Even in the UK, gay people like me still fear being as publicly affectionate as mayor Pete Buttigieg and his husband

When two thirds of British LGBT+ people remain fearful of holding hands in public, images of an openly gay man and his loving husband embracing as they set their sights on the White House have radical power

Philip Ellis
Monday 15 April 2019 16:41 BST
(Getty )

Pete Buttigieg formally announced he is running for president of the United States on Sunday, making him the first openly gay Democrat to do so. During the rally in his hometown of South Bend, Indiana, Buttigieg spoke about how he imagined going back in time to tell his closeted younger self “on that day he announces his campaign for president, he’ll do it with his husband looking on.” His husband, Chasten, later joined him on stage and the two shared a touching embrace.

Such a moment between a politician and their supportive spouse is hardly an uncommon sight, but the fact that it was two men hugging on the podium struck a chord with the LGBT+ community. We cannot understate just how radical these casually loving images are, when in the United States, and here in the United Kingdom, there are many places where a same-sex couple would still think twice before openly expressing that kind of affection.

Ask any queer person, and they’ll likely be able to tell you about a time when they wanted to kiss their partner, but fear held them back – or even worse, were harassed for expressing the kind of commonplace physical affection, like holding hands, that wouldn’t elicit a blink if a straight couple did it.

“I was harassed twice on the same day when I was walking hand in hand with my then-boyfriend in South London,” says Paul, 39. “The first person, an older man, just kept shouting ‘batty boys’ as we walked past him. Then a few minutes later, a woman started shouting at us in the street, quoting the Bible, saying it’s meant to be a man and woman together. We ignored her. I really wanted to react on both occasions, but we both stayed quiet, which to some extent I regret. We both felt very much in the minority, and I guess we feared that it could escalate and perhaps lead to violence.”

Adam, 35, similarly recalls how when a guy placed a hand on his knee during a date, they were accosted by a stranger: “He said, ‘I don’t want to see that in a public place’… it made me sad for ages afterwards.”

It’s enough to make us second-guess where is and isn’t safe for us to be ourselves. And even then, this kind of homophobic abuse can take us by surprise on our own doorstep. “A group of guys shouted ‘homos’ at me and my boyfriend right outside my apartment block in Kennington,” says Erik, 31. “This was only a year and a half ago.”

Pete Buttigieg announces US presidential run

For every step forward that we take as a society, for instance with same-sex marriage, it feels like something then happens which reminds queer people they must remain hyper-aware of their own surroundings and how others perceive them. I live in Birmingham, where parental opposition to an inclusive teaching programme at a local primary school has once again sparked a flurry of bad faith debate in the media as to whether same-sex relationships are an “age appropriate” topic for primary education. This has resulted in homophobes with nothing better to do travelling across the country to come and protest.

This intolerance, reminiscent of the homophobic 1980s, is sadly not an isolated issue. “When I first started dating my fiancé, we were walking along a promenade and sat down next to each other on a little wall,” says Lee, 30. “A man in his forties came over after a couple of minutes and said ‘hey, there’s kids around here’. I was baffled, as we were just sitting on a wall. He went on, saying ‘I’m going to call the police if you don’t stop.’ He was threatening us with the police for sitting while gay!”

There have been plenty of tweets and think-pieces about how Buttigieg is just another privileged white man, and not “queer” enough to make a real difference in American politics. Without addressing the obvious gatekeeping going on there, can we not just take a moment to celebrate an openly gay man and his loving husband setting their sights on the White House?

Pete and Chasten Buttigieg are similar in age to the men quoted in this article, and they will undoubtedly face a torrent of homophobic abuse from regressive corners before this race is over. After all, even in the UK, two thirds of LGBT+ people are fearful of holding hands in public. Though hopefully the Buttigiegs will inspire a generation of younger LGBT+ people to be more visible, and perhaps even more importantly, help teach ignorant straight people how to act when they see two men hug in public.

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