Sunday, January 11, 2015
“I am 45 years old,” Panti Bliss begins, “and I have never once unselfconsciously held hands with a lover in public.” That sets the tone for Panti’s TEDx Dublin talk (video above) in which she describes “All The Little Things” that prove homophobia is alive and well—and incredibly pervasive.
I know exactly what Panti means because I, ten years older, have also never held a partner’s hand in public without instantly becoming acutely aware of everyone and everything around me: Will someone attack us? What are the escape routes if they do? Is there any help nearby? That happened every single time, which is why those times have been so rare.
I’ve had people—sympathetic people, mind you—tell me without any intentional irony that they “don’t like public displays of affection of any kind, gay or straight.” I’m sure those people really believe that they feel that way, but they’re deluding or lying to themselves. I say that because all straight people notice gay people who are affectionate in public, and nearly all of them—religious or not, and from all over the political spectrum—don’t like it, even when it’s merely a chaste kiss on the cheek or simply holding hands.
Sure, most heterosexuals don’t say or do anything to express their disapproval, but we LGBT people are quite adept at reading mood—we have to be in order to avoid danger. We can always—always—tell when people disapprove, even when they don’t say a word.
That’s our reality: Always being aware of our surroundings, always being on the lookout for danger, always on guard. There’s nothing straight people can do to fix this, apart from stopping being so uptight
But things are changing, of course. Younger straight people don’t carry the same hang-ups as their parents or grandparents. They have LGBT friends and cannot understand why anyone would think it was okay to treat their gay friends badly. They are the future.
However, even young straight people enjoy the same heterosexual privilege that their elders have: They never have to worry about getting disapproving stares merely for holding hands with their opposite-gender partner. They know that no one will bat an eye at them if they mention their opposite gender partner as their boyfriend or girlfriend, or as their husband or wife. They don’t have to contend with some bitter, twisted religionist constantly telling them they’re going to “hell” for falling in love with someone of the opposite gender, or desperately trying to pass laws to ban that love or prevent them from being full and equal citizens. No one will ever beat them or kill them solely because they love someone of the opposite gender.
I’m well aware that opposite gender couples can face other issues, such as, if they’re of different races or cultures, for example. But in such cases there are other issues at play than mere sexuality.
I wonder sometimes if it really is getting better for young LGBT people, despite having far more supportive friends and age-peers than existed in my day. A year ago, almost exactly, actually, Nigel and I stopped in our local mall’s The Warehouse, just looking around. We were in the men’s clothing section and as we walked through, I saw out of the corner of my eye, two young guys in the underwear aisle, which was perpendicular to us. I’d noticed that one, with his back to us, was holding up a pair on a hanger, and the other one was also looking at it. The lads were in their late teens/early 20s, maybe—I didn't really notice them well enough to be able to say.
That’s all I’d noticed, though, since we were walking past the aisle. Nigel then said to me, “they were holding hands.” I felt all warm and fuzzy at the thought of young love, and how nice it was that they felt free to hold hands in public.
We reached the end of the section and, since it was just a quick visit, we headed out of the store going back the way we’d come. I decided to pay more attention when we passed the two lads, and something distracted us right near where they were, which gave me a chance to actually look. “They’ve stopped holding hands,” I said to Nigel, who hadn’t looked.
I was really sad that they felt we were in any way intimidating, that maybe they felt uncomfortable. They abruptly left the area. “We should find what aisle they’re in and smooch in front of them,” I said to Nigel, as if that would somehow repair things. We didn’t do that, of course, but continued on out of the store.
I don’t know if those lads stopped holding hands because we were right there, or if they were about to, anyway, since they were heading to a different part of the store. But it seemed probable that it was because of us. Where I’d felt happy that they felt free to hold hands as any opposite-gender couple their age would, too, I then felt sad that they felt they needed to stop, and terrible at the thought that it could have been because of us.
I know some straight people will be able to identify with that feeling of sadness at having made a gay couple feel they had to hide their affection. But unlike straight people, I also keenly know what those lads may have felt.
Panti’s TEDx talk is similar to her earlier viral hit, A Noble Call, because it also explains what homophobia is like from a gay person’s perspective. We’re all tired of the right wing deciding it’s a good idea to make shit up about us. We’re tired of being lectured to and preached at and caricatured as nothing but walking sex acts. The lies have got to stop.
We need straight allies to stand up to homophobia, even the mild kind—perhaps their own?—when folks claim not to like “any” public displays of affection. But far more than that, we need to be free to hold hands with the person we love most in the world without the risk of violent attack for doing so.
And smile: A smile makes up for a lot of frowns and disapproving glowers.
Related: Writing on Huffington Post, Kevin Thornton expresses some similar attitudes.