A Careful Balance: Public Affection in a Gay Relationship
I can’t really remember the reason why I first held a man’s hand in public. The emotions that preceded it have all faded, along with the person, in the ensuing years. What I do remember, throughout the five or so minutes that I grasped that boy’s moist palm, is anxiously searching every face around us, every person that passed us by, checking for any sign of potential trouble or disapproval. The simple act itself- of taking my date’s hand- seemed like less a simple sign of affection as an open dare to voyeurs, an exercise in what my grandmother would have called “making a spectacle of yourself”.
In the five years or so since then, this anxiety at public affection has eased somewhat. Whether it’s walking down the street in Downtown LA with my arm draped around my boyfriend’s shoulder, or leaning into him while at the movies in Pasadena, or even going in for a fleeting kiss at a restaurant in Silverlake- I’ve learned to look around in suspicion a little less, and to go with the moment a little more.
That said, the guard is certainly still up, even in those particular geographical environments, like Silverlake or Pasadena or Downtown, where my boyfriend and I have learned to expect (through other couples’ public examples) a degree of safety in expressing public affection.
Outside of those places, like a lot of same-sex couples, we know when not to touch. Santa Monica is fine. My hometown- Riverside, California- is usually not. We were comfortable hugging in pictures on vacation in Spain. We were not comfortable standing closer than arm’s length in pictures while in Egypt.
At times, the line is less apparent, and we discuss it. On a public bus in Seattle a couple weeks back, he reached for my hand and I nodded my head “no” in response. At a suburban movie theater several months ago, we briefly discussed the safety of a public cuddle before deciding to hold hands on the armrest instead.
“Safety” obviously carries with it issues of race, age, gender, class. The places where we feel most safe to freely act like a normal couple “happen to be” whiter, younger, less male, more liberal, and generally more gentrified than others. Every time I scan a room to decide whether or not to be openly affectionate, I quietly decide whether or not a hug or a kiss or a cuddle will be met with indifference or hostility, with no interruption or a fist in my face. It’s the very definition of prejudice, and I (along with most of the other same-sex couples I know) do it on a regular basis.
The well of experience that underlies this instinctive profiling is substantial, even as it is uncomfortable to admit. I have not forgotten my time as a first year teacher in a low-income, predominantly black and brown high school, nor being called a “fag” on my first day (the first of many that year). I have also not forgotten the story of an ex-boyfriend, who got jumped walking down the “wrong street” for publicly holding a man’s hand. And if I ever do forget either of these, I can just speak to any number of friends who’ve had identical encounters, or just read about any number of similar incidents in any newspaper or blog in the country, on any given day of the year.
I recognize this constitutes a kind of cowardice and close-mindedness. Every time I draw away from my boyfriend out of anxiety or fear of people around us, I know that I both underestimate those people and fail to challenge what intolerance they may have. I’m aware that every time I feel comfortable and safe enough to draw close to my boyfriend in public, I do so because other couples removed those obstacles from our path, often through great difficulty.
It’s a careful balance, the one that so many LGBTQ individuals and couples have tried to make in the past and continue to try to make in the present: between hiding and being open, between artifice and authenticity, between self-denial and self-sacrifice.