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 statementdoing 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.

2 thoughts on “Phillip Cottrell and the stories we tell

  1. As someone who knew Phillip Cottrell well, I’m disappointed you would use his death to pursue a point about police attitudes to gays. Phillip was not flamboyant or overt, indeed it wasn’t until two years after we met I found out he was gay. He was a quiet, intelligent, perceptive and private man. No stranger, not even a raging homophobe with homicidal instincts, would have looked at Phillip and suspected he was homosexual.

    • Hi Marty,
      I’m sorry that what I’ve written disappoints you, and I acknowledge how awful it must be for all those who knew Phillip that he died in such a horrific way. But I don’t agree with your points about Phillip’s sexuality, and gently suggest you have a think about why it might have taken someone you say you know well two years to tell you he was gay. It’s not about being “flamboyant” or “overt” – these very terms suggest queer people being who we are is unacceptable. It’s about whether some men are more likely to be attacked in the street. Take care, LJ

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