Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Phillip Cottrell and the stories we tell

New Zealand, like anywhere else, has its grand narratives, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what coming from this place means.

These stories do not belong to everyone equally, because like all stories they are written from particular points of view, but they have power to both create and obscure social relationships in Aotearoa.

So there's lots of historical evidence colonisers coming to New Zealand post 1840 wanted to create a "better Britain" in which the rigid and vicious class hierarchy of England was absent, Pakeha and Maori would have the "best race relations in the world" and in the words of politician William Pember Reeves, women were able to vote for the first time in the world because “they simply asked for the vote, and we simply gave it to them.

All of these stories are contested. Because simply believing you are more egalitarian, less racist and more valuing of equality for women does make these things true. In fact, it can make it even harder, for those of us living within the story of an equal society, to recognise discrimination.

This troubles me in the case of Phillip Cottrell, a man viciously attacked in the street in Wellington, who died in hospital this week. The Police don't know why he was attacked, who he was attacked by, or which weapon was used to kill him. In fact, the Police did not even realise he was gay until asked in a press conference if sexuality could be a factor.

Yet Detective Senior Sergeant Scott Miller can say, in a press statement doing the rounds of the queer community:
"We do not believe Mr Cottrell's sexual orientation was a factor in his death. Any member of the glbti community who has serious safety concerns or has any relevant information in relation to this investigation, should contact Wellington Police on (04) 381 2000 or phone Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111."
Was Phillip Cottrell attacked on a Wellington street because he was queer? I don't know, but it wouldn't be the first time in the city I love that a beautiful queer man was hurt, simply for looking like he loved men. When I talk with young people about sexual violence, queer men in Wellington report repeated experiences of being attacked in the street because they break masculinity rules.

The Police should not be ruling out hate crime yet. They should not be ruling out hate crime until they catch who killed Phillip Cottrell, and find out why. Telling us sexual orientation was not a motivator does not "allay the fears" of the queer community - it tells us the Police have decided to ignore sexuality before they know what happened - and, as importantly, it does nothing to honour the memory of Phillip Cottrell.


Anita said...

Thank you.

I have been trying to find the words to say this, I am so glad that you could.

anthea said...

Thanks for this, LJ - absolutely agreed and beautifully written. I've had thoughts I don't quite know how to articulate since reading a mention in a news article that the last "unprovoked street murder" in Wellington was that of Jeff Whittington (ie someone killed for his perceived sexual orientation). And I've been telling myself that if Cottrell's murder was unrelated to his sexual orientation, then surely that is just coincidence. But coincidence, even if it is a strictly accurate explanation, doesn't cover what so many people are feeling, the vulnerability we so often feel...

I don't know where these thoughts are going. But whatever the reasons that motivated those who murdered Cottrell, there is something much bigger going on here than just that.

Tamara said...

Thanks for this post LJ, wonderfully put.

A small typo though - para 4 sentence 2 the word "not" is missing I think.

Lalibella said...

How is the fact that he was in your subjective judgement 'beautiful' relevant?

If some commentator talked about a 'beautiful' straight woman being attacked and how that was a tragedy, you would be all over them for implying that it's not so bad when women who they don't consider 'beautiful' are attacked.

LudditeJourno said...

Hi Lalibella,
"beautiful" here has nothing to do with what the person looks like - it is about my valuing people's queer identity in a world which tells us repeatedly we are disgusting and wrong. I understand how you could have read it differently - but it's a strategy I use repeatedly to unsettle homophobia - and it has NOTHING to do with excusing violence against anyone. You might just have to trust me on that, or read some more of my writing to check out how truthful you think I'm being.
Thanks, LJ

Alex said...

From what I understand he was killed by some drunk youths who had come into town looking for a fight. He was just walking home from work wearing jeans,a shirt and a backpack, so how could he have been identified as gay by people who didn't know him? If they hadn't bashed him they would have bashed someone else. So while maybe a hate crime should not be ruled out, I think it is very unlikely.

LudditeJourno said...

Hi Alex, yep, I'm keen to hear more from the men who killed Phillip too, but I'm also not prepared to assume they didn't make judgments about him based on how he carried himself. Which as I said on the post, happens often to queer men - and indeed any men who do not present as masculine. Witholding judgment for now.

David said...

Sorry I don’t understand what you're getting at here. Philip Cotteral has been a victim of an awful crime and has died. How could this crime be worse purely because he was gay? If he had been straight would this crime be any less? If he had been straight would his friends & family be feeling less grief than they feel now?

Lalibella said...

I'd suggest using a word other than "beautiful" then. I can't speak for homophobes so I don't know if it really does unsettle them but it sure as hell unsettled me.

As for reading your writing, I am sure you have written many progressive and laudible things in the past but I've been on the internet a while and one thing I've learned is that even people with long histories of progressive activism are capable of suddenly revealing bigotry in a single post (and yes I do include myself in that)

Andrensath said...

David: because when a member of a marginalised group is killed, it tends to have a much greater chilling effect on that and related marginalised group(s). I know I'm going to be a fair bit more paranoid if I'm out late in the CBD (by myself *or* with friends) for a while, especially as I hate presenting as a cisman.

Anonymous said...

As a friend of Phil's, I think that while your principles are admirable, talking about it as a potential hate crime is a bit of a red herring, and it hurts for those of us who knew him to see him being used as a football like this. I did not - and, as a bunch of us were discussing today, other people did not - know or guess Phil was gay until he said so (or in the cases of some of our friends, until someone else mentioned he was). Phil was an extremely private person, and very unassuming. He dressed and wore his hair in a very plain fashion; he carried himself like your average 43 year old guy. Walking past him in the street, you would not pick or guess that he was gay. Phil was very secure in his identity, but it was an identity that he did not show through outward appearance.

That does not make his killing any less brutal or devastating. It does not make it worse. It does not make it better. An innocent man died. That is the part we should care about.

I don't really like the insinuation that this being a hate crime would make the situation worse, or more meaningful or important. I don't really know where Phil being the poster boy for gay people in Wellington has come from either (he would have truly, deeply hated that kind of attention) - perhaps Greg Newbold's ignorant comments in the Herald a couple of days ago that Phil was targeted because he was "effeminate"? I can say with reasonably certainty that Greg Newbold never met Phil, and - as far as I know - never even saw a picture of him beyond the relatively plain and nondescript headshot that is doing the rounds. Newbold's comments were pure speculation and come from a place of deep ignorance and arrogance.

There would be absolutely nothing wrong with Phil being effeminate, by the way. It is a perfectly excellent way to be. It is just distressing for all of us who knew Phil to have his life and death speculated on in this way and used to further personal crusades. I know you are doing it with the best of intentions (as opposed to Greg Newbold, who is presumably doing it to get his name in the paper), but unfortunately it hurts in the same way.

Thanks for considering this - R.

Anita said...


What Andrenseth said :)

Plus, the fact that the police seem to have so casually dismissed the possibility that the the violence may be linked to homophobia. It compounds the chilling effect if you feel that the police are blind to the very real risks you live with every day.

LudditeJourno said...

Lalibella - I'm feeling quite insulted by the way you've approached this, I have to be honest. I'm not claiming to be "progressive" or "laudable", I'm claiming I've repeatedly used the word "beautiful" to talk about queer people in order to unsettle homophobia. And I'll keep doing so.
And yep, agree that we can all have our bigotry blind spots, I know I learn more about mine every day.

Lalibella said...

I'm sorry I insulted you Luddite Journo

Sometimes when I see beauty myth bigotry I don't stop to consider the person expressing that bigot's feelings, and I need to work on that

Acid Queen said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
LudditeJourno said...

Anonymous - I'm not trying to use Phillip's death as a football, and I'm sorry that what I have written makes you feel like that.
I'm also sorry that yet again someone queer is attacked in the street and whether his sexuality was a factor in why he was targetted or not, even talking about it is seen as "insinuating" hate crime is worse than other kinds of violence. I've said in the post I don't know if Phillip was targetted because he was gay, and that I think the Police ruling it out before they knew who killed him or why is in direct contradiction to queer people's experiences of violence on our streets. That's all.
I'm very sorry for your loss, and for all the other people who knew and loved Phillip. Whatever the reason he was targetted, it's devastating to lose someone you love unexpectedly.

LudditeJourno said...

Lalibella - thank you :-) apology accepted. And completely and utterly with you on the hatred of the beauty myth, btw.

stargazer said...

AQ, i've removed your comment as i don't find that kind of personal attack acceptable on this site. especially towards someone who is grieving. please refrain from making further comments of this nature.

Acid Queen said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
anthea said...

Acid Queen: have deleted your subsequent comment. We don't allow discussion of moderating decisions in comments.

Anonymous said...

I think this post is spot on. The police should not rule out the possibility of a hate crime.

There are a lot of closet cases in Wellington. On the same night as this tragedy i was randomly called a "fag" on Blair st. off of Courtenay place for no apparent reason.

Anonymous said...

"Anonymous R" Dec 14 is spot on in his posting, and conveys a perfect perception of Phillip as an individual, not a poster boy for gay men.
Whatever the reason for speculating on his death, I speak as another close friend of Phil's agahast at the amount of attention this has received outside of mainstream news reporting, and offended by the nature of some commentators, public or private, wishing to 'keep the story going' just to suit their own needs.
Again Anon Dec 14 was right on the money in saying that Phil would have truly, deeply hated being setup as some kind of poster boy for gays in Wellington, or anywhere else.
When a gay hate-crime has been committed, Police are often the first to broadcast that it was. Wellington Police have been oustanding in their attention to Phillip's case, and firing off pot-shots about how they have approached the investigation is ill-informed and tasteless.
Please desist, starting now.