Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Self Censorship

I read an interesting article two weeks ago in the New York Times, that I've been mulling over ever since. I don't know if you can read it without having to sign up for the Times online service, but if you want to, here's the info on it.

FASHION & STYLE February 18, 2007 A Kiss Too Far? By GUY TREBAY For same-sex couples, simple public displays of affection are fraught.

I remember Dan Savage said somewhere that for same-sex couples, public affection is always a political act. Whether we like it or not, I think that's true. Even if one is standing smack-dab in the middle of a gay ghetto, the couple has made a conscious choice, a risk analysis has been conducted and the results have been deemed within acceptable parameters. Both people also know the safety is fragile at best. Three of the four times I've been harassed, (I've been spit on, but never actually bashed, knock wood) I was in a 'gay' neighborhood. Every time I was with a friend or boyfriend. Two of the times we had our arms around one another (thereby 'asking for it') but two of the times (including the spitting) we hadn't been kissing, touching, or indeed doing anything that I could ascertain was particularly gay, yet something still set the individuals off. The ugliest time was on a bus in Seattle, going through Capitol Hill, the gay district on a Friday afternoon. My boyfriend and I saw a friend on the street at one of the stops out working in his garden. While the bus waited for the light to change we chatted about his flowers through the window. I have to assume we were just WAY too faggy in our conversation or vocal patterns for the guy on the bus who confronted us later.

This is all preamble to my actual story, however. My point is, even in supposedly liberal, open-minded places like Seattle and NYC, I have learned to be careful, pick my neighborhoods, and accept that even so a casual sign of affection between me and a boyfriend could set someone off at any moment. I've learned I have to be ready for the worst at any time, in any place. Often I will choose to take the risk, depending on who I am with, and how easily we could get help if we needed it. Brian and I were of like minds on this count, though we didn't really discuss it much. If we were on the subway and I was getting off before him, I was usually unwilling to kiss him, simply because I felt in getting off the train I would have more options to protect myself should trouble arise, but Brian would be trapped on the subway, at least for one stop, if someon chose to attack him. Usually we kissed in those situations though, because he would kiss me first. And if he was getting off first, I would kiss him first. Over all we probably kissed one another hello and goodbye just as much as most straight couples. But there were exceptions.

The incident I'm thinking of happened in 1999. I had been out of town for two months, first at a very ill-fated job in Florida (another story) then for a month with my family in Indiana, recovering from the job. During that time I had called Brian every day, and often emailed him in addition. We'd been going out for just over a year at that point. His support was key during a very trying time. The day I arrived back in NYC, Brian planned on coming up to my place (we weren't yet living together) after work. Expecting him later, I ran out to the store for a quick errand. Brian, however, had gotten off work early, so we ended up running into one another unexpectedly down by the subway station. I was overjoyed to see him. We looked startled, smiled, explained what had brought each of us to that place at that time, then he went back to my place and I went on to the store. There was no kiss, no hug, no physical contact of any kind. Casual observers might have assumed we'd seen each other that morning over breakfast. The place was crawling with people you see, with a high percentage of teenagers, and a predominantly Latino population that had previously proven itself quick to ridicule. I don't know if we both had the same reaction, or if Brian read my hesitance and didn't want to challenge it, but bottom line, we didn't touch.

I was furious at myself for days afterwards. All sorts of thoughts raced through my head. Had I sold my neighborhood short by assuming Catholic Latinos would have a problem with two guys kissing? Had I made Brian feel like I wasn't happy to see him? Would New York teenagers even notice, let alone care what a couple of guys were doing? Had I simply chickend out? I don't know, since of course we didn't put it to the test. Partly the instantaneous risk analysis had reminded me I was close to home; if someone in the neighborhood had a problem with me, he or she could be a long-term problem, not just an unpleasant one-time event. But I think I was also more vulnerable at that point, precisely because I was so happy to see Brian, and felt such tenderness for him. Just one shrieking teenage girl, or one guffawing teenage guy would have been more than I could handle right then. Just the THOUGHT of being ridiculed, even by one person, even by some random teenager I might never see again, was enough to stop me right then.

Dan Savage is right; same-sex affection is always a political act. That may have been the sticking point for me in that moment. All those times on the subway, or out in public with my boyfriends, I knew I wasn't just saying hello or good-bye, I wasn't just telling someone I loved him. I was daring the world, taking a chance. It might be a small dare, depending on the neighborhood, but there was still a risk being taken, a statement being made, and we both knew it. That Spring day in Harlem, I didn't want to be daring the world, making a statement, or taking a stand. I wanted to tell a man I loved that I had missed him, and was happy to see him. That day, that statement had to wait until we were safely behind closed doors.


Jeff said...

Tragically absurd that things are this way.

Anonymous said...

I remember that day very well, and it had much the same effect on me.