This is a society where we are often reminded and assured that public displays of affection and sexuality are discouraged; they’re offensive to others, they make people uncomfortable, they’re not appropriate. Won’t someone think of the children? We even have a shorthand for it, PDA, said usually in the most scathing and nasty of ways, with an implication of ‘ew’ and a suggestion that we wish it would just stop. There’s something deeply unpleasant, we’re told, about being ‘forced’ to see two (or more, but about that in a moment) people expressing their love, or affection, or commitment, to each other.
See, the thing is, I don’t really buy this. In fact, I don’t buy it at all, because all around me, I see evidence to the contrary. It’s not that public displays of affection bother ‘us,’ as a collective society, but that displays of specific kinds of affection bother certain people, who seem to think they can dictate the rules that the rest of society must follow — in this case, that they get to decide which kinds of affection are socially acceptable, and which are not.
There’s a long, ongoing discussion about discrimination against gay couples in public, especially men. Two women holding hands and walking down the street don’t tend to attract the same kind of scrutiny, depending on where they are, while men run the risk of glares on the low end of the scale and attacks, even murders, at the other. Escalate friendly, affectionate, and romantic content into hugging, kissing, or more, and the risks increase; and we get into the old adage that comes out of the mouths of people who claim to be cool with gayness, ‘as long as they don’t act gay in public.’
In other words, your sexuality is okay, as long as it’s in your bedroom — as though being gay is all about having wild gay monkey sex, and not about complex romantic and personal relationships with people you love and want to express affection for and solidarity with. Obviously, every gay couple is wandering around with sex on the brain, and a kiss on the subway platform could devolve at any minute into a wild scene, children and innocent bystanders be damned.
If you’re bi, of course, when you’re performing heterosexuality (and having your identity erased), you’re socially acceptable — but when you’re in relationships with people of the same gender, you’re gross. It’s tough for a person to keep it all…straight, dare I say.
Yet, curiously, het couples aren’t subjected to this judgement. It’s fine for men and women to hold hands, to hug, to kiss, even to make out in public without attracting very much unwanted attention — perhaps a smile for a young couple holding hands or bending in to kiss each other as they walk down the street, or a tolerant and sometimes affectionate eyeroll for people getting ‘a little too handsy’ in public. It’s okay to be affectionate in public, as long as you’re straight, straight, straight — and as long as there’s no excessive funny business. (Having sex on a church altar is probably a no-go.)
This really starts to get complex, though, when you get into other manifestations of queerness, which isn’t to minimize, at all, what gay and bi couples go through — this is just another iteration of hatred for sexual minorities, not necessarily a ‘worse’ one or one that deserves more attention; discrimination is discrimination, full stop, and hating people because of their sexuality is disgusting no matter what their sexuality is. Heterosexual judges of sexuality seem to get especially uncomfortable when you get into things like the fetish community, like people in BDSM relationships, like people in other types of nontraditional relationships — they’re bothered by the sight of a collar if they know what it means, they’re uneasy around out and proud furries. They might try to pass their nerves off with some laughter and unease, but the prejudice lies beneath.
And, of course, het monogamous couples really seem to get uneasy around poly and nonmonogamous people, in a way that can get quite nasty. There’s a judgement of these relationships, whether queer or straight, an implication that the people involved in group relationships are gross, immoral, backwards — men are just trying to get more chicks, how can you possibly love more than one person at a time, why do you have to show your affection for multiple partners in public, you’re a slut, how can you think that’s acceptable. When there are children in the relationship, the censure can get even more intense. What kind of role model are you, who’s the real parent, how does the child deal with this confusing tangle of parents…the list goes on.
The idea that many monogamous heterosexual people seem to have when it comes to judging sexuality is frustrating, and it comes to the same set of attitudes that roots other prejudices. It starts with privilege, the position conferred by being the respectable, powerful, socially acceptable iteration of a social group: If you’re a monogamous heterosexual person, you’re doing what you’re supposed to do, and everyone else is lesser. As a member of a dominant social group, there’s a tendency to want to further distance yourself from minorities, and to assert your power, as, after all, who knows what might happen if everyone was on the same footing — we all like to see our friends get ahead, but not too far ahead.
And it comes from the idea not only that it’s reasonable to judge other people’s identities and lives, but that there’s almost an imperative to do so. You’re letting the side down if you don’t let people know about the depths of scorn with which you view them, if you don’t try to bring them into alignment with what’s socially acceptable. You must, if you care about society, protect the sacredness of heterosexual monogamy.
It all comes back to the notion that even if something has nothing to do with you and has no impact on your life whatsoever, you need to lash out at it just because it’s different from your views on the world. And don’t think ‘allies’ are exempt from this — the very idea of ‘allyhood’ sets you apart and suggests that we need your support and help to be acceptable in society. We don’t need that: We need you to work in solidarity with us, to recognise us as human beings deserving of equal rights.
Image: Romantic, Dave Goehring, Flickr