The power and peril of holding hands

Irish gay rights advocate and drag queen Rory O’Neill, aka Panti Bliss, is an amazing speaker. We’d posted an earlier speech by Panti about homophobia that went super-viral a while back.

This time, Panti is speaking at a TED conference about a fear gay people have that straight people never experience: getting gay-bashed for holding hands in public.

It’s an amazing, and spot-on, observation. Gay people, in most cities, have to think twice, and then look around, before holding hands or showing any other form of affection in public. Why? Because we might be assaulted verbally or physically.

Panti Bliss

Panti Bliss

I’ve only held hands with a guy in public once. It with an Italian guy I was seeing, we were in NYC, and it was around midnight. He was more afraid than I, but we both looked around before daring to hold hands.

I’ve also danced in public with a guy — in a heterosexual context, as it were — once. And I mean really danced, formal dancing, as in the Waltz. We were at the Kennedy Center He was more out than me at the time, but I’d always wanted to dance at the annual Mostly Mozart festival, and was seeing someone at the time, so we did.

Almost immediately he got too scared, and we were forced to stop.

And that is pretty much it for my public experiences displaying affection with another guy. So I get where Panti Bliss is coming from.

I’ve written a lot about how we gays have “won.” (And we have.) Some of my activist friends get their panties in a bunch (pun intended) whenever I write this. They say we have much to accomplish before victory is at hand, that young gays are still at risk, that the gays on the international front still face life and death discrimination in Africa and Russia and beyond. And they’re right.

But the fact remains that we’ve accomplished nearly every big-ticket item on our agenda — from marriage to lifting Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell — and they were items that most of us never expected to accomplish in our lifetimes. And while that hardly means that our agenda is now complete, it does mean that we’ve passed a tipping point where American society and politics have no choice but to eventually accept us, and our demands for full equality. To me, that’s victory — even if it’s not yet time to fold up the tents.

But I still worry about holding hands in public in any city. And while I believe the fear is warranted, I suspect it’s something so ingrained in me that likely won’t go away with ease.

Here’s a snippet of Panti Bliss’ speech, transcribed by Towleroad.

“Everyday I am jealous of straight people because that tiny intimate expression of affection has never once been mine…I am jealous of that because gay people do not get to hold hands in public without first considering the risk…We look around to see where are we, who’s around, what kind of place is it…are there bunches of lads outside a pub? … I’m 45 years old and I have never once casually, comfortably, carelessly held hands with a partner in public… I’m 45 and I’m fed up of putting up so I’m not anymore. I’m 45 years old and I’m not putting up anymore because I don’t have the energy anymore. Putting up is exhausting. I’m 45 years old and I’m not putting up anymore because I don’t have the patience anymore. I was born 6 months before the Stonewall riots and you have had 45 years to work out that despite appearances, I am just as ordinary, just as unremarkable, and just as human as you are. I’m 45 years old and I’m not asking anymore. I am just being…human being.”

Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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20 Responses to “The power and peril of holding hands”

  1. Hatfield says:

    I’ve never held hands with a guy on the street. I watch people do it all the time and I’m really happy for them. My boyfriends both died in the early 90s. So I’m happy for the guys now, and also envious. I hope they take it for granted, as they should.

  2. FriendofPoopyhead says:

    As part of an interracial straight couple living in a supposedly purple Southern state, I can tell you that I am always worried and even terrified about holding hands here even in the so-called liberal enclaves. I am so glad you wrote this post. My first thought was ‘OMFG, finally someone who has had my experience’.

    The white liberal straight couples were always the first ones to yell at me that it was safe and fine and nobody cared. I quickly came to realize that they’re the ones who’re the dumbest and the most out of touch with the people around them. What made these white liberal straight people especially infuriating was how they would push me to hold hands with my partner and act affectionate in public just so they could have a laugh at all the shocked faces around us. They wanted to use me and my partner to feel self-congratulatory about their own supposedly progressive politics. Also they wanted someone else to fight battles that I wasn’t empowered to fight. They wanted me to be their Gandhi figure so that they didn’t have to do any work.

    They wanted me to do what THEY wanted me to do. NOT what was safe for me. You’re absolutely correct to feel nervous and scared, John. Those are your instincts kicking in. I am sure that you’re street-smart enough and pragmatic enough to not ignore that voice of well-founded fear. And I’m also sure that like me, like racial minorities, and like other many other gay men, you know not to fall for some poorly-intentioned, middle-class straightie liberal who pushes you to go ahead and kiss or hold hands or whatever and defy the system just so they can vicariously break the rules.

    It’s horribly sad that people have to feel afraid of expressing basic human affection for one another. It’s not right. And it should not be incumbent upon you to change that. What is needed is for white people and straight people to quit living in their little bubbles and actually help out more. Plenty of my same-race friends tolerated racism from their own friends and family. Plenty of my straight friends tolerated homophobia from those same people. All this was done in the name of ‘getting along’ and ‘being nice’ over Thanksgiving dinners, seders and family reunions.

    But the thing is, for people that are in vulnerable groups, we don’t have the luxury of tolerating the homophobic friend or the racist brother-in-law. And secondly, we don’t have the luxury of trying to fulfill someone else’s fantasy of an America where everyone can just love whomever they want.

    I find the white Baby Boomer generation to be particularly clueless in this regard. I can’t tell you the number of times an older 55+ white straight liberal friend has told me to just go for it and hug and kiss my partner in public right when we would be getting stared at. I can’t tell you how often a Baby Boomer has informed me that the state I live in is now officially liberal because it voted for Obama in 2008 and so nobody there is racist any more except in the backwoods.

    I imagine that as a gay guy, you’ve probably heard your fair share from clueless white straighties about how it’s all okay now and you should just feel free to go ahead and live your life the way you want to and all that.

    The point is though that you’re the expert on what is safe for you. And also, I think people in power like liberal white straights who are not poor really need to be more clued in about all the hoops you have to jump through and all the precautions you have to follow.

    For instance, the self-involved white liberals in my supposedly liberal town have no idea of how un-threatening I have to seem while just taking a walk in my neighborhood. They don’t know that I go out of my way to smile at them so that they’ll know I’m not a terrorist. If I told them, they would laugh at me and call me paranoid and grandiosely declare that racism is a thing of the past and they don’t see race at all. But I know they’re full of bs.

    Similarly you probably have evolved a lot of behaviors of your own to pass for straight around straighties. I’m pretty sure that when you’re with a date and you guys are out in public, you’re probably going to be very careful about where you go and how close you sit or walk and even how you look at each other. If you were to discuss any of this with some nice straight lady or straight guy, especially if they’re white, they would not get it. And frankly they would not be interested in getting it. Especially if they lived in what they have decided is a Liberal Part Of The Country.

    Blacks and Latinos would however get what you mean instantly.

    My guess is, John, that if you opened up to any minorities about not being able to express affection towards your partner in public, even if it’s just holding hands, EVERY minority person would IMMEDIATELY understand you. We would just get it right away. Even if we’re NOT in interracial relationships. How often do you see a minority, same-race couple expressing affection in public anyway? That’s reserved for the whites. Like me, blacks, Latinos, Middle-easterns, Asians all would immediately get the concept of having to behave carefully in public so as to not piss off the people in power regardless of whether they happen to live in a Liberal Part Of The Country.

    I understood exactly what you meant right when I saw your title even without clicking on the post. And I’m not even gay. But I’m not white. And as someone who has been around other affectionate and hand-holding and kissing white same-race couples in my so-called Liberal Part Of The Country and wishing I could do the same thing but knowing I couldn’t, I totally understand what you’re saying.

    I’m really just tired of white straight people trying to pretend that this shit doesn’t exist. I’m also tired of listening to them act like just because blatant bigotry is increasingly becoming rare, everything is hunky dory now. It’s not. Nothing is really okay. I am the judge of that and I would know that it was okay to hold hands with my partner of a different race, if things really were okay. Just as you know if and when it feels safe to hold your boyfriend’s hand around straight people.

  3. Bookbinder says:

    Spot on, John. Most of the political and legal agenda has been accomplished but it doesn’t end there: there remains the social agenda, something the blacks ignored and at their peril. And while you can hold hands in downtown San Francisco at mid day, or out on a busy hiking trail, we have yet to “desegregate” nightclubs which feature dancing. Of course it is worth noting that the gay Democratic Clubs nationwide are dominated by contributions from gay bar owners, so don’t expect a lot of progress soon or really, ever. We mustn’t let go of this, at the very least for the well being of the youngsters.

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  5. Mike F says:

    FWIW, this “straight” man and his wife have seen more gay couples behave more intimately in public over the last few years. It was surprising the first few times, mainly because it’s just not something which has been very common. I can’t tell you how nice it is to see those who are often marginalized finally feel free to act like the human beings they are.

    Others have noted the cultural differences between American/English culture, and those in Italy, Somalia, and elsewhere, and how those cultures seem more accepting of what I suppose one could call natural intimacy. Which brings to mind an observation, one which relates to the seemingly increased disregard for others in our country. Having noticed how empathy, forgiveness, compassion, kindness, and other such desirable human attributes are denigrated, criticized and vilified as un-American*, unmanly, or in other ways a sign of the weakness of the human expressing them, I’m wondering if the homophobic mania during the last century may have aided in tipping the scales against such expressions of human decency. That is to say, if somehow these traits were deemed too “feminine” concurrent with the anti-gay animus. Just a thought.

    *This behavior constitutes at least part of the various archetypes I refer to as “militant individualism”.

  6. BlueIdaho says:

    I always had a laugh when my partner and I would go out with our best friends, a lesbian couple here in Idaho. This happened at a lot of places but mostly in restaurants where 100% of the time the waiter or waitress automatically assumed we were two hetero couples. That is, until we asked for the checks. Some of the looks we received were quite amusing.

  7. UncleBucky says:

    I think that male closeness (not what I would call “intimacy”) has gone out the window when testosterone-poisoned demagogues re-defined what male closeness is, that is, “must ONLY be gay behaviour, can’t be anything else”. So even sitting close at a large T-day table, you felt people pulling away, that is, male friends, cousins. If you accidentally brush a knee or hand, you have the inclination to apologize or even to joke you-know-how.

    In the 70s, I was in Italy. And it was common to see a woman’s arm tucked in another woman’s arm as they strolled. Men, likewise. This was in Brindisi, BTW. And I didn’t know what to think except, they didn’t look gay, but were professionals, housewives, students and friends.

    In the 90s, I was a host for Kenyan students. One of these guys was my house mate and the rest were people who came over to eat, watch TV, fix cars or whatever. One day I was showing them the Net through Mosaic (the predecessor of all web browsers). They crowded behind me and my tiny colour screen. I was leaned upon, hands on my shoulders, physical warmth and I didn’t realize that this was part of their culture. In Somalia (maybe prior to the nonsense of governmental collapse, and not now perhaps?) male closeness IS normal. Of course, they know the difference.

    US and maybe now UK and other Western countries do not.

    What the heck have the Calvinists done to us???

  8. UncleBucky says:


    Exactly. Thanks.

  9. keirmeister says:

    Isn’t that just the worst? It always infuriates me when I see certain segments of the African American community speak out against gay rights.

    It’s such a….Republican….mindset to not grasp the hypocrisy and irony.

  10. White&Blue says:

    I once read an article which interviewed a gay man in Pakistan (If I remember correctly) and he said that it’s easier to be gay there than in Western countries. The reason was that it is normal for men there to hold hands and kiss each other, So he can do this with his boyfriend and nobody suspects anything, but here if anybody saw them doing it, they would be shouted at and receive threats.

  11. HeartlandLiberal says:

    I am 69 next month. I grew up in Birmingham Alabama (around and in the city). I lived through the Civil Rights movement, left in 1969. I cannot express strongly enough how much this reminded me of the many times I witnessed threats and actual violence against Black men on the streets of Birmingham for even imagined trespasses, such as being accused of looking at a White Woman. You know how our memory imprints indelibly certain things we experience, because the emotional impact of the event was so strong. While reading this story, I flashed back to a specific instance as a teen where I witnessed a Black man minding his own business attacked on the street because two White Guys walking by decided he had looked inappropriately at a White Woman passing by. The message in the video John has provided really does go to the heart of how deeply ingrained homophobia is, and how dangerous it can be still for gays, male or female, to express their affection publicly. Although I think women can get away with it more easily than men. I recall about 8 years ago, we were on one of our periodic visits to Chicago, and boarded a shuttle at our hotel to ride several blocks uptown. Two women got on and were obviously very affectionate with each other. The riders and driver were very friendly with them, and even joked about being “special friends”, which surprised me. There was no hostility, just friendliness. Turned out they were mother and daughter. But that incident stuck with me because I was amazed that the other occupants of the bus spoke up, albeit NOT in a hostile way.

  12. goulo says:

    Years ago I remember reading an interesting and sad letter to an editor. The writer was a gay man who described how he was walking in a park, holding hands with his male lover, and receive derisive sneers from a man & woman who were also holding hands. The man and woman were a black/white interracial couple with apparently no sense of irony or shame.

  13. bpollen says:

    First time I saw two adult men holding hands on the street was in New York during a visit in the 70s. Two tall thin black men, wearing 6 inch or better platforms, huge ‘fros, and dressed in bright pastels, like they were dressed by tropical parrots. Wasn’t really taken aback at all that they were holding hands, but their “sartorial style” left me slack-jawed…

    That was also the trip where I had my first contact with a hooker. Had NO idea what she was talking about when she gave me her pitch. Left her shaking her head. Yeah, I was a rube.

  14. I was thinking of inter-racial couples after I finished. And was curious how they do today versus years ago.

  15. Drew2u says:

    Eh, historically male intimacy in the U.S. used to be more common but then homophobia got in the way. Hopefully tolerance of actual gay people means more comfortable (forgive me) “no homo” interaction.

  16. Drew2u says:

    It’s great TED Talks are back (?) to paradigm-pushing presentations, there have been a few duds recently.
    I missed out on a really great guy in Chicago when I was afraid to hold his hand outside his apartment. At the same time I was a recovering train wreck and wanted to take things slower.

    PDAs generally make me uncomfortable, but I’d never want that to affect anyone around me.

  17. BeccaM says:

    There’s a term I heard someone use in this context: Whether or not one is safe or allowed to be “anonymously gay.”

    It turns out for quite a few of us, people get to know us first — so they know our names and in a very rough sense who we are as a person — then they’re told or learn that we’re not hetero.

    Let’s assume you’re at a restaurant with a date. To everyone sitting at all the other tables, you’re anonymous. They don’t know who you are or anything about you, save what they might be able to guess or deduce from your appearance. Then you reach across the table and take the hand of your date. All of a sudden, the only thing a nearby observer would know for sure (or probably for sure) is you’re gay. You are “anonymously gay.” I think this is also the precise circumstance under which this hypothetical observer would feel the most free to express their inner homophobe, because to them you have no name, they don’t know anything else about you and to them you are nothing but what their own inner mind has constructed as to what it means to be a gay person. (In fact, to them, you might not even be a ‘person’ at all.) In other words, if they have prejudices about gay people, there’s nothing to refute it. You’re not “Cousin Joe” who they used to play with as kids, nor “Co-worker Jane” who’s a great manager and has a picture of her wife on her desk. You are whatever they imagine a gay person to be…and if they’re already predisposed to think bad things about gay people, you’re an instant target for their vitriol and maybe even physical assault.

    Anyway, Kiermeister is 100% correct: Bi-racial couples have experienced the same exact thing, and still do. Things are definitely changing for the better for them, as they are for gay couples, but I do take this as a particular benchmark of real “winning”: If one can be safely anonymously gay in public, without fear of violence or verbal assault.

  18. keirmeister says:

    Not to take away from your point (which is a good one), I have to note that some heterosexual couples have also experienced this: interracial couples. I’ve been accosted a number of times, albeit verbally, but it can still be a bit scary. Times have definitely changed so I feel much safer nowadays – and it’s clearly changing for gay couples as well.

    But as you noted, it’s also a factor of where one lives.

  19. rerutled says:

    I’m glad you wrote this. PDA is something we should be comfortable with. I’ve publicly held hands with guys I was dating (girls, also) – though not in a context I’ve felt fearful about it. It’s worth noting that physical intimacy is common in many cultures, even when no sexual intimacy is implied. For example, in Russia, it is enormously common to see teenage and young adult girls to walk down the street, hand-in-hand or arm-in-arm, as it is an expression of affection between intimate friends, although I’ve never seen two Russian men do this. Last year, a UK study came out that among 40 straight male college athletes, 93% state that they regularly “cuddle” with their friends (and don’t understand why their US counterparts do not). I suspect this is a behavior which will change, shortly, becoming more widespread in the US.

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