This essay originally appeared on Christopher Records' Open Salon blog.
With my boyfriend’s cousin out of the house on the second day of our visit, we decide to take a public bus to downtown Seattle from Shoreline, where she lives. It’s largely empty, though the space at the front of the bus is occupied by three 20-ish, husky white guys in baseball caps and flannel shirts. They seem around my age and remind me of guys I last talked to in high school but am still friends with on Facebook -- the kind who post pictures of themselves with their arms around each other, captioned “no homo."
They’re already there when we walk in, and as the bus leaves the stop, I wonder whether they paid attention to the way I walked on or to the sweater my boyfriend was wearing. A couple minutes on, my boyfriend reaches for my hand, and I nod him a silent “no” as I shuffle over, putting a few inches between us.
Not while they’re sitting there.
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I can’t really remember the exact circumstances of when 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 less a simple sign of affection than 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. In the course of our two-year relationship, my boyfriend and I have, naturally, made countless little public demonstrations of our affection for each other, made easier by the fact that we live in and generally frequent the more LGBT-friendly parts of generally LGBT-friendly Los Angeles. While holding his hand at the art house theater we regularly go to in Pasadena, or cuddling with him at the wine bars I like in downtown L.A., or even kissing him at the restaurants we frequent 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 geographical environments, like Silverlake or Pasadena or downtown L.A., where my boyfriend and I have come to expect (through the example of other couples) a degree of safety in expressing public affection.
A few weeks ago, holding hands while coming out of one of our usual downtown night spots, I noticed a young man at the bar staring at us intently. As we exited, I noticed him prepare to leave also. We had parked close to the bar and proceeded to get to the car as quickly as possible. Days later, we returned to the same place, and the same young man was there, sitting across from another guy who was obviously his date for the evening.
Suspicions are not always justified.
Like a lot of same-sex couples, we know where to touch and where not to touch. Santa Monica is fine. My hometown -- Riverside, Calif. -- is 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.
When the line is less apparent, we negotiate it. That public bus in Seattle seemed fine to my boyfriend; to me, it seemed like a definite no. At a suburban movie theater several months ago, we briefly discussed the safety of a public cuddle before deciding to discreetly hold hands on the armrest instead. It seemed the safe option, given the group of teenage boys in one of the rows behind us.
“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 a hug or a kiss or a cuddle will be met with indifference or hostility, with no interruption, or with 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 catalog of experience that underlies this instinctive profiling is substantial, even as it is uncomfortable to admit: the ex-boyfriend who was jumped by a group of African-American men for holding a man’s hand on the “wrong street” (where we’d often held hands during our relationship); the friend (Latino himself) who was chased out of a straight club by another young Latino man for dancing with a guy; the college acquaintance who was beaten up in the parking lot behind a neighborhood gay bar by a young African-American man after getting caught kissing her girlfriend. Seemingly every LGBT individual or couple has a similar story, or can refer you to someone they know who has.
I recognize this profiling constitutes a kind of cowardice and closed-mindedness. Every time I draw away from my boyfriend out of anxiety or a fear of the 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 to strike, 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.