Note: The bar discussed below is called [public.] but I’ve referred to them as ‘Public’ throughout for the sake of flow.
A friend of mine has been harshly judged and condemned by hundreds, possibly thousands of people for ‘lies’ which she did not tell. The abuse is frankly staggering, given that there is little evidence either way of the real truth.
I’ll run through the facts, then offer my thoughts.
Last weekend Rebekah, who happens to be gay, had a negative experience in Public, a bar on Wellington’s Courtenay Place. As she kissed her girlfriend Jennie on the lips, a member of Public’s staff tapped them on the shoulder and asked them to leave. When Rebekah stated that “this wouldn’t happen if it were a straight couple,” the member of staff agreed and said, with a smirk, “I wish it could be different.” He suggested that the order to eject them had come from management.
Rebekah vented her initial frustration on Facebook, then on Sunday wrote an open letter to the management of Public, which she also posted on Facebook. Public management’s initial response, in comments posted to Facebook, was to state that they did not care about creed, colour, religion or sexual orientation. Their tone then became adversarial, stating they did care about Rebekah “slagging off their business”.
On Monday, the story took off in the mainstream media, with stories drawn from the Facebook discussions posted on the websites of The New Zealand Herald and Stuff.co.nz’s Dominion Post section by Monday afternoon. This was when Rebekah decided that she would go on the record for the media, having previously only considered it. The ‘gay kiss’ story led the 1pm news bulletin on Radio New Zealand and 3 News television reporters began work on a piece for their 6pm bulletin.
In those media reports, Public owner Gina Mills offered their version of events. Mills said that according to the staff member that ejected them, Rebekah and her girlfriend were dancing on a table and acting inappropriately. (They later said they were lying on the table.) Mills indicated that there was no CCTV footage of the incident, meaning it was the staff member’s words against the couple’s. In short, Mills said Rebekah’s complaint was a lie.
On Tuesday, Public produced CCTV footage for the media to view. It reportedly showed Rebekah and her girlfriend kissing and then moving out of CCTV coverage, before being escorted out of the bar by the staff member. (The footage was not released for general viewing, such as on YouTube, for obvious reasons.)
In the wake of the CCTV footage being shown to the media, and amidst intense public and media attention, Rebekah and her girlfriend withdrew their complaint against Public whilst maintaining their version of events. The Dominion Post reported this with the headline ‘Female couple withdraw complaint’; 3 News, which had interviewed Rebekah and her girlfriend for a story on Monday’s 6pm bulletin, reported with the headline ‘Lesbian kiss couple revoke complaint against bar’.
In their story, 3 News stated that Rebekah and her girlfriend had been “acting inappropriately” on the CCTV footage, which was the exact phrasing also used by the Public staff member and management. Unlike the Dominion Post, which gave a rundown of the events on the tape, 3 News limited their description of the events inside the bar to their opinion. “acting inappropriately”. Later, on the 6pm 3 News bulletin on Tuesday, newsreader Hilary Barry drew a line under the matter by suggesting that the complaint was withdrawn directly because of the CCTV footage release; she also used Twitter to express the same sentiment.
The social media and blogger backlash was swift. Rebekah and her girlfriend had, in many people’s eyes, been exposed as liars. Rebekah and her girlfriend have been denigrated as ‘attention-seekers’, ‘whores’, ‘spoilt brats’, ‘silly little girls’ and more. The language adopted by many in the gay and lesbian community in Wellington was particularly bitter as they felt the episode would reflect poorly on them as a whole — for example, the popular gay issues website Aaron and Andy.
Throughout this entire process, from the moment Rebekah first spoke up to right now, I really don’t think she or Jennie could have handled it any better. Her open letter is articulate and dignified, with anger carefully directed at the staff member involved and the management he invoked as he threw them out. She sought to resolve the issue with management until the story went big, at which point she spoke on the record without blaming anyone except the person who ejected them. When she and Jennie agreed to go before 3 News cameras, they came across as two confident, sensible young people; there was a notable lack of obvious exaggeration or overt bitterness towards Public in their words.
The only problem was that observers would not take them at their words. Most have formed their opinions on the basis of the CCTV footage — despite it being reported as inconclusive — and subsequent complaint withdrawal, a link which Hilary Barry and 3 News were happy to draw on air. The use of epithets like ‘whore’ suggest that for some, deeper prejudices played an equal part as they made up their minds.
Now, I wasn’t in Public when all this went down, and I don’t claim to have any knowledge beyond the facts I’ve laid out above. However, I do know Rebekah reasonably well. She is an intelligent woman, at times fiercely so, and marked by a capacity to talk and listen to pretty much anyone with confidence. She demonstrates, in big and small ways and on a daily basis, that she cares about the people in her life. She carries herself with confidence and self-respect; this episode is the first time since I’ve known her that I’ve seen her speak out about feeling victimised in any way.
As a result, I take Rebekah at her word. It helps that the story she and Jennie told has not once been altered, unlike Public’s, and that they were so grateful for the support they received in telling it.
Of course, no matter how strongly and vociferously I vouch for her integrity, I can’t expect anyone who doesn’t know Rebekah to feel the same. It isn’t surprising, or even unfair, that so many people have questioned her account. What is surprising is the willingness, even eagerness, to judge the couple as liars and condemn them so bitterly. It started well before the CCTV footage was shown to the media, and has completely taken over since.
I’m not sure what to make of all the outrage. Is it the remove of social media and fingers-at-the-keyboard that brings people to write off a person’s character? Is it the fact that one of New Zealand’s biggest news outlets, 3 News, ultimately took Public’s side, leading viewers to follow suit? Or is it more insidious: a number of deep-lying prejudices against women, youth and homosexuals, brought to the surface by a perceived slight against the rest of society? My suspicion is that all three factors have played a role across the spectrum of online opinion.
Conversely, this episode has actually enhanced my own acceptance and tolerance of homosexuality. I’ve never seen a gay couple on television look as natural and at ease with each other as Rebekah and Jennie did; at the time I took this to be a very good sign of the state of gay rights in Wellington, given that they felt comfortable enough in their sexuality with each other to appear as they did. Naively, I expected many others would feel the same.
It’s not at all surprising that Rebekah and Jennie have retreated from the backlash, and while I understand it completely and support their withdrawal, it’s not a good sign. Anyone who experiences similar treatment in future will think twice before speaking out about it. As public opinions of character go, ‘attention-seeking liar’ is about as bad as it can get for much of society. For the couple’s sake, then, I hope:
1) Rebekah and Jennie can get on with their lives in peace and put this behind them, as is their right, especially when they have not done a single thing wrong;
2) people who experience such treatment in future are able to judge their case on its merit, free of the context provided by this unfortunate saga. Ideally, media outlets and the public at large will have the presence of mind to judge them on their merit, too, and to keep to the known facts of the case before making any conclusions — if, indeed, conclusions can be drawn at all. (Is that too much to ask?)