Did Southwest boot Leisha Hailey for flying while gay?

An "L Word" star claims she was discriminated against. But did her public display of affection go too far?


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Mary Elizabeth Williams
September 28, 2011 9:29PM (UTC)

It's a question as old as lips themselves -- how public should a person be when it comes to displays of affection? What constitutes a friendly buss in one culture is grounds for being run out of town in another. Or, in the case of former "L Word" actress and musician Leisha Hailey, kicked off an airplane.

On Monday, Hailey and her partner Camilla Grey were escorted off a Southwest Airlines flight from Baltimore to St. Louis for what she claims was a homophobic response to "one modest kiss." Taking immediately to -- where else? -- Twitter, she announced, "I have been discriminated against by @SouthwestAir. Flt. attendant said that it was a 'family' airline and kissing was not ok." (Note to the industry -- is there an "adult" airline, and if so can the rest of us please fly on it?)

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In a statement Tuesday evening, Hailey and Grey elaborated that "We are responsible adult women who walk through the world with dignity. We were simply being affectionate like any normal couple."

But here's where the story gets muddled. Southwest has issued its own statement, saying that "We received several passenger complaints characterizing the behavior as excessive," adding that "the conversation escalated to a level that was better resolved on the ground." The statement also said that the crew "approached the passengers based solely on behavior and not gender." Psst, Southwest, sexism and homophobia are two separate issues.

Who can you believe? Southwest has historically proven itself more banishment-crazed than a houseful of "Big Brother" contestants -- booting Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong for not hitching up his baggy pants and director Kevin Smith for excessive huskiness. So it's not hard to imagine the airline being scandalized at the sight of two women kissing. Everyone knows girl-on-girl stuff is strictly for reality television and saucy ad campaigns, not living, breathing gay people. If that's the case, Southwest -- which prides itself on its LGBT "outreach" -- is being just plain insulting and wrong.

Hailey and Grey obtusely acknowledge that "We take full responsibility for getting verbally upset with the flight attendant after being told it was a 'family airline.'" And that's a pretty big sticking point. There's still a vast discrepancy in the accounts of whether their kissing was "modest" or "extreme." But it would be helpful, considering Hailey and Grey's call for Southwest "to teach their employees to not discriminate against any couple, ever" and their insistence that they're "filing a formal complaint with the airline," if they clarified their actions after they were approached by the flight crew. What did they say? Hailey claims that she has "a lot of [Southwest's] actions recorded on audio and video," so it'll be interesting to see how the tale continues to spin. In the meantime, she's encouraging a boycott of the airline.

Everyone should be entitled to openly, comfortably express affection. And if someone gets in your face about being loving toward your partner, you have every right to make a fuss. That doesn't give you a right to be abusive. It's entirely possible, especially in a scenario involving the crap world of airline travel, that more than one party can be in the wrong. But in considering Southwest's actions, it's worth noting that they don't seem to have a record of telling straight people to cool it with their affections. And until they get their act together about treating all their passengers equally, they'll likely be kissing a whole lot of business goodbye.


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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