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Emma Ruby-Sachs

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Southwest's Big Gay Blunder

Posted: 09/27/11 02:48 PM ET

Yesterday, Southwest Airlines booted Leisha Hailey, a famous lesbian icon, off one of their planes. Their complaint: she was kissing her girlfriend on a "family" airline and then argued about being chastised for her kissing.

Now, full disclosure: I have a soft spot for Southwest. It's a company started by alumni from Wesleyan University, my beloved alma mater, and its no-fuss approach to flying is always enjoyable. Plus, they have, in the past, been very welcoming of LGBT staff (you can see their website section here). But -- and it's a big but -- their response to this incident has been atrocious.

First, instead of immediately investigating the issue, Southwest issued a statement saying that Hailey was groping her girlfriend to the point where other guests complained. This response is nonsensical, because other guests can complain about a simple kiss between two women -- the complaints don't lead logically to the conclusion that Hailey's behaviour was objectively inappropriate.

Second, the response of the airline attendant that Southwest is a "family" airline should have tweaked the spidey sense of someone in the Southwest PR department. Family values are often thrown at LGBT people as a justification for discrimination -- this attendant seems to be parroting a line many LGBT people have heard countless times. Instead, the airline initially seems to be backing the attendant's judgment, rather than looking at the possibility that discrimination was at play.

Third, Southwest could be in big trouble for this behavior. Legally, as long as the employee is acting within the bounds of her job, Southwest is liable for his/her actions. And, the ninth circuit court recently ruled that passengers cannot be arbitrarily kicked off airplanes -- opening up Southwest to a civil action. This means that there will be heavy scrutiny of Southwest's employee training, especially regarding the treatment of LGBT passengers. Only if it can be shown that the employee was acting outside the bounds of her directed activities can Southwest avoid liability.

I certainly hope that the airline has trained its employees on equality issues and implements that training and the resulting best practices effectively. A lawsuit from a movie star on a hot-button issue where the law isn't on your side isn't my idea of good time. I suspect Southwest feels the same.

 

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