In 2015, I don't feel okay about holding my boyfriend's hand.
When I was a kid, Queer as Folk was on TV. As a teen I binged on Will and Grace. Gay characters were all over soaps, queer celebrities graced the tabloid pages, and even my sex education teacher discussed the, let's say practicalities, of being homosexual. I didn't know any gay people when I was a kid, but I also didn't live in a world which ignored them. Things were far from perfect, but the world was changing and when I came out at 13, it was turbulent but at least within a society where gay people were gaining ground on the fight for acceptance.
Many gay men and women in their 20's benefit from the incredible privilege of being part of what is really the first generation of gay people who have been able to live a full, authentic life for all of their adult years. Of course many others are yet to benefit from that privilege, and it's circumstantial that I am able to count myself as one of the privileged few, yet the privilege exists. However, even as part of that fortunate group, there are limitations to the freedom we are afforded if we want to feel comfortable and stay safe.
I have a long-term boyfriend who I live with and share my life with, yet I don't hold his hand. We are consciously and subconsciously not tactile in public, and yet in private very loving and affectionate - friends have commented perhaps too much, but that's a separate issue. It isn't overly simplified or dramatic to say fear stops us being affectionate with those we love when we are around unfamiliar people. Society still attaches a stigma to homosexual relationships, and that stigma ensures many gay people feel fearful of the unknown, the unknown being how others will react.
Compared to the way gay men and women were treated in the past, it might appear trivial, but for gay people to really be equal, we have to be in relationships which don't carry shame or insight fear. If I were to hold my boyfriend's hand in public, people would stare at us. They'd try not to, but they would. If I did it in the wrong part of town, or around the wrong people, the reaction would be a lot worse - not an easy situation to pre-empt. Equal marriage is a landmark moment in gay rights, but there is work still to be done when it comes to changing attitudes about what a relationship is, and normalising affection that for straight people is a given.
People won't always be staring because they are homophobic; often there is that common human habit of curiosity around something unfamiliar. But there is another side, and it's about how we attach shame to homosexuality - considering gay relationships as not the ideal, and as less-than traditional heterosexual pairings.
If you want a perfect example of how people attach shame to homosexuality, think about every time there has been a hilarious mix up where a straight male character on TV has been assumed gay. Think about the classic joke format of teasing straight men by suggesting they are gay, or sleeping with their best friend. Or the photos posted to Facebook of straight guys miming affection with each other, totally ironic right.
The most telling though, look at the reaction of many, although not all, straight men when they are asked if they are gay. The assumption of homosexuality is taken as an insult, and to be identified as gay is something to defend yourself against. Ultimately, that has to be because there is a latent feeling that to be gay is not a good thing to be, and while it is tolerated in others, it would be a negative in you. If you were to ask me if I have size 10 feet, I'd say no, if you asked me if I am racist, you'd get a huge reaction of denial and defense. That is very telling.
You could analyse the whys forever, and largely it's of course down to patriarchy telling us the alpha male is king and female is secondary, and societal norms telling us to be gay is to take on female qualities. In the competition to be top of the masculine food chain, gay men will never win. That hetero-normative, patriarchal culture needs to be the next thing to go. In that now infamous 2014 article about gay men appropriating black female culture, the part I felt most interested by was the claim that gay men benefit from male privilege. Of course in some ways we do, but it's incorrect to assume being male removes you from being a victim of patriarchy, and that is never truer than with gay men. The only way to avoid it is to butch up, hide who you are, and don't get caught - which takes us right back to shame.
This year, a campaign was launched to normalise the affection of gay people. Holding Hands 4 Equality supported International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia and challenged people to share photos of themselves holding hands with someone else. They didn't have to be gay; they just had to be people. I watched it unfold with great interest, and it really stirred something in me. I am not ashamed of being gay, or of my relationship, but I am human and I am nervous of the reaction of others. That campaign is set to continue, and it would be a huge step if it were to succeed. Nobody should be fearful because they love someone - it is 2015, and I wanna hold your hand.