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.