Take My Arm, My Love

When ABC news did their second social experiment about Public Displays of Affection (PDAs) by having a gay male and a lesbian couple kiss and cuddle in public (the first experiment used straight couples), the reactions were varied.

There was the woman who called the cops:

Operator: "Birmingham Police operator 9283"

Caller: "We have a couple of men sitting out on the bench that have been kissing and drooling all over each other for the past hour or so. It's not against the law, right?"

Operator: "Not to the best of my knowledge it's not."

Caller: "So there's no complaint I could make or have?"

Operator: "I imagine you could complain if you like ma'am. We can always send an officer down there."

And they did . . . . The officer told our couple that the police dispatch received a call because the two of them were making out.

"Just don't do that in public," he told them before leaving the scene.
There was the woman who said:
"I would actually want our kids to grow up in a place where they would see various types of people engaging in behaviors that [are] loving."
And then there were the people who took a whole different "think of teh childrenz!" tack:
"I don't really find it inappropriate, especially during the day when schoolchildren aren't running around. They might get confused and want an answer for what's going on," bystander Mary-Kate told us. The majority of the people who spoke about children seemed to echo Mary-Kate's feelings."
Which means, basically, these folks are fine with "Gay PDA" -- as long as they don't have to face the uncomfortable, icky business of explaining to their children that not everybody on earth is like mommy and daddy.

Which kind of sucks.

My partner and I rarely engage in kissing in public (even around our friends), but that's a personal choice based on our desire to keep our sexual intimacy extremely . . well . . . intimate. When we kiss, we like to kiss for real, and that's for us. (And yes, it is hot, thank you very much. And no, you may not watch.)

However, I doubt that most straight, cisgendered people think about, or notice, how frequently they touch their partner in public in ways that are not necessarily "sexual" (in addition to kissing, cuddling, and the odd bum-squeeze) -- ie. holding hands, walking with an arm around the waist, smoothing the other's hair back out of their eyes -- nor do I think that most straight, cisgendered people are probably aware of the fact that when I touch my partner in public, it's nearly always a considered act.

I don't obsess about this -- as in -- it doesn't eat up my days and nights -- and I'm probably about as "out" as a queer can be in this country -- but every single time I take my partner's hand on the street, or toss my arm over her shoulder or around her waist, hug her goodbye or hello, I do a little, tiny "security sweep".

I notice who is around, and where I am, and what the energy feels like -- before I touch her in public. It's a tiny amount of attention, most often, but it's there.

I just noticed recently that in an unknown situation that seems "sort of" safe, (like walking in a crowded mall) I'm more likely to curl her arm through mine than to hold her hand -- which may seem counter-intuitive, since arm-in-arm actually affords much closer body contact -- but after I thought about this, I realized that walking "arm-in-arm" is something that I see straight girl-friends do more often than holding hands (after they're 12, anyway). In considering this choice, I also realized that in many situations, I'm happy to give any possible bigots in an uncertain setting the option of assuming that we're just a couple of straight girls.

Which sorta sucks.

I recognize this as the internalized homophobia that it is, but I can't deny that it's present in me. The fact is, that I stop, look, and listen before I demonstrate physical affection toward my beloved in nearly every public setting that is not clearly "queer safe".

I'm butch, and I seem butch (even to people who will tell you that their gaydar is hopelessly mis-calibrated). I seem butch no matter what I'm wearing, or what length my hair is. It's fairly difficult for me to "pass" -- even when I want to. My gait is stompy, and my demeanor, direct. I've always been that way -- from little on. My favorite colors in clothing are black and blue (Couture D'Bruise, as I like to call it) -- partially because my color sense sucks ass, but mostly because I have better things to do than figuring out what to wear.

My partner is androgynous-to-femme. She often wears dresses because she genuinely likes wearing them, and usually sports smashing combinations of floral tones or deep purples with highlights of teal.

And we adore each other.

If you caught us in an unguarded moment, this adoration would probably be very visible to you, whether we were snogging away like sex-crazed maniacs or sitting across the room from one another reading our respective books -- so moving out into the world also involves, for me, some adjustments beyond whether I touch her physically or not.

I notice that, in public, I seem to have an automatic timer that warns me not to gaze at her as long as I might at the privacy of our dining room table, a subtle mask that shifts the set of my smile when I respond to hearing her laugh, and an inner language editor that reflexively erases "honey", "my love" and "darling" from my lexicon as I'm calling to her across a parking lot.

I want to make it very clear that I don't think about these things.

These adjustments have become so internalized that I rarely, if ever, notice them -- until I sit down to write a post like this.

They are part of the enculturated self- censoring that most queers learn in order to assure their own safety in the world (and sometimes, their very survival). In fact, I had to "unlearn" many other, more rigid, tendencies to automatic hiding when I finally made the decision to be completely "out" as a lesbian.

I don't edit myself this way because I am ashamed of being a lesbian. I do it because I'm afraid that someone else, who thinks I ought to be ashamed of being a lesbian, might hurt me -- or worse, hurt my beloved.

Back in 1988, when I came out completely and publicly via a two-part article in the Oregonian, the nutcase Lon Mabon was mounting the first of many campaigns to curtail LGBTQ rights in the state of Oregon, in the guise of "Measure 8".

My oldest and best friend (a straight, married girl) poo-pooed the whole thing, saying "we've come farther than that, the Measure will never pass, tempest-in-a-teapot, blah, blah, blah" -- and stated that she couldn't understand why I was so upset about the whole thing.

This friend is the sister I never had. I loved her (and love her still) dearly, and her inability to see how the Measure 8 (which was passed that year) was likely to affect me and my family was incredibly painful to me. I remember weeping in her living room as I tried to explain something that was, to her, completely invisible. I talked to her about how scary it had been to come out publicly after having led a fairly comfortable life as a closeted queer, and she just didn't seem to get why it should be a big deal at all.

So, I issued her and her husband a challenge (and I'll issue the same challenge to any straight coupled allies here who want to raise their awareness of LBGTQ issues):

Spend an entire week pretending that you're not a couple. Don't write a check from a joint bank account. Hide all the photographs in your home and office which would identify you as a couple. Take off your wedding rings. Touch each other, and talk to each other, in public, in ways that could only be interpreted as you being "friends". Refer to yourself only in the singular "I", never in the "we". When you go to work on Monday, if you spent time together on the weekend, include only information which would indicate that you went somewhere with a friend, rather than your life-mate. If someone comes to stay with you, sleep in separate beds. Go intentionally into the closet as a couple. For a week.

They took my challenge.

They lasted exactly three days.

My friend returned to me in tears on day four and said: "I'm sorry. I had no idea what it is like for you."

[For those of you straight allies who are not coupled, but who want to play along, your challenge is (perhaps) simpler: Spend one week in which you make no mention and give no hint of your sexual orientation at all. When straight people around you are parsing the hotness of the opposite gender, go silent, or play along in a way that makes it seem as if you are part of the gang, but never reveals any real personal information. If someone asks you about your love-life, be evasive and non-committal. If you went on a date, and you're talking about it later, de-genderize all the pronouns, or consciously switch them (him to her, her to him, etc.).]

That is how I lived for the first 32 years of my life, whether I was single or coupled.

And while my current self-editing is not nearly as extreme as it was before I made the choice to live as an out lesbian, it's still self-editing.

I am still alert in public settings and default-cautious with strangers around revelation of my sexual orientation, no matter how much self-esteem I posssess. Every time I meet someone new, I silently (and mostly, unconsciously) assess how I think they will handle the information that I am a lesbian.

That's one reason that I like my handle (PortlyDyke) -- because people's immediate response to it (friendly or foe-full) usually gives me some information in that initial assessment process, and saves me the trouble of "coming out" to them. I also let potential clients know, via my business website, that I am a lesbian -- right out front -- and figure that if they still hire me, well, they knew what they were getting.

It's one of the reasons that I've chosen to live in a small town that is known for its liberality and quirkiness -- where it is unlikely that I'm going to get hassled on the street for looking butchy, and where, if I was hassled, there would probably be some people around who would help me out (I hope) -- but also one of the reasons that I would not consider setting foot in the road-house near the paper mill unless I were accompanied by two or more straight friends.

In truth, these assessments and considerations are so much a part of my existence that I barely notice them, and the availability of the choice to either remain closeted or come out (a choice which is available for many, but not all queers) is one of the things that can make homo-/trans- phobia a very tricky sort of "-ism" to deal with.

[A thought which arises at this point: I imagine that these types of behavioral adjustments and choices are also made by people of color who can "pass" and mixed-race couples.]

The queer couples smooching for ABC had a camera crew and back up. The city officials and police departments had signed off on the experiment. I'd really love to hear an interview with those couples about whether the public affection they displayed is typical of how they would act on any street, at any time, or if they noticed subtle or overt changes in how they interacted because they had "permission" to be fully de-cloaked as queers.

In examining all this, I realized that, for me, choosing the closet, even in this incredibly subtle way -- by taking my beloved's arm instead of her hand on the street -- is simultaneously a direct participation in the heterosexist system that would deny me equality, and a prudent move to preserve my safety.

Which definitely sucks.

Take my hand, my love.

Posted byPortlyDyke at 2:27 PM  


pidomon said... April 29, 2008 at 5:17 PM  

I will take your hand any day and stand beside you and stand up with you!

Anonymous said... April 29, 2008 at 6:03 PM  

First, my apologies for posting anonymously...I'd rather not, but I'm guessing you get it, which also sucks.

But I wanted to thank you for posting this. I'm bi and married to a man now, but for 10 years my true love and partner was another woman. And all those things? Editing weekends, not holding hands, shortening glances, acting like buddies instead of beloveds? We did it too, for all the same reasons, and hated it. We never came out with anyone but queer friends, or friends online, and hated it.

All this to say, I'm grateful to you for expressing this so eloquently, and deeply devastated that any of us (queer, of color, mixed partners, anything) do still - or ever did - have to feel and act this way. I don't know if it will ever change, and that completely sucks.

But please believe that - even if you still have to hide your couplehood for your safety and your love's - every day, in most every crowd, there is someone who would smile to see you walking hand in hand with her. I'm one of those someones...and I wish you hope, joy, and everything else that every human being deserves.

onejewishdyke said... April 29, 2008 at 9:29 PM  

This post really touched me.

I don't know if this is a factor of being 17 years younger than you are or something else. I'm inclined to think only partially, because where I grew up it might as well have been small town America in the fifties for as non-progressive as it was. I hear it has changed greatly and my old high school has a Gay/Straight Alliance, but back then I didn't even know that there were real gay people in existence. I knew what I felt, and that somewhere there were some, but it was so removed from my world.

Anyway, half my life again later, I'm so accustomed to being out that I have the opposite reaction. When we were both leaving one morning, I went to kiss my new girl goodbye on the porch of her house instead of inside as usual. I had completely forgotten that it might not be ok to do so until I had already kissed her and was walking down the front steps. Most times in my life it has been a conscious action to kiss a girlfriend or not. It surprised me that it had become so second-nature to kiss this particular woman that I didn't even think about where I was doing it, would she be uncomfortable if her neighbors saw. It occurred to me that it must be what it's like to be straight and not have to consider those consequences. But every time since then I've kissed her before we've gone outside.

Lambness said... April 30, 2008 at 7:48 AM  

I have often noted that lgtg's are, IMO, among the bravest people on the planet. I have often felt grateful to you because your being, to my observation, does a service to the culture as "hanta yo," which in Lakota means "Clear the path," making a way for the pursuit of "being yourself."

I am not gay, but I have been called a "split-up, dispersed slut," because I avow that my goal in life is to spend every waking moment feeling in love with every thing and every being around me. What does resonate from you post is that there is little acceptance of this idea either--the "ideal" of a monogomous, named, samed existence (regardless of whether my love affair with the planet is actualized in some physical gesture or not) is apparently the only acceptable form of adult relationship in this culture. And, I've been requested to do the "experiment" for real--to hide my relationship status in public, so that when it becomes clear that I'm swooning over the world at large, my "inappropriateness" will not reflect on my partner.

It's so hard to "just do it anyway," just let yourself be, knowing that the cost may be one's membership in one's community, one's support, and so on. I've even felt physically at risk because some hetero men assume that my feelings ought to belong to them.

You have stated this before, and I agree, that this culture seems to have an antagonistic and fearful relationship to sexuality at large, to affection and connection that isn't, in some form or another, boxed-up--in the bedroom, in the basement, in the store, on the TV, in the minds of the populous.

Land of the free, right? It does suck.


Wired said... April 30, 2008 at 1:08 PM  

Thank you for posting this. I am a couple years younger than my girlfriend. She grew up gay in Oklahoma, and does always check, and pay attention. I...did not. I sometimes have trouble understanding why it makes her nervous to hold hands, or kiss, and this post helped me a lot.

Anonymous said... April 30, 2008 at 7:01 PM  

Thanks for this post. I have to say, it took guts to come out in the Measure 8 year, given the little I know about it (from a documentary on it).


phoenixandtree said... May 1, 2008 at 1:23 PM  

Thanks for elucidating this in such a detailed and moving way. I haven't had very many chances to walk around in public with a romantic partner, but I have had some experiences with the self-protective editing that you talk about. I've never come out in work situations, even though I've worked in progressive places, mostly because the instinct to hide is so ingrained in me. Also, once I was part of a radical queer group that planned to have a kiss-in at a mall (combining queer visibility with anti-consumerism in one action by wearing shirts that said things like, "Shop Less, Live More"), only hardly anyone kissed. This was due not only to the dynamics you're writing about but also because most of us weren't coupled and there was that nervousness--will he want to kiss me? We did hold hands though, and that was scary enough.

Smitty said... May 4, 2008 at 8:53 AM  

I'm a 40 year old dyke from a blue collar city, originally from a very small town in the middle of nowhere. My about to be wife (wedding in July!) is 16 years younger than I am, and grew up in a major suburb of Toronto. She is always the one who initiates such public displays of affection: holding my hand, resting her head on my shoulder, taking my arm, calling me baby, etc. I, madly in love, flinch every single time and do the security sweep. We make a joke of it, but how do you joke about such trauma? I will never be able to be simply and delightedly holding my wife's hand. And I'm so out I write lesbians novels on the side. Hell, death, and damnation. Thanks for saying it all so well.

bearlady said... May 5, 2008 at 1:56 PM  

My daughter, (an 'out' lesbian) recommended your post to me through her livejournal page. I am so glad she did. I've always been concerned for her safety and happiness, but nothing really brought the immediacy of this heartbreaking situation home to me as much as your eloquent writing on the subject. Honestly, doesn't it seem like humankind should have evolved beyond this bigoted, tribal mentality by this time?! I wish I knew the magic words to fix this. Thanks so much for writing this.

zombie z said... May 6, 2008 at 3:37 PM  

This has been forwarded all over the Big Damn Internet by now, and you are everyone's hero.

Thank you.

icarus said... May 7, 2008 at 9:27 AM  

a friend of mine blogged about your post here.


Vlad W said... May 8, 2008 at 6:25 PM  

I found this while stumbling around the internet, and i must say as a 26 year old gay man this hits me right in the heart. I've do almost the same things as you and don't think anything of it. Reading this post made me think how much i still hide myself in public, even tho i'm out to anyone who asks.

German said... May 14, 2008 at 10:11 AM  

This post made the rounds at my job (glbt employee alias). LOVED IT. So true, I always think twice about PDA's with my bf in public, anywhere. Thanks for expressing this frustrating issue.

Sabertoothed Screaming Lemur said... July 21, 2008 at 12:53 AM  

I have to say I <3 this blog. I'm 24 and I've grown up in West Palm; fairly gay-friendly. I do 'the check' depending on where we are. But since my parter's butch enough to pass as a guy (I'm quite femme), mostly the editing we do is around my family and sometimes friends (they know she's female; can't squick the straight folks *sigh*), which is even sadder. I really hope we keep moving away from that and towards the whole "love is love and it's okay to show it" that we need. Thank you for this post.

notbitteryet said... September 7, 2008 at 12:48 AM  

I'm just barely eighteen, but, y'know, I read stuff, and when I came across this, it made me...happy, I guess.

I pass as straight very easily. I wear skirts more often than I wear pants, I have long, straight, girl hair, and I even like wearing heels.

The fact that I can pass, though, has bothered me for some time now. I don't like it when people assume that I'm straight, but I'm not going to change the way I present myself. I like skirts and makeup and all the rest. Maybe it's a result of the way I was conditioned, but it's who I am now, and I like it. I also like being gay. It bothers me that I somehow can't be both.

My most recent girlfriend was somewhat more butchy than I was, and it was harder for her to "pass." For various reasons, she was much more in the closet than I was, so we censored ourselves often.

We had to say goodbye at the end of the summer. I was going to college, she was taking a year off, and we wouldn't be able to see each other for a long time.

She let me kiss her once, briefly, in Central Park. It was 9:30 in the morning, I was going to be late for work, and I knew that this would be the last time I kissed her, possibly forever.

Even so, it was great It felt good and rebellious and defiant. There were two women walking by, and they turned and LOOKED. It's amazing that something so simple can be such a big statement, but it is.

There are safety concerns. I don't see them as clearly, because I'm young and stupid, and also because homosexuality is becoming less and less taboo. Even so, I'm glad you wrote this, and I'm glad you'll be opting for the hand hold instead of the arm link.

Tahia said... April 3, 2009 at 4:41 PM  

Thank you for making me cry!

I envy you and your beloved for the love you found.

And I sure hate the fact that there are people trying to deny you that love.

It is repulsive, that people should be required to hide their feelings just to spare the puny little minds of some insane asses to be safe from violence from the same.

I'll go back to crying, now.

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