Constantino and I are not particularly touchy-feely in public, as evidenced by the honeymoon photos we’ve enjoyed going through since we returned a couple weeks ago. Scroll through our camera rolls and you’ll see us standing shoulder-to-shoulder on a beach in Croatia; sitting side-by-side on the ledge of a ruin in Montenegro; leaning over opposite sides of a table in Istanbul.
To some, our photos may not reveal how truly magical and romantic our experience was. We might just look like two “bros” on a buddy backpacking trip. And although we were traveling through conservative countries where we felt it was prudent to be discreet about the fact that we were a married, gay couple, we didn’t really act in any way different from our normal demeanor.
I’ve been thinking a lot about public displays of affection—not only because of our own honeymoon photos but because of comments reportedly made by Orlando gunman Omar Mateen that he was disgusted seeing two men kissing in public. It’s an extreme scenario, but it demonstrates the revulsion many people still have for LGBT community. There's a gap for some people between knowing a person is gay and seeing actual evidence of the fact. To have a gay person as a co-worker or neighbor may be bearable, but to see that same person express affection for a partner may elicit discomfort.
It’s not only LGBT opponents who are challenged by physical contact: There are many people who want to be allies to the LGBT community (parents and family, for example) who still suffer aversion at seeing same-sex public displays of affection. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that even some LGBT members themselves are uneasy with seeing PDA. Yes, even I am sometimes uncomfortable with seeing it.
The problem is, same-sex affection is still taboo in public spaces. I’m not talking about excessive displays of affection. A mere kiss, a hug, the holding of hands—these things still draw attention in most areas of the country. It doesn’t matter whether that attention is negative or positive; the point is that same-sex PDA is still uncommon enough to elicit a response. On the occasion Constantino and I are affectionate in public, I become hypersensitive to the quick flicker of eyes in our direction, even in a city as safe and open as Portland.
This is part of the reason we’ve been seeing so many articles in the past week about gay clubs being sanctuaries and safe spaces. Gay bars still exist as some of the only spaces where public affection isn’t scrutinized. I was reminded of this during Portland’s Pride parade this weekend, where, for one short afternoon, the safety of the bars spilled out into the city streets and physical affection was greeted warmly and celebrated. More people need to witness this kind of tender affection, not only on glitter-soaked parade days but during our normal weekdays. They need to see commonplace affection to rewrite their preconceived notions about it.
When LGBT couples intentionally avoid public affection, it perpetuates a cycle: People stare at same-sex affection in public because it’s unusual, and it’s natural to stare at unusual things, even when no harm is intended. As a result, gay couples may resist showing same-sex affection to avoid that unwanted attention, which only perpetuates its secretive and unusual nature.
Originally I had challenged myself to be more affectionate with Constantino in public, but that’s not our style; it’s inauthentic to who we are. However, my hope is that couples who want to be affectionate will feel increasingly safe to do so. I’d like to see a future where no one bats an eye when a man at church puts an arm around his boyfriend, or when a woman gives her wife a loving peck on the cheek. The normalization of affection in public spaces will dispel fear-based intolerance, and instead of obsessing over how people touch each other, we can focus on the humanity of the people we’re staring at.
David Khalaf is a fiction writer living in Portland.
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