"I bet you love to go down on each other. Do you eat her out?" A man, a stranger, whispered this dangerously close to my girlfriend and me on East 17th Street in Union Square, as we held hands getting ready to cross the street. We spun around, only to see this anonymous face retreating and easily slip away into the crowd. It was the first time either of us had been so blatantly harassed, and we crossed the street shaking. The next night, another 20-something man yelled at us from across the street as we held hands, "Go to the fucking Cubby Hole and do that!" Where holding Phoebe's hand had felt like a refuge and a blissful act of affection, I all of the sudden felt like we had targets painted on our backs. A few months later, a peddler in the subway told us hatefully to get "fucking gay married" as he stood closely behind me as I refilled my Metrocard. These experiences of harassment and the stories I've heard from too many within the queer community stay under the skin. They're happening in our urban and rural spaces all over the world and are vitriolic and violent in nature. Whether they're words and threats or worse -- such as when teen couple Mollie Olgin and Mary Chapa were both shot, leaving one dead at the scene, in Texas this summer -- they create and sustain a culture of fear. Republican Senator Rob Portman's change of stance on gay marriage is another piece of evidence that the tides of LGBT rights are turning, and at what seems like an unprecedented pace. And yet, the fight for equality is multi-layered and takes time. Six years ago, Guy Trebay researched public displays of affection within the queer community for The New York Times, and it seems that not much has changed. When interviewing Clarence Patton, spokesman for the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, he stated:
[Provided gay people agree to] "play a very tightly scripted and choreographed role in society, putting your wedding together or what have you, we're not threatening... but people are still verbally harassed and physically attacked daily for engaging in simple displays of affection in public. Everything changes the minute we kiss."
In an effort to take action on experiences that felt so dehumanizing to me, I created one new initiative, Queer in Public, or QUIP, to focus specifically on this element of the daily queer experience in an effort to make larger, and much, needed cultural changes. QUIP is a grassroots street photography initiative, capturing images of real queer couples expressing candid moments of affection all around the world. It's an effort to familiarize and normalize being queer in public while also hoping to transform "queer love" into plain old "love." When queer couples feel unsafe in environments from the suburbs of Ohio, college towns like Rochester, rural towns in Western Montana or even New York City, the most queer-friendly city in the world, there has to be attention focused on this issue as well. Those of us in the queer community are confronted with the daily choice to boldly hold the hand of our partners, or to stay invisible. And as QUIP's mission states, visibility begets change.
For some, the threat of violence is too real, and the simple act of holding hands or kissing on a street corner would be unwise and unsafe. But for the rest of us, we have the capability to shift the tides by making ourselves visible. Kissing my girlfriend in Flatbush, Brooklyn could double as an act of love and as a political act of changing the culture. By living out "the personal is political" mantra, we transform from invisible to visible and provide hope for our queer sisters and brothers in less tolerant nooks of the world.
A street photography initiative cannot and will not singlehandedly solve these issues. It also cannot answer the vast and philosophical question of what it means to be queer in public. Yet, in the civil rights movement of our time, it's going to take multiple dinner table conversations, personal stories, court cases, and culture-shifting projects to keep the momentum strong. One picture taken in San Francisco can land in the tumblr feed of a queer 15-year-old in Melbourne and show him that it's safe and acceptable, somewhere, to kiss your boyfriend when out to dinner. It can be shared via Facebook with a mother in Topeka whose daughter recently came out. Through a photograph, this mother is given a new lens of what being queer in 2013 can mean.
In a few weeks, the Supreme Court will hear a pair of cases challenging state and federal laws that define marriage, the results of which will dramatically alter history. Situations in which others have the power to grant or deny you rights leave many feeling vulnerable and powerless. However, what we can do, today and every day following, is proudly, publicly, express love with the ones we love. For those of us who feel safe enough to do so, being queer in public gives us power by making us real.