Imagine this scenario: You and your girlfriend are sitting on a bench one lovely fall day, and you decide to hold hands and then, spontaneously, buss each other on the lips or plant a peck on a cheek. A security guard passes by, but instead of thinking, "How sweet" she asks you to stop what you're doing -- and orders you to leave the premises. When you ask to see a supervisor, he agrees with the first officer and ejects you from the mall even though you point out that you and your girlfriend are being singled out, that in fact, straight couples are allowed to do exactly what you were.
Well that's just what happened recently in Raleigh at the Cameron Village shopping center to a couple of women who were being affectionate with each other when a guard happened by.
As a columnist who writes a national column about gay manners, I often get questions from both LGBT and straight readers about what's kind of PDA (public display of affection) is appropriate for same-sex couples. Usually, when gay people ask about this, it's because they want to be comfortable in public without drawing unnecessary attention to themselves. More often than not when straight folks ask me the question, it's because they think a particular pair of gay men or lesbians has strayed past the line of propriety.
The truth is that the rules about showing affection publicly are the same for gay men and lesbians as they are for straight people. Generally, hand-holding, eye gazing and light kissing are perfectly fine in public; groping, tongue kissing and touching below the waist are not. If there are any distinctions to be made, they're not based on sexual orientation, but rather on location. If you're in, say, a nightclub, bar or movie theater, the PDA rules are more relaxed than if you're in a church, at a family dinner or spending an afternoon at the mall.
Which is to say: The Cameron Village duo was behaving quite appropriately by any measure of the situation.
But the next chapter in the Cameron Village incident is also key: Management at the mall was quick to apologize, if only because of the tremendous Facebook outcry, which was obviously bad for business. In the apology, also on Facebook, the PR team insisted that its mall is a "friendly shopping center that welcomes the entire community," concluding with this statement: "[We're] committed to maintaining an open and welcoming environment for everyone."
All's well that ends well? Yes, the Cameron Village management has apologized and is bringing in sensitivity training to its workforce. That's the right thing to do, which is to say good civic manners. But let's also hope that this training goes beyond the superficial "do this, don't do that" and makes this act of bullying into a teachable lesson about fundamentally respecting others and treating LGBT people (and others perceived to be different) fairly. Like so many of the other LGBT public issues of the day, this one is about equality. We want the right to marry like any couple; we want the right to adopt kids like any couple; and yes, we want the right to hold hands on a bench in Cameron Village like any other couple.
Still, had this incident had not occurred in such a "progressive" city - where there's a lot of disposable gay and gay-friendly dollars that can be spent elsewhere -- it's easy to imagine a different outcome. Either way, it's worth remembering that LGBT people (and our allies) exercise our political will not only at the ballot box, but also in the dollars and cents we spend every day.
Steven Petrow is a regular contributor to Huffington Post and the author of the forthcoming book, Steven Petrow's Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners (Workman, 2011). See www.gaymanners.com