By Nick Mattos, PQ Monthly
A local lesbian couple alleges that they were kicked out of a cab onto the highway after the driver took issue with their being affectionate with one another. The two went public with their story, and the subsequent media attention has resulted in both a dramatic response from the community and personal troubles for the couple.
In an online interview conducted with PQ Monthly the day after the incident, local musician Kate Neal (who recently performed at Portland Pride as part of her band Dirty Looks) alleged that she, her partner Shanako Devoll, and an unnamed friend from out of town were picked up from a location in NW Portland late on the night of July 25 by a Broadway Cab driver (later identified as Ahmed Egal by Maxine Bernstein of the Oregonian).
While sitting in the back of the cab, Neal said that the couple held hands and “showed affection for each other,” noting that they were “actually pretty conservative in terms of PDA.” According to Neal, the driver started yelling at the couple to stop because “it wasn’t okay,” then pulled over on the freeway twice, demanding that the couple get out. Egal then called 911; a recording of the call released to the media demonstrates Egal being unhelpful and belligerent with the 911 operator, calling Neal and Devoll “stupid girls.”
A second Broadway Cab appeared to take the women at the second stop, but ultimately refused to pick them up. “Concerned for our safety (ironically!), the second time [that the driver stopped] we did get out on the freeway,” Neal explained. The trio then climbed over a fence to get onto NE 102nd Ave., where they flagged down a police officer.
“That cop was actually looking for us because the cabbie had called him, saying that we had skipped out on the fare,” Neal recalled. Upon hearing the story, the officer told the group not to be concerned about the fare, and took them home.
Neal and Devoll quickly enlisted the services of Nicholas A. Yanchar, a local attorney serving the LGBTQ community.
“I decided to take Shanako and Kate’s case because of the principle,” Yanchar said in a statement to PQ. “No one should be left on the side of the highway by a person because of their own subjective prejudices.… I firmly believe that once their full story is released soon after the city’s investigation is released that the public will see that they are anything but the villains in this unfortunate story of discrimination.”
Some media outlets reported that Neal and Devoll were intoxicated during the time of the incident, at times inferring that they behaved belligerently towards the driver. In response to these allegations, Devoll posted a refutation to her personal Facebook page.
“Neither of us were drunk or disorderly as some have accused,” she asserted. “We interacted at length with a Portland Police officer who would have shared that concern were this the case. Instead, he gave us a safe ride home after calling the cab company to tell them we were NOT to pay the fare because of how we were treated. Again, this outcome isn’t warranted by ANY behavior, but it’s important to us that our family and friends know the truth.”
Members of the community have already started creative endeavors to support both the couple and the queer community at large in response to the incident. Local bag-maker Olive Chaos created a line of bags emblazoned with the slogan “There’s Nothing Wrong With Two Girls Kissing,” and 15 percent of the proceeds from the bags will go to Portland’s Q Center, Devoll’s charity of choice. Neal and Devoll were also contacted by organizations including Basic Rights Oregon to show their support.
Soon after the event, numerous local and national news outlets began reporting on the situation. “When Shanako and I each posted a little blurb about our experience with Broadway Cab that night, we did not expect to wake up the next morning to our story going viral on the internet,” Neal told PQ. “Both local and national news media were texting, calling, and even showing up at our home, and countless people were speaking out [on social media] against the homophobia and endangerment we faced. I actually only gave interviews to three local news channels but before we knew it, our story had been picked up in several states, by a few prominent national media outlets, and even went to Canada! It was overwhelming to say the least. We felt strongly that the story of what we experienced that night needed to be made public, especially after garnering so much media attention, so that other people might not have to endure similar encounters.”
In response, Ray Miles, president of Broadway Cab, posted a statement on the Broadway Cab Facebook page stating that his company was “aware of” and “investigating” the incident, noting, “The city of Portland has also opened their own independent investigation and Broadway Cab is cooperating fully with them.” Miles also noted that “the involved driver’s authority to operate has been suspended pending the outcome of the investigation.”
Miles emphasized Broadway Cab’s commitment to “the concept and practice of non-discrimination, equal opportunity, and diversity.”
“We take allegations of discrimination very seriously,” he wrote, going on to note that “discrimination should not, cannot, and will not be tolerated.” He closed his statement with thanks to the LGBTQ community for their support of his business.
However, some local members of the queer community took to social media to share that this was not an isolated incident. PQ reader Mike Clemenhagen alleged that one year ago, a very similar situation unfolded for him.
“A Broadway Cab driver did this to me last year,” he said, “only we refused to get out of the car, as dropping us off on the side of I-5 is illegal and it is also illegal for pedestrians to be on I-5 within city limits. The cab driver then proceeded to drop us off just off of the off-ramp and then called the police, claiming we refused to pay. I refuse to call Broadway Cab for a ride simply because of the sheer amount of incidents like this I have seen and experienced with its drivers.”
As the media onslaught continued, Neal and Devoll were stunned to find that the coverage began to go from supportive to critical.
“At no point did either of us guess that shortly after telling our story, the media would shift scrutiny and attention to us as not the victims of this situation, but the criminals.… [Local news] channels made a decision independently to spin us as liars and, ultimately, people who deserved to be dropped off on the side of the freeway,” Neal said. “The rampant victim-blaming we’ve experienced and the amount of people who think that certain scenarios would make dropping anyone off on the side of the freeway ok has been very disheartening.”
The women have experienced significant professional problems as a result of the attention waged upon them by the media. “I have been very lucky to work for an amazing company who has given me support at all levels,” Neal noted. “Shanako, however, hasn’t been as lucky. As a social worker who has worked in this community for several years, this level of media attention has impacted her greatly. Shanako typically works with a population of clients who are severely and persistently mentally ill. It’s extremely important for these relationships to remain one-sided and, with no media regard for our personal lives, that has been made impossible for her to maintain at this time.”
The social cost has also been great for the two. “Until our names have been cleared, we are virtually prisoners in our own home,” Neal said. “We have been hounded by the media and were appalled that many had the gall to come to our home. That, coupled with our less than ideal public image at this time, has made us feel anxious and paranoid about even running to the store or going to the gym. Needless to say, we are getting quite a bit of home improvement projects completed!”
However, the experience of being besieged has strengthened their relationship and their connections with true friends and family, and they remain hopeful that their suffering will ensure that others do not go through similar trials.
“Going through this together has certainly brought us closer together (who would have thought that possible?!),” Neal noted in a statement to PQ. “It’s strengthened our relationships with our close circle of family and friends, and, in the end, will hopefully raise awareness of discrimination and act as a catalyst for conversations and policy changes that need to happen. We hope that our experience and the subsequent attention it’s gotten will be another notch in the belt of equality for all. We are also actively advocating for more diversity training for cab companies and their drivers so that all cabs may be a safe place for all people.”
PQ will continue to report on this story as it unfolds; for ongoing coverage, watch our blog.