A group of fourth graders gathers in the school yard at lunchtime in Dallas, the triple-digit heat index capable of burning bugs dead in their tracks on the scorching black pavement. The teacher, concerned that a gaggle of gathered students means trouble, makes her way over, flexing her pointer finger for anticipated scolding.
The 8- and 9-year-olds are actually behaving, though. They are politely playing pretend-wedding, all lined up to observe the makeshift occasion like real wedding guests might do, awaiting the happy couple's procession down the aisle. The couple getting play-married just happens to be two boys. There are no epithets, no chiding; they are not pretend-gay-marrying to mock same-sex "I do"s. These elementary-school kids deep in the heart of Texas are normalizing gay in a way that could smooth the rumble in Harvey Fierstein's gravelly voice.
Hip, hip, hooray for gay! The next generation of Bible Belters may be open-minded in ways we've only prayed about, but that doesn't mean it's now safe to walk around the streets of Texas holding hands with your partner just yet.
We measure progress for LGBTQ rights and equality in many ways. Kids on the playground treating gay like it's straight is a great indication of the changing hearts and minds, and we know that the only cohort that doesn't have a majority in favor of same-sex marriage is the 65-plus crowd, but what benchmarks are most useful in telling us where we truly stand in the face of homophobia and where we need to be?
We've got Anderson Cooper breaking the hinges off the closet door. Dear Ellen has gone from being chased off our TV screens to having JCPenney and soccer moms everywhere (minus that so-called "one million") backing her up. Gay marriage is legal in half a dozen states, and "don't ask, don't tell" came down like the Berlin Wall. We're looking at a possible razing of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), and hopefully more on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) to follow on the federal stage. More kids are coming out at younger ages, and more people are saying, "Hey, gay is OK."
On the other side of the fence, homophobic hate crimes, including heinous murders, are actually on the rise. We've seen more homocidal and suicidal deaths just in the last year than I can remember in any years prior. Twenty to 40 percent the homeless youth population identifies as LGBTQ, and we're not doing a great job of protecting all those kids from getting bullied and kicked out of their homes for being gay. Many more states prohibit same-sex marriage than allow it, and people are still being harassed, fired, beaten, raped, and killed just because they're not straight.
For me, it all comes down to the hand-holding test as the ultimate determinant for LGBTQ safe zones. Where can you hold hands with your LGBTQ mate and feel 100-percent safe?
More people turned out for the New York City Pride parade than ever before, but does that translate to being safer than we've ever been? When you turn off of Fifth Avenue from the rainbow fiesta and hop on the subway to corners of Uptown, Eastern Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island, can you trust completely that you can hold your partner's hand, or are there moments even in New York City in 2012 when you feel like maybe it would be safer if you acted platonic until you got closer to home?
How many other cities across the country are truly gay-hand-holding-friendly? I'm not just talking about where you might have held hands despite feeling unsafe (because short of my travels to some places in Africa and the Middle East, where stoning to death or long-term imprisonment are often punishments for being gay, I've often held hands even when it doesn't quite feel safe). I'm asking: Where can you hold hands and not have to worry one iota about whether it's safe to do so?
My sense is that there aren't many places. Chelsea and the West Village in New York seem pretty squarely same-sex-interlocked-fingers-friendly to me. Certainly other chunks of New York City and San Francisco, and sections of other major cities like New Orleans, Austin, and Los Angeles, as well as whichever town was most influential in making same-sex marriage legal in Iowa, might feel tolerant enough to walk down the street with hands entwined. I'm sometimes surprised to feel unsafe in places that I shouldn't have to worry about: a mostly empty subway in Manhattan late at night; a supermarket in Jamaica, Queens; a park in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.
Where do you feel safe holding hands, and where have you been surprised to feel unsafe?