I very distinctly remember the first time I held a girl’s hand in public. It was the middle of the night and I was on a date that was going well. Drunk on the night or the fact that I liked this girl, I grabbed her hand and kissed it. Right away something shifted. It felt like the recoil after firing a rifle. I instantly became hyper-aware of every person around us as we walked down the street. I felt like a coward, too timid to hold her closer and too shameful to let go entirely.
When people say that seeing gay people be affectionate in any manner while in public could corrupt kids, they don’t actually believe that being gay is an airborne illness. They don’t actually believe that a soft kiss on the back of my date’s hand under a dim moonlight is grotesque. What they believe is that something that’s so easy to understand, something as simple and intrinsic to our humanity as love, can never look so different.
The public existence of queerness is extremely recent. Queer liberation is one of the fastest moving civil rights movements in American history. Mobilization began in the late 60s and within a little under two generations, huge social and legislative strides were made. We have queer people with exponentially different experiences being out in the world even when they are only five years apart in age. Queer teens are growing up in a world where it’s been legal for them to get married for most of their lives while queer adults saw it happen just as they began to actively participate in society.
All this while a mere 20 years ago, being gay on TV was still considered scandalous and now we have out lesbian pop stars. The breadth of experiences within our community spans for miles and is so tied to the amount of queer visibility we were exposed to. Visibility and normalization are so correlative that any slight change in how much we feel comfortable holding our partner’s hand when we’re sitting on a park bench has a ripple effect. Which is why the current political climate that makes us feel so unsafe is so frustrating.
Being out means your body is political. When people say that they don’t really keep up with politics I’m dumbfounded by the level of privilege that entails. As a black lesbian, everything I do is political. Privacy is almost fundamentally antagonistic to my survival in this world. I have to speak up for myself as not to wither away because no one is going to do it for me. I’m not allowed to be afraid of the repercussions because the alternative is living a muffled half-life.
Audre Lorde’s call to action in Poetry Is Not a Luxury is that your silence will not protect you. I have so little use for hiding behind respectability and breaking my back to fit into the mold of heteronormativity without being able to enjoy the simple pleasure of kissing the person I love in the grocery store parking lot just because. Since my existence is so politicized, I refuse to make the public statement that my love is only okay behind closed doors by pulling my hand away. That doesn’t feel fair to every Marsha P. Johnson and Pat Parker that crusaded for my right to be corny and in love in public.
I’d never really been a fan of public displays of affection, even in my straight days. I always felt like it was an overcompensation for something lacking in the relationship. I would almost wince at straight couple holding hands and I genuinely couldn’t understand that stupid thing where the guy would put his hand in his girlfriend’s back jean pocket. But being closeted in high school in Florida of all places and seeing two girls kiss in public didn’t feel like that at all. It almost felt like they were trying to tell me something. Like they were telling that I was in on some secret. That secret became evident when I was walking down the street with my girlfriend in Pasadena. She put her arm around me and almost naturally my hand slid into her back pocket. And finally, I got it. All the weird side eyes and extended glances finally felt completely meaningless.
I come back again to the people who sexualize every tender act of affection between queer people. I think about how hard they work to make gentle embraces into something vile. How they consider every candid act of our love violent. It makes me understand how important it is that I grab her hand while we walk down the street. I understand that I have to let her rest her head on my shoulder and her hands on my hips quietly as we stand outside her house saying goodbye in the morning. Because there are children watching and they need to see what it looks like to be queer and to be so tenderly in love that it feels silly. They need to watch me make a wish on an eyelash from my girlfriend’s cheek so they can understand that we are gentle with each other, that wholesomeness isn’t antithetical to our existence. So to every homophobe set on protecting kids from the imaginary threat of queer affection, you alone carry the burden of finding our love offensive. The rest of us are preoccupied with living full lives.