On Holding Hands in Public

Last weekend, on Friday night at about 9:45, Jeff and I were walking several blocks back to our car after enjoying an evening of theatre in downtown Phoenix.

It was a pleasant evening, only slightly hot. There were only a few other people on the street, but the two people who drew our attention were a pair of young men, probably in their 20s, who were walking twenty feet or so ahead of us holding hands.

My first thought was, “how sweet!” It’s always nice to see two people in love. Of course, I have no way of knowing if they were still in the giddy throes of a new relationship or if they have been a couple for one year or five. But I admired how they felt comfortable enough with each other and with their surroundings to hold hands.

My second thought was, “how brave.” Granted, we were in a pretty safe neighborhood. For those who are not familiar with Phoenix, the blocks just north of the downtown area are rapidly being gentrified with attractive new apartments and condos. But it was after dark, and there are still plenty of homeless people in the area as well as some rougher neighborhoods not too far away.

They stopped at an intersection to wait for the light to change. During this time, we closed the gap and stood only a few feet behind them. One of them casually glanced over his shoulder, and probably assumed that either we were also a gay couple or at least we posed no danger to them, so they continued to hold hands.

The light changed and we all started crossing the street. Near the destination corner, a group of four people were standing around talking. Nobody seemed to notice or care that two guys were holding hands. Occasionally, someone else would ride past on their bicycle or we would pass people sitting out on their balcony. No reaction from anyone.

My biggest takeaway from all this is that I am thankful that this generation’s teenagers and young adults are growing up in a world in which they don’t have to hide the fact that they are gay and in love. They can feel safe enough to enjoy many more of life’s little perks, such as holding hands in public, with no consequence. To most other people, seeing a gay couple is simply no big deal.

Two men on DC subway train

When I was in my mid-20s, most gay people would never have dreamt of doing this. Being gay was reserved for the bars on Saturday night or private gatherings in friends’ homes. Even then, we hoped that no one we knew would happen to drive past the entrance to the bar as we were entering or leaving.

Of course, there are still areas of the country where an act such as this is still dangerous, or at least frowned upon. Gay people are occasionally beaten here in Phoenix. But the cultural landscape has changed, and continues to change. The rapid acceptance of same-sex marriage in just ten years has changed many people’s hearts and minds about same-sex couples. And to most young people, sexual orientation is a non-issue.

As we walked a few feet behind them, I wondered whether I should take Jeff’s hand. I didn’t. After we were in the car, Jeff said the same thing.

To the best of my recollection, I don’t think we have ever held hands in public – although we have certainly never hidden the fact that we are a couple and we assume most people we encounter recognize that we are. We hold hands when we sit on the couch and watch TV together, and occasionally we do it when we’re driving. But not when we are walking down the street.

Part of my reticence to hold hands stems from gender roles instilled in me from my upbringing. Boys don’t hold hands. Only girls do that. That was based more on masculinity expectations than on homophobia. (Most people were so unaware that homosexuals even existed that homophobia wasn’t even a thing.) Again, I’m glad that today’s young people are growing up in a world in which boys can hold hands.

Men hugging is now commonplace; straight men now routinely do it without a second thought.

In April of 2000, I had the opportunity to travel to Washington, DC, for the March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. One of the speakers on stage that day was U.S. Representative (now Senator) Tammy Baldwin from Wisconsin.  There was a segment of her speech that I found to be very powerful. It really impacted me that day, and I have carried it with me since then.

Tammy Baldwin

“If you dream of a world in which you can put your partner’s picture on your desk,
then put his picture on your desk and you will live in such a world.

And if you dream of a world in which you can walk down the street holding your partner’s hand,
then hold her hand and you will live in such a world.

If you dream of a world in which there are more openly gay elected officials,
then run for office and you will live in such a world.

And if you dream of a world in which you can take your partner to the office party,
even if your office is the U.S. House of Representatives,
then take her to the party. I do, and now I live in such a world.

Remember, there are two things that keep us oppressed: them and us.

We are half of the equation. There will not be a magic day when we wake up and it’s now OK to express ourselves publicly.

We must make that day ourselves, by speaking out publicly – first in small numbers, then in greater numbers, until it’s simply the way things are and no one thinks twice.”

Seeing those two young men holding hands as they walked down the street and the complete non-reaction from everyone who saw them, I was hit with the realization that, at least in Phoenix, Arizona (which is neither the most liberal nor the most conservative place in the country), we have reached that day where it’s simply the way things are and no one thinks twice.

Am I holding myself back from fully living in that world?

Are you?

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©2016 Dave Hughes. All rights reserved.

Photo credits (some rights reserved):

Men in white shirts holding hands: Lynn Friedman

Two men on subway train: Elvert Barnes