Take My Arm, My Love

When ABC news did their second social experiment about Public Displays of Affection (PDAs) by having a gay male couple 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.

But please, read on.

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 possess. 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, often, a prudent move to preserve my safety.

Which definitely sucks.

Take my hand, my love.


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