Picture the scene. It is midday on a lazy Saturday. The weather is crisp and bright. Durham’s quaint little streets are golden with sunlight and full of families and students with rosy cheeks.
This is the perfect time for takeaway coffee, walks with friends and apparently, homophobia.
As a bisexual woman, I have recently started dating someone of the same gender for the first time in my life. There are lot of differences I see between my current relationship and my experiences of dating men in the past – the emotional openness, the more fluid power dynamics, the fact that I can share her clothes and when I say I have period pain, she actually gets it. But one thing that I did not expect to strike such a stark contrast, is the reaction that we got when walking down the street holding hands.
I should mention at this juncture that we were not, in fact, all over each other. All interactions were strictly unprovocative and did not involve the saliva swapping we’re all familiar with having witnessed in the corners of Klute. We were simply, as hundreds of other couples chose to around us, linking our fingers in the universal gesture of affection.
And yet – having witnessed the fully grown adults stare at us with little to no shame, sometimes with their mouths half-open or pressed together in an angry line, sometimes turning around after we’d passed to get a better look or leaning over to whisper to the partner or friend they were with – you have thought that we were two nudists with no fear of the cold, or that we’d decided to unicycle down North Road wrapped in sequined pride flags.
The flashing of eyes from our faces, to our linked hands, back to our faces, was comic in its ridiculousness. You could see the cogs whirring – ‘are they…?’- and then, slowly, the pin would drop. I am tempted to think that they believed our sight had been taken away as punishment for our perverse acts, because I can find no other excuse for the openness with which we were examined.
It is a strange feeling to be unable to walk through a town unnoticed. Usually I am privileged enough to remain unobserved, listening or music or chatting to whoever I am with, without the feeling that my very existence is being questioned all around me. As A joked at the time, it might be a good idea to put on some makeup next time we are so thoroughly in the spotlight.
I can liken what I felt to the first time I was cat-called. After hearing about my sister and female friends’ experiences: I knew that, in theory, it could happen, but I didn’t realise how strongly uncomfortable and angry it would make me feel. Any of the people that started could easily have been my parents or grandparents, and I began to wonder what they see when they walk past someone like me.
The friends we have told about this experience have responded with varying levels of wisdom. Someone suggested that we laugh the stares off as a relic of the values of an ‘older generation’, which would feel more comforting if less of the spectators had been in their 20s and 30s. Another friend pointed out that a lot of the people looking, would have done so more out of fascination or even support, than hatred. I understand that it is unusual to see a gay couple holding hands in Durham. But no matter how ‘cute’ or interesting people find it, surely the blatant staring is the reason that so few people feel comfortable in doing so.
I am concerned and anxious for other members of the LGBTQIA+ community in Durham. If holding hands on a Saturday morning garnered stares from the public, I don’t doubt that there have been and will be more extreme reactions to visual displays of gayness, especially against those who are don’t experience that privilege that we do as white, able-bodied women. Reading about homophobic incidents in the University – such as the St Mary’s welcome zoom call for LGBT+ students in October that was hijacked by anonymous callers who shouted racist and homophobic slurs and showed sexually explicit videos – only heightens these fears.
I don’t know yet what the right way to react to all this is. There’s not much you can say to prejudice that hasn’t been vocalised, and there’s no way to shield myself or A from prying eyes. But as we walked along, and I felt her grip tighten on my hand, I decided that I wouldn’t change that part of myself for anything in the world. Let’s just hope that the world changes for people like me.
Image: RichardBH on Flickr