Sexual Inadequacy: Public Displays of Affection

This is a familiar enough story these days: queer couple is out in public, one queer forgets their solemn duty to protect straight people from their love and displays affection to the other, queer couple is booted from whatever public space they are occupying. Sometimes an immediate apology and a promise that nothing like it will happen again follows; sometimes the establishment digs in their heels and defends their right to exclusion. My first (traitorous) thought upon hearing about these cases is usually “Wow, what were they thinking?” because I’ve been socialized to view public displays of affection involving queer folks as at best impolite, and at worst, dangerous.

The next thought I always have is some sort of wordless anger at that first thought, followed closely by a reminder that I am rarely the responsible, trustworthy partner when it comes to affection in public. I’m usually the person who gets the restraining hand instead of a kiss, the person forced to feel my partner’s grasp wiggle out of mine because someone threatening has entered the space and they don’t want any trouble. Intellectually, I know it is smarter to keep our hands to ourselves unless we are “behind closed doors,” but some part of me has never felt anything but rebellious toward this double standard. I see such a wide gulf between the relatively mild discomfort involved in witnessing affection between two people you see as sexually incomprehensible, and the pain of being separated into “the responsible one who doesn’t want us to get hurt” and “the one who is really is love, and thus doesn’t care about society’s disapproval” — I can’t imagine a situation where the former would be judged as more damaging than the latter.

In this latest case, the two ladies in question were openly flaunting their hand-holding in front of a security guard, who told them they couldn’t hold hands in the museum they were walking through. Because, of course, the affection queer people show to each other in public is considered to be much more sexualized and lurid than the same behavior between two straight people. The sick punchline to this story is that they were walking through an exhibit devoted to the lesbian writer Gertrude Stein, in the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. It is staggering to think of the high-octane, uncut, military-grade heterosexual privilege a person must possess to enter an exhibit devoted to Gertrude Stein and start sloshing around their heterosqueamishness. I can’t imagine being able to enter a space without first getting a read on the room to determine how to modulate my behavior, my affect, my voice, my inflection, my stance. I cannot fathom barging into a new space (the museum outsources their security guards) I’ve never been to before and policing other people’s behavior.

Predictably, the guard in question has been reprimanded and will receive “sensitivity training” — the museum reportedly pushed for him to be terminated but the security company decided against it. It boggles the mind that a security company operating in 2011 in San Francisco hasn’t already instituted training procedures for how to react around queer people. But that is the luxury of privilege — you can refuse to address a problem until it blows up in your face, and then claim you’re doing the best that you can.

Previously: The FAIR Education Act, #MarcusBachmannIsSoGay

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14 Comments Have Been Posted


The same thing happened in a restaurant close to my apartment, last year. A lesbian couple was told to leave by the restaurant manager for making out in public. The couple approached our student newspaper and it got the restaurant bad press... where they CLAIMED it was just inappropriate behaviour, nothing to do with their sexuality. But I don't buy it... I'd be curious to see what would happen if my boyfriend and I as a heterosexual couple could get away with making out there.

That's the part where I

<p>That's the part where I wonder if they were really "making out", or if it was just a normal closed-mouth kiss, or a peck on the cheek. Of course making out in a restaurant isn't acceptable, but depending on the surroundings the latter two might be okay (for straight people only though, CLEARLY).</p>

That's really sad. :( I think

That's really sad. :( I think it's kind of adorable when I see a couple of any sex combination being couple-y, so I can't quite imagine any two people being kicked out for holding hands or kissing.

Three cheers

This is a well-written and moving piece, and it really brings home the truth of second-class citizenship. To feel that you cannot safely hold hands with or kiss or otherwise show affection to your significant other in public is terrible and absurd. I look forward to the day when all people everywhere are safe and free to be themselves. And I look forward to the day when those people who wish otherwise are able to understand that every act of love and affection is a blessing that benefits all of humanity.

I definitely agree with you.

I definitely agree with you. It is a very well-written piece that brings about a very important issue. But besides the fact that the couple was of the same sex, I'm pretty sure a couple of the opposite sex would still receive some sort of scrutiny. PDA just isn't really accepted, regardless of who the people committing it are.

Per chance are you a cis

Per chance are you a cis gendered het dating the same?

This may be true when it

This may be true when it comes to making out or groping each other in public (although, I have a feeling it would still evoke a stronger reaction in many when it's a same-sex couple), but I don't think you can make that argument about hand-holding.

A few thoughts on this article

I work in a building with a unique collection of businesses (bar, bakery, indie movie theater) which are all very open and welcoming to people of all walks of life (punks, hipsters, gay/lesbians/transvestites, families, etc), and it's a place where pretty much anythings goes. I've never had to ask two guys or two girls to stop making out, but I have had the "pleasure" of asking a hetero couple to "cool it down" because they were making out at the bar during dinner time, surrounded by people still enjoying their meals, adults and children alike. I see hetero couples getting a little too close far more often than gay couples, and honestly, it makes me uncomfortable. Holding hands, hugging, little kisses on the cheek or mouth are totally fine, but when couples start groping each other and kissing with tongue, that's where I have to draw the line (as someone who is trying to keep the environment fun/comfortable for everyone). I probably wouldn't say anything to a couple if I weren't working, but I think there's a certain amount of respect that is lacking when a couple completely disregards those around them and start acting like they're on their couch at home. Showing affection is fine, great actually, it's nice to see people caring for and loving one another, but leave the sexy stuff for a more appropriate environment. With that said, as far as I know there are no laws against holding hands or little "I love you" kisses. So if you feel like it, do it! If that makes your partner uncomfortable, talk about it. If necessary, find a new partner. I myself have let guys go who didn't want to hold my hand or let me kiss them in public. Some people just aren't compatible in that way, and are comfortable with different levels of affection.
Most of all, I think it's important to abandon the ideas that "the affection queer people show to each other in public is considered to be much more sexualized and lurid than the same behavior between two straight people." Just let them go. Don't think it, because it's not true. Plain and simple. People who think that way are ignorant, bigoted and at best, simply afraid. These are backward social taboos, and the only way to change them is to believe the TRUTH, that we're all equal, and all deserving of love, and to live that truth. Gay couples will experience this fear-based hostility from time to time, but over time it will lessen. Pick your battles, stand up when it's important, but never give up or accept less than what you deserve. Surround yourself with people who believe in the important principles you try to live by, and we'll get to a better place.

I am not a person of public

I am not a person of public display, do not care to see lesbian/gay or straight make out in public,How ever this seems to be common among Many straight couples. So leave the girls alone, You Bigot. A couple Holding Hands, harms no one, and is their Right to express this small token of care.

Not a second thought

Hummmm, I need to be honest i do not give PDA's a second thought. If i wish to hold my partners hand I do, if I wish to kiss her on the street I do. I noticed that part of this artical was written about the USA and i am from Canada, so maybe that is the difference. I live in a pretty small town, where it is a heavy church and army population...but to me it's love and it's my love and I will share it when and where i wish. If i make someone uncomfortable good, maybe they will have to look at why I do just from the way I love.

From a free loving queer hippie

Hand holding in other cultures

(Moderator, if this is too much of a tangent from the main topic then please delete. Thanks!)

What's interesting to me is how different societies view this issue. In many parts of India, holding hands is viewed in a completely different way. Two men, or two women, can hold hands in public with no problem. Perhaps some of these people are gay/lesbian (I have no idea) but mostly it's friends, or brothers/sisters, who are holding hands. Society simply assumes that they are not romantically involved. Of course, this is a completely different problem (denial of the very existence of any GLBT community).

However, a man and a woman, even if married, are *not* supposed to hold hands in public. Every time my husband and I go to India to visit his family I have to remember not to hold his hand.

Minnesota Children's Museum, located in downtown St.Paul, MN

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