigotry they experienced in the form of direct comments and confrontations about their sexual orientation.
"It's been very difficult for us. It got to the point of being out of control by this certain group of people," one of the owners told the Free Press on Monday. They originally declined to speak last week, saying only that they were closing for "personal" reasons. But they later changed their minds on Monday after learning many others were expressing concern on their behalf. They asked that their names not be published for fear of ongoing retribution.
"This has been a very difficult decision," said the co-owner. "I cannot tell you how this has affected us on so many levels."
Van der Linde said he first learned of the incidents about two weeks ago and spoke to the two owners, who confirmed what had been occurring.
"I was surprised, I hadn't heard anything about any comments before that. Everyone I heard from loved the food. It was an extremely positive response," said van der Linde. The issue was raised at a town council meeting last month and everyone responded by going to the restaurant for lunch.
"We wanted to show our support," he said. "Unfortunately, you just need a few people to say something out of order and it can be taken as the feeling of the community as a whole. These derogatory comments are very unfortunate. We don't need those type of comments around."
The owners declined to provide specific examples of what's been said to them, saying they wish to exit the community with the "same grace" with which they set up shop late last year.
"Both of us understand this small group of individuals don't represent the community of Morris and surrounding communities as a whole," said one. Although it wasn't a secret that the restaurant was owned by two gay men, he said they've done nothing to "flaunt" their sexual orientation.
"But by no means are we ashamed of who we are and how we live," he said,
Several Morris-area residents have reached out to the owners to express their remorse and outrage over what has happened. There have also been dozens of encouraging and supportive messages posted on their Facebook page.
"Pretty low-class some citizens of Morris. The epitome of bigotry," wrote one supporter who works in the medical profession and has frequented the restaurant since it opened.
"Grow up, people. It's called living the life the way you want to," wrote another.
The Free Press spoke with one local citizen who has been identified by several sources as a vocal critic of the pair. Although he admitted their sexual orientation "isn't my choice" he denied saying anything homophobic to the two owners.
Horst Backe is a spokesman for Reaching Out Winnipeg, a program whose volunteers help people facing persecution and discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. He said the timing of this "shocking" incident is interesting given the Manitoba government's controversial new anti-bullying bill.
"These are adults here who are being bullied. It really underscores the need to protect children," said Backe.
Bill 18 has been a hot-button issue in the province for more than a month with some critics, including Manitoba senior federal cabinet minister Vic Toews, saying it infringes on religious freedom because it requires religious schools to accommodate student-led gay-straight alliance activities.
Education Minister Nancy Allan said Bill 18 does include all forms of bullying by its very definition of bullying. The bill says bullying is a behaviour that's intended to cause, or should be known to cause, fear, intimidation, humiliation, distress or other forms of harm to another person's body, feelings, self-esteem, reputation or property.
Backe said this type of discrimination isn't just the product of a small-town environment.
"You don't have to be accepting. You just have to be tolerant," he said. "I think you will find tolerance and acceptance, and intolerant and hateful people everywhere."