The Eagerness to Judge (or, One Of My Friends Is Gay)

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?)

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16 Comments

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16 responses to “The Eagerness to Judge (or, One Of My Friends Is Gay)

  1. This is actually the first post I’ve seen that said anything about what the CCTV showed. All I’ve seen otherwise has been “oh so the footage is out and OMFG WHORES AND LIARS”. (I don’t go to Facebook if I can at all help it, so couldn’t see the original conversations either.) It left me feeling incredibly uneasy – there is very little benefit in making a story like this up, and even if they had been full on making out, I’ve seen plenty of straight couples do exactly the same, and it was tempting to reach out to Wellingtonian friends to see how much they could get away with at the bar with someone of the opposite sex. I also think that if they were doing something that was on the borderline of inappropriate, the staff ought to be sensitive to the history of loving homosexual behaviour being cast as immoral and disgusting and considered their possible courses of action in that light – for example, since as I understand it they were on their way to leave anyway, just letting it go.

    I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a case of discrimination where members of the majority group didn’t try to dismiss it as either not serious or not even discrimination to start with. Considering that people genuinely try to argue that they’re not being homophobic when they call for homosexuality to be criminalised (for example), I’ve never found the general public to be a reliable litmus test for pretty much anything.

  2. trixie

    this is really well written and completely necessary. thank you!

  3. Alex

    Thanks for this. The minds of some people are so warped they can’t fathom any reason the couple would withdraw their complaint other than that they’re “lying whores,” or whatever. No, it couldn’t possibly be a bunch of horrible people saying awful things about them that made them want to get out of the limelight.

  4. Alex

    Also, I was just thinking: *I’m* scared to express my views on Public’s facebook page out of fear of all the terrible people posting on it, who’d be ready to jump down my throat. I can only imagine how hard it is for Rebekah and Jennie.

  5. Samee

    Waiting for the day when we wouldn’t be judged on the basis of our sexual orientation or the fairness of vaginas.This post reminded me of Carl Sagan who had said to his daughter,” May we leave your generation a world better than the one we were given.”

  6. Me

    Sadly you’ve missed out a fair chunk of the published facts, and you’ve made up your mind based on what you think. Lucky for the justice system that it doesn’t work that like.

    • Thanks to you and everyone else for commenting. I’d be grateful if you let me know which published facts I missed out; as for the justice system, I don’t think that’s a part of this debate as no charges were laid by either party.

      • Me

        I didn’t mean justice system in terms of charges and prosecutions, but in the way that this is a popularity competition.

        What part did the Queer Spokesperson from the VUWSA have in this?

        You’ve ingnored that the Bouncer/Doorman is very experienced at what he does

        You’ve ignored that;

        The footage showed Jennie Leadbeater, 21, buying a glass of wine at 2.31am,

        And that at that time being approached by a young man. The two chatted for a minute before Rebekah Galbraith, 22, approached and put her arm around Ms Leadbeater and kissed her on the cheek.

        IMO to me this is a claim of ownership or a relationship and and a reaction to being threatened, it’s the same reaction that any person would have in the circumstances, it’s an indication to the other person to back off

        A doorman is seen walking through the area twice while the couple is at the bar, and does not stop or look closely at Leadbeater or Galbraith.

        The couple remained at the bar kissing each other affectionately and hugging, before moving to a corner of the bar out of view of security cameras.

        At 2.55am a doorman approached the couple in the corner and asked them to leave, with the pair exiting the bar quickly.Galbraith is seen questioning the doorman on the street, then Leadbeater goes back into the bar to retrieve a cardigan she left behind.

        You shoud also ask is an open letter, and playing both the we’re lesbians and claiming a human rights issue is the best way to resolve some minor angst for a minor incident.

        I’m sure they’re nice people, I’m sure this is an event that happens a lot in many pubs in many cities in many countries, except that most people don’t rush to social media to have their form of justice.

      • In that case, it isn’t part of the justice system. And I disagree that this should be a popularity competition in any way – although I fear it has become one. The weight of popular opinion (3 News and the majority of commentators on social media and blogs) has taken Public’s side, and that tide of support has had a direct influence on the general public’s view of the story. This is a shame, but there’s not much I can do about it.

        The Queer Spokesperson from VUWSA, as I understand it, offered representation to Rebekah and Jennie because the couple were struggling to cope with so many media requests. I must be honest and say I haven’t carefully examined her words and actions regarding the matter, so I’m not really in a position to comment there. From the look of things, though, a lot of people have brought previous problems with Genevieve Fowler to this debate.

        The bouncer’s experience is barely relevant in my view. A doctor or a teacher with 20 years’ experience can still make a mistake.

        As for the detailed rundown of the CCTV tape from the Dom Post, most of which you’ve reproduced here, it adds a few nuances that were not present in the initial complaint from Rebekah; however, it doesn’t back up the bouncer’s version that they were on top of a table. It’s also my opinion that it doesn’t indicate the couple were acting inappropriately. One also has to remember that we can only assume that the tape showed what the tape showed, while we CANNOT assume that the tape showed the full sequence of events that occurred that night. As I said in the post above, it’s still the bar’s word against the couple’s.

        Your point about whether an open letter on social media is the best way to resolve such an incident is an interesting one and very much worthy of debate. For mine, a business’ Facebook or Twitter page is a reasonable avenue through which to take a grievance (though it may not be ideal, as has been proved in the massive backlash against the couple). I’ve done it myself and gotten positive results, particularly when the business in question has a welcoming attitude to feedback and a willingness to understand the complainant’s view. As I said above, Public’s tone was adversarial from their first response, so I would say they’re at least as culpable for any blame against social media as an avenue for complaints after this episode. It’s also my opinion that the crudeness of their response stood in stark contrast to the articulacy and reason displayed by Rebekah in her open letter.

        Rebekah is a nice person for sure. I haven’t met Jennie but she seemed pretty cool on the 3 News interview. And yes, other respondents on various social media indicated that not only does this sort of thing happen all the time, it has happened before in that particular bar and involving that particular member of staff. Again, my hope is that those who experience this sort of treatment in future are not afraid to speak up if they feel discriminated against.

  7. In regard to what you have missed:
    http://antisocialmediablog.wordpress.com/
    Has a summary of two days reporting

  8. Do you not think that perhaps you’re just as biased, being Rebekah’s friend and all?

    The CCTV footage, as reported, shows that the story told by Rebekah is stretched to put it lightly. Rebekah said they just kissed once and were thrown out — turns out they were kissing and hugging for 25 minutes before being asked to leave. Rebekah said the security guard was watching them closely all night — the video shows the same staff member going about his business and not offering any attention to the pair while they were kissing and hugging.

    They may have had good intentions, but in the end this pair have stretched the truth for an idealogical cause that they have ultimately damaged, in my opinion.

    Also, Rebekah did not at all come across well on camera. She came across as a dominant, self-righteous, entitled person who constantly spoke over her girlfriend (who I’m sure feels dragged through the mud after all this), and also a jealous person who had to assert ownership over her ‘property’ (her girlfriend) when a young man approached and tried to chat her up.

    I think you are largely seeing the pair through rose-tinted glasses because of your connection with Rebekah, and it might help you to stand back and try to look at the situation more objectively.

    • I do think I’m biased, of course. I’ve based a lot of my commentary on my own judgement of Rebekah’s character. I hope you can understand why I thought it was relevant to say so on here. With that in mind, I don’t believe they stretched the truth beyond maybe the ‘kissed once’ part, and I think that if anything, the report of the tape’s contents fails to prove Public’s allegations more than it fails to prove the couple’s.

      As mentioned in a previous comment, the CCTV tape shows what the tape shows and we cannot assume that it showed the full sequence of events that occurred that night.

      I disagree with your assertion that the couple were seeking to trumpet an ideological cause; that was secondary to an isolated incident they experienced, and they said as as much on camera. I also disagree that the couple damaged the cause (I’m assuming you’re talking about discrimination against homosexuals?). It was the words of hundreds, maybe thousands of other people on social media and on blogs that did the damage. Admittedly, they do have some of the responsibility for that as they started the debate, but I do not accept that they directly damaged gay rights through anything they said or did.

      Looks like we’ll have to agree to disagree about how Rebekah came across on camera. Your belief that her girlfriend feels dragged through the mud may or may not be true; I don’t know, and neither do you. Your suggestion of jealousy and ownership of property, meanwhile, is quite baseless. Maybe I am seeing the pair through rose-tinted glasses, but with the various speculative statements in your comment, you are harming your own claim to objectivity.

  9. ludditejourno

    Thanks very much for this. I would have written something similar – without the context of friendship, I don’t know either of the women concerned – had this week been different in terms of other commitments.
    Some of the negative comments – including Andy’s above – are focused on “there was TOO MUCH kissing” “and they were DRINKING……in a bar”
    If the bar staff kicked them out for doing things they wouldn’t mind a straight couple doing, that’s homophobia. End of story. And you know what? Whether they were drinking or not, it’s still homophobia.
    There’s been some ugly victim-blaming stuff going on here, and some explicitly anti-queer women stuff too in my opinion. Thanks for your take.

  10. A very well written article, thank you. It’s nice to see some commentary that rises above the he said/she said crap and raises the question of why people can become so horrible to others across social media forums based on limited facts.

  11. MrsTruckerDave

    Fantastic blog entry… Regardless of public opinion (pun partially intended) I hope the knowledge of her own integrity is enough to make Rebekah hold this as a victory… She has (based on your account) risen above stupid and petty prejudices and stood up for what she believes in! Good on her for not staying silent!

  12. Just shows the perception in India that the “West” (which is an all-encompassing term for White-people-countries) is some sort of all-accepting Utopia is pretty misplaced.
    I’d never have imagined something like this happening in NZ – hell, we used to give free drinks to women who were willing to get some kissing/touching action going, when I was working behind the bar during my uni days in UK.
    Good of you to stand up for your friend, and hope this sort of prejudice gets sorted out soon in your country as well as mine.

    http://www.icyhighs.com

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