Holding Hands in Public, HeartHug, and Why We Don’t Need “Straight Pride”
This weekend, there is going to be a “straight pride” parade in Boston. In hosting this event, the parade organizers show us that they don’t understand what LGBTQ Pride is really about.
A few weeks ago, my boyfriend and I were walking through the mall holding hands. Two men walked out of a store about twenty feet in front of us. The men briefly looked in our direction. One man then turned to the other and pretended to grab his hand. The other man pushed him away and they both laughed. The point of the men’s act was clear to me and my boyfriend and would have been clear to anyone else who observed it. They were making a joke. To them, my relationship with my boyfriend was the joke. Even for someone with no prejudice against gay people, their actions still translate. We all get the joke, even if we don’t think it’s funny.
Consider an alternative fictitious scenario. One of those men and his girlfriend (should some woman be so unfortunate) are walking together through the mall, holding hands. A friend, who identifies and presents as a woman, and I walk out of a store in front of them. We notice the straight couple. I reach my hand out toward my friend, pretending to try to hold her hand. She pushes my hand away and laughs.
Would the straight couple realize I had attempted to mock them? Probably not. Would anyone else who observed the encounter have gotten the joke? Unlikely. Ironically, the action probably would have been inaccurately perceived by others as an awkward attempt at (straight) flirtation. This poor attempt at humor wouldn’t translate. No one would get the joke.
This is the best way I can think to begin explaining why “straight pride” events, like the parade happening this Saturday in Boston, are unnecessary and misguided while LGBTQ Pride remains important.
Gay and transgender people are socially marginalized. Straight and cisgender people are not. That is why we all get the man’s joke, even if we don’t like it. It’s also why I’m unable to translate a parallel action into a recognizable joke.
Straightness is so ubiquitous, so normal, so universally accepted that it’s hard to create a scenario in which imitation of the behavior is seen as mockery. Straightness in and of itself isn’t risky, it’s not dangerous, it’s not the subject of debate in churches or of condemnation from pulpits. It’s the default. The same thing is true of being cisgender.
But as has often been noted in recent months, the first Pride was a riot. The heart of LGBTQ Pride is a response to unjustified marginalization and oppression. Without a history of marginalization and oppression of LGBTQ people, Pride would cease to be Pride. The rebellious nature of Pride is stitched into the very essence of what Pride is. Understood in this light, “straight pride” becomes oxymoronic and shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what LGBTQ Pride is and why it matters. Rebellion entails challenging dominant power. You can’t do that when you are the dominant power.
I don’t mean any of this as a criticism of straight, cisgender people. There’s certainly nothing wrong with being straight or cisgender. But it is important to acknowledge that being straight and/or cisgender comes with significant privileges. There’s no stigma in being straight or cisgender. Straight and cisgender youth aren’t disproportionately kicked out of their homes for their sexual orientation or gender identity. And the President of the United States isn’t working to keep it legal for employers to fire straight and cisgender workers simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“But things are getting better for gay and transgender people!” you may say. “So what’s the big deal?” you may ask. Yes, things are getting better. Growing up in a conservative Evangelical Christian environment in the 1990s and 2000s, I never thought I would live in a world where there is so much acceptance of LGBTQ people. As a teenager, I never thought I’d experience a day where I would feel so comfortable showing even subtle signs of romantic affection, like hand holding, with another man in public.
I’m grateful for the many friends and family members who have transformed from LGBTQ opponents into LGBTQ allies over the last two decades. And I’m encouraged by the cultural transformation captured, for example, in things like the percentage of Americans that now accept things like same-sex marriage. That’s all worth celebrating. But we don’t usually take or discuss polls about Americans’ views on marriage between a man and a woman in the first place. Culturally, that topic is treated as not up for debate. That exemplifies the difference.
It seems to me that sometimes proponents of things like straight pride mistakenly think that the abundance of Pride events and the dearth of “straight pride” events show that society values LGBTQ people more than straight, cisgender people. One group of people — the LGBTQ community — gets a special month of focus and is celebrated while another group of people — straight, cisgender people — don’t receive the same. “That’s unfair!” goes this line of reasoning.
But this conclusion of unfairness tacitly assumes that the LGBTQ community and the straight, cisgender portion of the population are otherwise treated equally. While that is a worthy aspiration, that currently just isn’t so. And it’s precisely because the LGBTQ community isn’t treated equally that advances in their equality should be celebrated and failures in their equality should be rebelled against.
Those who go out of their way to engage in special celebration or support for LGBTQ people do so because they realize that society currently unequally distributes power and that their acts of celebration and support of LGBTQ people help rectify that imbalance. It doesn’t mean that they value LGBTQ people more than straight, cisgender people.
Here’s a story that I hope helps illuminate the point (pun intended, as you’ll see). Last fall my boyfriend and I went to an event in downtown Boston called Illuminus. Illuminus describes itself as “a contemporary arts festival that features original installations, video projections and performances by artists who work in the medium of light and sound to create immersive experiences that turn city streets into an installation gallery.” So basically it’s cool, science-based light and sound art exhibits.
One of the installations at the festival was called HeartHug. HeartHug is a large heart-shaped sculpture made of lights. If only one person is positioned under HeartHug, or if more than one person is under its lights but no one is touching, only half of the heart lights up. But if the people under the lights embrace, the whole heart lights up.
My boyfriend and I decided to wait in line to stand under the heart. We watched as people took turns under the heart. Friends lit up the heart with their hugs. Lovers lit up the heart with embraces and kisses. I even took pictures for several of the groups in front of us so they could memorialize how they had lit up the whole heart.
Other than me and my boyfriend, I didn’t see any other same-sex couples around. In some circumstances, the lack of other clearly identifiable queer people might have made me feel uncomfortable showing even simple public affection with my boyfriend. But the energy of the crowd around us felt good. When it was our turn, my boyfriend and I positioned ourselves together under the heart. He put his arms on mine and pulled me in for a kiss.
As we kissed and the whole heart lit up, the crowd of people around us began to clap and cheer. My heart lit up as brightly as the sculpture above us. In that moment I felt some of the weight of a childhood full of messages that I was a special kind of sinner because of same-sex attraction simply fall off. When the crowd cheered for me and my boyfriend but not for any of the other couples, this was not because they thought our love was any better than the others. It was because they knew that for too long the world had treated our love as less.
Their cheers were a way of pulling my boyfriend and me in from the margins. It was a way of saying “you belong here too.” When there’s not a question of whether you belong, there’s no need to provide an answer to the question. For LGBTQ people, too often we are faced with the question of whether others will consider us to belong. Pride answers that question by telling us that we do belong.
LGBTQ Pride celebrates who LGBTQ people are, even as we remain less than centered in society. Pride creates communities united by acceptance, even while we remain unaccepted by significant portions of the population. Pride relishes in the increasing visibility of LGBTQ people, even though there is much more work to be done. And Pride rebels against the fact that we are not yet equal, even though equality is what we deserve.
The very nature of LGBTQ Pride is rooted in what we haven’t been given and what we’ve had to fight for. Suggesting that we need “straight pride” to balance things out assumes and promotes a false sense of social parity between gay and straight. It ignores that fact that gay and trans are still so often treated as less than straight and cisgender. And that inequality is nothing to be proud of.