Jumping the gun

I’m a couple of weeks late on this one, but in late April, a lesbian couple were thrown out of [public.], a bar in Wellington, after sharing a quick kiss while waiting for a taxi. One of the two, Rebecca Galbraith, wrote this in a letter to the bar:

“At 2.50am, as we were leaving for a taxi, I leaned over to briefly kiss my girlfriend, something I had not done yet as we were in the company of friends, when a man abruptly tapped me on the shoulder and informed both of us to leave, immediately.

“… I have no doubt he was watching us for the entire time we were at Public.

“… When standing on the street, I turned to the man who kicked us out and said this would not happen if we were a straight couple. And he agreed, and shrugged, and said ‘it’s not my place’, and with a smirk, claimed he ‘wished it could be different’.”

The outrage was as immediate as it was expected. Victoria University Queer Officer Genevieve Fowler championed their cause, helped push the story to the media and offered to help write a complaint to the Human Rights Commission that Galbraith was lodging. The Wellington Young Feminists’ Collective started organising a “Pash-in” at the bar to protest their outright homophobia, and the Wellington Queer Avengers were quick to join in. [public.] was lambasted across the press, both mainstream and queer.

The owner of the bar tried to defend the actions of the bouncer, but no one would listen. Why should we? They turfed a couple out of their bar for the crime of sharing an innocent kiss while lesbian. The management is clearly homophobic and need to learn not to discriminate.

Except there’s a teensy problem.

Just a little one…

It didn’t happen as Rebecca Galbraith said.

[public.] released CCTV footage of the night to selected media showing the couple hugging and kissing for an extended period of time without security doing anything, and later slinking off to a corner beyond of the camera’s view, which is where they were approached by the bouncer 10 minutes before the bar was due to close. They were not asked to leave because she “briefly kiss[ed her] girlfriend.”

Having been shown the CCTV footage by 3 News, Galbraith decided not to continue with her complaint to the HRC, and seems to have gone into delete everything mode. Fowler has also done the same after whipping up hate for the bar. The WYFC cancelled the pash-in, citing not the fact that the women wern’t honest, but rather because they were over it, and the Queer Avengers continued to support the women and said “their complaint should be taken seriously.”

Galbraith played the gay card, and lost. In the process, doing damage to the reputation of a bar that was innocent, because a lot of people jumped the gun. To call it a “debacle” is an understatement.

I understand our reactions when we’re faced with apparent discrimination — I’ve done it in the past, too (and I’m likely to do it in the future). As queer people, we’re conditioned to believe that discrimination is waiting round every corner. Due to the many real discriminations that we face we see queerphobic boogeymen lurking in every shadow.

But we have to be careful how we face those fears, and make sure that we’re reacting to real threats, rather than imagined ones.

Within hours of Galbraith posting her now deleted comment on [public.]’s Facebook wall, the comment list was filled with people accusing the bar itself of being disgustingly homophobic. Boycotts and protests were called for and organised and the media was contacted. The outrage was pouring.

The owner of the bar commented on the now deleted post (because it’s deleted, I’m unable to quote it, so you’ll have to take my word for it) explaining the situation, but that only seemed to fan the flames. Partly because it wasn’t worded very well (the owner was understandably stressed about the situation), but mostly because they had already been set up as the villain in everyone’s eyes.

We need to approach these sorts of accusations with scepticism. We have an incredibly important principle (one of the most important) in both our law and our society. That is the presumption of innocence. The onus of proof lies on whom asserts, not on who denies. And that proof must be beyond reasonable doubt.

In the beginning, we were given one side of a story. Instead of assessing it rationally, talking to the bar, or looking at things like the fact that they were told to leave minutes before the bar was due to close for the night, people jumped to conclusions. They leapt to a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy — two women kissed and were then told to leave a bar, therefore they were told to leave because they’re lesbians.

The bar released CCTV footage confirming their side of the story, and it all came tumbling down like a house of cards in a strong breeze. The media were not happy at being played (Hillary Barry’s “’nuff said” comment at the end of this clip is testament to this). Fowler, who may not have been complicit in the deceit but still went straight on the attack, is now facing criticism as Vic Uni’s Queer Officer, and rightly so — in my opinion she has one option: admit she got played, apologise for not appraising the accusations and launching an offensive against the owners of [public.], and offer her resignation to the mercy of her constituents.

I believe that Queer Avengers and the WYFC owe their apologies to the bar for the respective parts they played (these are otherwise good organisations that I have a lot of respect for and they do a lot of good work. I don’t want to look like I’m demonising them over this issue), as do any other organisations that participated. Discrimination is a real and serious problem in this country. But if we’re going to take direct action against it, we need to base our action on evidence. If we’re going to protest or boycott or take legal action against a business or individual, we need empirical proof. If that evidence doesn’t manifest or turns out to be fabricated after we’ve taken action, then we lose credibility. If we continue to take action after being shown we got it wrong, we throw credibility out the window.

And Galbraith and her partner owe not just the bar, but all of us an apology for erroneously playing the gay card and making a huge issue out of nothing. It may have simply been a misunderstanding, and at the time the women may have genuinely believed it was because they were lesbians, but they kicked up an awful lot of dust, and did a significant amount of truth bending. They smeared the bar on Facebook, in the media, and threatened to complain to the Human Rights Commission. Now, undoubtedly, the couple have learned their lesson, and having been there I can say that the stress from the media attention is not fun. I’m certainly not suggesting they be vilified as liars and frauds. But once egos have healed, public apologies must follow.

When people’s reputations and careers are on the line, we have to tread carefully.

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