As employees of the Steak & Catfish Barn off I-35 in Edmond closed the restaurant Wednesday night, 82-year-old Bob Warner sat at a table and answered questions for KFOR Channel 4 news. A bathroom sign he had posted 10 months earlier recently found its way to Facebook, angering local LGBT-rights advocates for its message to patrons:
We do not have a transgender bathroom. So don’t be caught in the wrong one. Thank you, Bob.
“It’s not just that they put the sign up,” Freedom Oklahoma board member Paula Sophia Schonauer told NonDoc on Wednesday night. “There’s an implicit threat to it. My mind automatically jumps to something violent.”
Schonauer had joined Freedom Oklahoma executive director Troy Stevenson at the roadside restaurant earlier in the day to verify that the sign existed. They had received a tip and ultimately posted a picture of the sign on Facebook.
“Those kinds of sentiments are really telling trans people that you can’t be out in public,” said Schonauer, who transitioned from male to female more than 15 years ago. “It’s not about a restroom. It’s about being authentically who we are in public.”
But at the cash register Wednesday night, Warner’s employees praised him as a kind and wonderful man.
“My boss has never been a bigot. They never discriminate,” said Julia Flower, who added that she has worked at the restaurant with multiple LGBT community members. “Not one time has anybody said anything or has it been a problem. The only thing I think he wants is not to have an adult going into the bathroom with a child of the opposite sex.”
As Warner gave his TV interview, Flower and her coworkers answered a phone that rang every few minutes. Aggravated and seemingly intoxicated voices rang out on the other end.
“Are you going to check my genitals in the bathroom? You ain’t doing shit, bitch,” one caller slurred derogatorily to the room, unaware he was on speaker phone. “You’re a little slut bag, aren’t ya? You ain’t doin’ nothing.”
Waitress Deanna Schultz sighed before going to clean the restrooms at the end of her shift.
“That’s the kind of phone calls we’ve been getting all day,” Schultz said. “Lots of, ‘Fuck your restaurant.’ Just lots of profanity. Since I’ve been here, nobody’s ever said anything about it. Today was the very first time. We have lots of gay customers.”
Warner’s wife, Margie, chimed in.
“We have workers who are gay, lesbian,” said Margie Warner, a Filipino immigrant who is still learning English after four years. “We do not discriminate. We respect everybody. We have trans customers. That’s what I don’t understand.”
‘I have nothing against them’
What Bob Warner may not understand is how his sign — and particularly its emphatic underlining — has been interpreted by Schonauer, Stevenson and the offended parties dialing his catfish barn. He explained his intention in putting the sign up in 2016 after a man rushed into a Dallas-area bathroom to question a woman’s gender.
“I got to thinking, ‘I have a lot of redneck guys that weigh 250 pounds or more, and if somebody that was dressed like a man when their wife was in there or their little girl, I would not have a restaurant left,” Warner told NonDoc. “Because that guy would go in there and tear my restaurant to pieces.”
Warner said he only has the two bathrooms and can’t add a separate bathroom to be designated for trans patrons, even though that’s something no government agency or diner has asked him to do.
“I don’t have a transgender bathroom. I have nothing against them. I couldn’t tell one from the other anyway,” he said. “It has nothing to do with that. The only thing it has to do with is I did not want my restaurant torn to pieces.”
Warner’s explanation may not end the irate phone calls, and it may not be accepted by some. Asked if he worried about what might happen to him owing to media coverage of his sign, Warner said no.
“God will take care of me,” he said.
Schonauer said she hoped Warner would be willing to meet and talk about the issue further, perhaps broadening the octogenarian’s perspective.
“I invite Mr. Warner to have a cup of coffee with me and ask me questions and talk to me,” Schonauer said. “(I hope he will) take the opportunity to educate himself about who transgender people are and know about the struggle I’ve faced and that other people have faced. I really do think that confronting these issues and clarifying intent and then taking the opportunity to educate people is what this is all about.”
Warner said he had only heard one complaint about the sign previously, but he said others have taken pictures of it and asked for copies.
“I wouldn’t know a transgendered person if I saw one, and it wouldn’t bother me at all,” Warner said.
Asked if he is a political person, he said, “Oh gosh no. I’m conservative, if that means anything. But right now, they’re not too popular.”
Oklahomans ‘pretty fair-minded’
Warner, who opened the restaurant three years ago at age 79, said he doesn’t particularly care about being popular. When it does come to what he’d like to see happen in Oklahoma and the United States as a whole, he focused on the economy.
“I would like to see a lot of people get their jobs back and the economy go forward,” he said. Warner runs a second restaurant location in Edmond. He ran a doughnut shop years earlier.
Schonauer identified the concept of “work” as a way Oklahomans from different backgrounds find common ground.
“I do find most Oklahomans pretty fair-minded,” she said. “They care mostly about, ‘Do you work hard?’, ‘Are you honest?’ and ‘Do you pay your own way?’ And when they find out that’s what is going on, they may not want to sit down and have a beer with you, but they’ll let you be and live your life. There’s other places in this country where that respect isn’t afforded.”
‘A hard road to go’
If Schonauer and Warner ever do sit down for that beer or coffee, they might be able to swap stories about trying to help others. Schonauer served as an Oklahoma City police officer and is now about to finish a master’s in social work.
“I was a police officer for 22 years, 14 of them after I came out,” said Schonauer, 51. “I had to have a lot of conversations with people to be able to keep my job and to be able to have the esteem and trust of my colleagues.”
Warner, an Edmond native, has a broad work background as well.
“I used to have a church and a Christian school,” he said. “I done construction work. I done a little bit of everything.”
After a pregnant pause, Warner continued.
“I helped battered women for 18 years before I got married. The Lord would lead me to somebody who needed help,” he said. “Some of them were thinking about suicide. Some of them had just left and all they had was the clothes on their back, and I helped them get on their feet.”
He told the story of meeting a woman in a restaurant who now cleans his house.
“I met her and just felt that she needed something. So I asked the waitress, ‘Would you find out if she’s married or not?’ And she went over and asked her and said that she had been, and she had just left because she’d been abused,” Warner recalled. “So I gave the waitress my card and said, ‘Here, give her this.’ Paid for her lunch. Never even saw her face. I left, and about two and a half weeks later, she called me. I put her to work, and she worked with me for three or four months, and then she went to work for her uncle. And that’s who she’s been working for ever since.”
Warner shook his head thinking about the woman he met about five years earlier.
“But they have a hard road to go,” he said. “Cause she wouldn’t even get in my pick-up with me for three weeks. She was around other people, but she would not get in a closed place with anybody. And she’s a jewel. She’s probably as honest a woman and as nice a woman as I’ve ever met. She’s got three kids now.”
Schonauer said she knows that good people can often have blind spots in their lives regarding one issue or another. She said she hoped Warner would be open to listening to her perspective.
“If he didn’t mean harm, then I’ll take him at his word,” Schonauer said. “I’ll meet him for a cup of coffee and we can talk.”