Steven Petrow explores why public displays of LGBT affection strike a straight nerve.
Imagine you and your sweetie in a bar, enjoying a beer or two, listening to music. You put your arms around each other, you hug; maybe you give each other a quick kiss. No big deal, right? Unfortunately, when it comes to same-sex couples, that’s too often not the case, because even a simple kiss may be viewed as provocative or flaunting. When did a kiss stop being a kiss?
Case in point: Dustin Baker and Andrew Deras got themselves into a peck o’ trouble recently at Louie’s Sports Bar & Tiki Bar in Fayetteville, N.C., where they had gone to hear a band. About 11 p.m. on a late summer night, Deras put his arm around his boyfriend and gave him a “very minor” kiss, as he toldWRAL-TV, that led to a nationwide news story. Baker continued their narrative in a lengthy post on Yelp: “Out of no where this woman [who it turned out was the bar owner] comes up to us in a combatively demanding manor & tells Andrew he needs to back up off of me this very second. ‘Do what you’d like on your own time, but not here. This is NOT right!’ ”
From there, let’s just say it went downhill, although the precise chronology is hazy. From published reports, Baker and Deras kissed again, claiming their right to do so. Bar owner Pam Griffin reportedly told them to leave because “you’re making people feel uncomfortable,” adding, “This is a straight bar.” The guys paid their tab and left. End of story? Not quite.
(Civilities reached out to the couple and the bar owner, but interview requests were not immediately returned.)
The case of the kissing gays might seem like an anomaly or much ado about not very much. But I’m reminded of what Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. — the renowned physician, poet and father of the Supreme Court justice — once said: “The sound of a kiss is not so loud as that of a cannon, but its echo lasts a great deal longer.”
Although same-sex marriage is legal in all 50 states, 28 of them, including the Tar Heel state, “lack a public accommodations statute inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity,” said Christopher Brook, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. In other words, the bar owner was within her legal right to ask the gay couple to leave for their alleged public-display-of-affection infraction.
Apparently, public displays of LGBT affection strike a straight nerve. Just last month, a same-sex couple were asked to leave a Texas public pool when a lifeguard told them kissing was not permitted, although straight swimmers apparently kiss without fear of being thrown out. A few years ago, “L-Word” actress Leisha Hailey was ejected from a Southwest flight after kissing her girlfriend. She tweeted: “Flt. attendant said that it was a ‘family’ airline and kissing was not ok.” Southwest responded that the incident was “based solely on behavior and not gender.”
If only. “I think everything gay people do is politicized,” said Shannon Gilreath, a professor of law at Wake Forest University. “Every normal, tender moment is politicized as a provocation — a confrontation. To religious conservatives . . . there’s no such thing as a ‘small’ display of homosexuality. It’s always a big deal to them.”
To this point, a study published in the American Sociological Review reported that although a solid majority of Americans support insurance coverage and inheritance rights for same-sex couples, we are far less comfortable with same-sex public displays of affection. Among heterosexuals, only 55 percent approve of gay men kissing on the cheek in public, compared with a whopping 95 percent who say that it’s okay for straight couples. Even among gay and lesbian couples there is some discomfort with the idea of same-sex kissing in public, whether it’s because of fear of violence or internalized homophobia. So what’s going on here?
“There’s a huge double standard that goes well beyond public displays of affection,” Gilreath says. “The reality is that straight people talk about and display their sexual orientation so frequently that they don’t even realize they are doing it.”
You might not realize it, but in-your-face displays of heterosexuality are everywhere — the family photo on a desk, the man and woman holding hands on the beach, or an opposite-sex couple kissing in a bar. No one accuses these couples of “flaunting” their sexuality, but make it two men or two women in the photo holding hands or smooching, then we’ve crossed the line. That’s the double standard.
Some might argue that context — or where you are — matters. Agreed. But Louie’s is a bar. Not a church. Not a family restaurant. A bar — where people watch TV, drink, listen to music, drink, hook up and drink some more. Talking about context, one local posted on the bar’s Yelp page: “I’ve seen straight couples damn near having sex in here.” To that I say “ick” — just as I would if it were a gay couple.
It may be that the furor surrounding kissing means we need to raise the bar, so to speak, on public displays of affection. Could the kiss be the next big milestone in LGBT rights?
~Steven Petrow, the author of “Steven Petrow’s Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners,” addresses questions about LGBT and straight etiquette in his column, Civilities.