I was recently reading a much shared “feel good” story about some gay men who stood up to internet bullies and had a lovely wedding. So far so good. But part way through this story, one of the men said that he and his boyfriend deliberately didn’t kiss or hug in public out of “respect for people” and that they didn’t want to “push it in people’s faces” and my heart sank. I wanted both to hug him and to tell him not to say such an awful thing. I’m not linking to any of the dozens of sites hosting this story complete with this unchallenged quote because I don’t want to embarass him or spoil his newlywed bliss. But I have to say something.
Anyone who tells you that the appropriate amount of publicly displayed affection between a romantically attached people is dependent on the genders of the people involved is being homophobic whether they mean to be or not. So is anyone who punishes affectionate behaviour between same gender couples that they ignore from mixed gender couples. Why? Because it doesn’t matter what gender your partner is or what your orientation is, you should be able to express your feelings for one another. No one who truly respects you will behave like expecting you to pretend not to be a couple is a reasonable thing to do for even a short time, never mind expecting you to do it every time you leave the house. It is homophobic, wrong and basically emotional violence for anyone to make you present as an orientation that is not your own. While many of us are coerced into hiding our sexual / romantic orientations out of fear for our own safety, we must never ever forget that this is a decision forced on us by a homophobic and biphobic society and it won’t always be this way.
I have a boyfriend and I have a girlfriend. It upsets me that when out in public with my boyfriend I have anxious thoughts and feelings that I don’t get when out in the same places with my girlfriend. While I seem to be congenitally incapable of appearing “heterosexual”, my not-het-ness is very much visible when I am out with my boyfriend and it’s almost instantly clear to anyone who looks at us that we are a couple and that neither of us are women. I am not at all oblivious to the looks that follow us around – confusion from (some) small children, barely veiled or completely unveiled disgust and anger from (some) adults, looks of shock or disapproval from more. I try to keep my mind on him and how much we love each other but part of my brain is aware of this aura of mild to moderate hostility that follows us around – some of my favourite places in our city are those where this feeling is absent, the places where all couples are greeted with the same acceptance and no one looks at us like we are strange and ugly. If you’re straight, think for a minute about how it might feel to have disapproval and disgust follow you and your partner around almost constantly and how unhelpful it might be to be told to change how you act so you aren’t provoking people or told to just “stop worrying about it” cos “haters gonna hate”.
When I see how people look at me, at us, I fight an urge to try to appease them, to edit my life down so as to ease their discomfort. I fight feelings of shame for somehow “subjecting” them to my unedited romance, for not allowing them to re-interpret our love as just “friendship” for daring to choose to love my boyfriend and prioritising my own feelings of love above their feelings of (mild, temporary) discomfort.
I fight, in short, the fear that I am “pushing it in people’s faces”. But “it” is our love and our identity as proud GBT people (I sometimes have to try very hard to be proud). And “pushing” is “happening to exist in the same shop / cafe / street / school / etc as other people”. It’s behaving like any other couple. It’s even behaving in ways that would look “chaste” from a different-gender couple – like holding hands or standing close together – as there really isn’t any “acceptable” level for romantic behaviour that all or most homophobic people would be okay with, they want us all to behave like we aren’t couples *at all* whenever we are anywhere other than inside our own bedrooms and completely alone.
Okay so it’s clearly completely unfair to expect same gender couples to be less romantic or flirty or touchy-feely than other couples in public but why SHOULD we be as openly in love as we want to and feel comfortable with? Surely homophobic people / straight society in general will accept us quicker if we show them that we take their feelings about this into account? Their feelings count for something, right?
In answer to the questions I’ve just posed to myself, no I don’t believe making ourselves smaller and easier to ignore is helping us gain any kind of acceptance from anyone and no other people’s feelings about whether or not you are allowed to be as openly in love as any given woman-plus-man couple gets to be really don’t count towards any sort of decision making process you and your partner have for deciding how romantic/flirty/touchy you feel you as a couple would like to be in public.
Other people’s emotional reactions to seeing same sex couples out and about are theirs to deal with and not, in fact, our problem to solve for them. Making ourselves smaller and less visible doesn’t help anyone learn to deal with their feelings about our existence and it certainly doesn’t promote our acceptance by wider society – quite the opposite.
When we act to protect people from their homophobic reactions to us, we teach them that their feelings about how we conduct our lives are something that we *should* take into account and are perfectly acceptable feelings for them to have. We show them that there is no need for them to examine these feelings or the reasons why they have them. We more or less teach them to expect every same gender couple to protect them from their feelings, leading to consequences for other couples who can’t or won’t. What if, whenever we felt safe to, we all just stopped holding back our kisses and glances and hugs and held hands for fear of disapproval? What if we talked about our partners at work or school without hiding their gender? What if we acted like acceptance had already occurred, like we are just as entitled to public space and public expression of affection as straight people?
What then? I believe they’d have to get used to us.
Right now, it’s a fight for me (yes, me the well known LGBTQ activist who came out nearly a decade ago) to express love for my boyfriend without worrying that I should hold back in case I upset someone, in case kissing is inappropriate behaviour in a shop that may contain children. This self-censorship is an almost universal behaviour for LGBQ people and it amounts to building our own portable closets. It’s hurting us. We may not have started it but we need to stop.
Whenever you feel safe to do so, please try loving your love openly. Or as the bigots tend to call it “pushing it in people’s faces”.