london stairways

On Holding Hands and Shouting in the Street

I made dinner for my boyfriend, A, last night. He came round late; he’d been preparing for a job interview, I made him something to eat, we talked about coffee overdoses and plans for the Bank Holiday weekend. We were going to watch a film but as he washed the dishes he asked if I fancied a walk. The sticky, close day had become a warm summery evening, and besides, he’d been inside all day, and felt like he hadn’t seen the world.

“If you hold up your hands and crop that stuff out, you could be in Nice”, he said, holding his hands up towards the towers of Cannon St station picked out by a beetroot red sunset, as we walked west along the Thames past the aspic hull of HMS Belfast. Nice try, I thought; if you cut out all the shitty things you could see the good things. “We could almost be on holiday” seemed optimistic, but tourist couples stood having their photos taken in front of Tower Bridge, and we could pretend other people’s holidays were our own. We walked up to the Tate Modern, through warm spitting rain which seemed to be bothering no-one. We stopped there, leaning against the railings, looking over the river at high tide towards St Pauls. As couples on real holiday strolled past, we shared our mixed feelings on Christmas. I can’t get enough of festive good cheer; working for a central London department store until late Christmas Eve for the past 5 years, A begs to differ.

We’ve only been seeing each other a few months. Perhaps this is one of the joys of first meeting someone who makes you daydream in their absence; you collate opinions and tastes, comparing and contrasting. When we met outside the British Museum in the watery spring sunshine for our first date, he told me that, on our way to the Baselitz prints I wanted to see, he’d show me his favourite stairway in London. We stared up at the weird fake Egyptian palm fronds that framed vast eggshell walls, flooded in light from the overhead windows. Huh, I thought. He’s got a favourite stairwell. That’s interesting. “I’d live on it, if I could, in a sleeping bag”, he said, and I knew we’d have a nice afternoon. You collate each other’s weird little opinions because that’s how you get to know a lover, and because you don’t, as yet, have many shared experiences. Well now we do; of the staircases we know and love, and of the man who screamed at us in the street as we turned and walked home from outside the Tate last night.

“Come on, let’s go”. I gave A a peck on the lips and held his hand. The rain was getting a little heavier and it was already almost 10. We walked underneath the Millenium Bridge, sadly lacking its mariachi band playing Spanish Flea. Midway through conversation I heard a group of girls behind us, in stage whispers- “ARE THEY HOLDING HANDS?”. I let it drift over, but moments later a very loud and aggressive shout came from a man behind us.

“URRRRR”, like a 5 year old. “THEY’RE HOLDING FUCKING HANDS!” in a broad London accent. He shouted after us, “fucking mincers!” and a slew of further slurs to add. I flushed red immediately at his vaguely 70s insult (I don’t mince. A minces, but only socially, he doesn’t make a habit of it). I didn’t turn round but I felt eyes burning holes in me. The crowd’s attention was drawn and people stared at us, two twenty something gayboys, holding hands in the street.

There’s a divide between how you think you’d react, how you imagine you’d react when someone says something like that (again), and how you actually do react. There’s a moment’s pause, a lag whilst you realise you’re the subject of the outrage and anger of a complete stranger. The first reaction is fear, fear that you’re in immediate danger; what flashed through my mind wasn’t indignation or defensiveness, but the memory of having my head slammed against coat pegs outside the science block aged 15, or seeing your friend fall between parked cars, his head hitting the curb before someone puts his boot in, or your friend S turning up on your doorstep, ears tattered after having all his earrings ripped out in the street. All those acts of violence are mashed into that moment. You immediately fear a rerun of past violence, and I’m ashamed now that the first thing I did was let go of A’s hand. I made a stupid fake gesture of letting go to scratch the back of my head, as if my spare hand was useless for the job, convincing neither of us. Our conversation had stopped. 15 yards later I asked him if he’d heard that; of course he’d heard that, everyone within 100ft had heard it, heard the disgust in the man’s voice, focused on us.

I can only say how it made me feel, if I’m honest. Perhaps some sharper fags with quicker wits and stronger stomachs know what to shout back to puncture the situation. Perhaps they walk on with some new strength, gripping their lover tighter. But immediately I felt if not shameful, then certainly shamed.

I felt shamed by the disgust in the man’s voice. I felt disciplined by him; the fact he felt empowered to voice that disgust immediately gave him an authority over me, a right to police my behaviour in public. He was right, goddamnit: we were holding hands. Two men, holding hands, right there, in public, for all to see. We’d thought we could get away with it, with being Queer In Public, but he’d spotted us; banged to rights, he’d called us out, and people stared. No-one said anything, and, shamed by who I am, what I’d been caught doing, I read that as tacit approval of our punishment. Of course I did; I’m well aware that society is ok with gays, but tired of having it shoved down their throat (a peculiar little idiom solely reserved for us and our behaviour). It was only a little humiliation but it was humiliating, having your unacceptable behaviour drawn attention to in public. He didn’t hit us, and we didn’t stop. We just walked in opposite directions, him still muttering in disgust, me and A in abrupt silence, everyone else just ignoring it. Maybe my anger is at some displaced privilege I feel; but that shows just how deep heterosexual policing is. Despite being a white, cis, able-bodied young male, the tip of the social pyramid, I’m still subject to attack for behaving in a way that’s inappropriate to my gender in public. Part of me wants to hold all heterosexuals responsible; despite the kind words and sympathies of friends, I can’t help but feel they’re complicit in the idea that heterosexuality is the norm, the default, the way the world looks. I feel like they’re responsible in the same way I’m responsible for violence against women every time I remain silent in a group of men when a sexist joke is told, because I don’t want to forfeit my benefits of being a man. This bitterness and anger at all heterosexuals is probably wildly unfair, but I still feel it keenly.  

I know it wasn’t a big thing that happened. I’ve had worse, and much, much worse happens to queers and trans people every day right across the city. But I came out 14 years ago, half my lifetime ago, and in all honesty I’d have hoped the sense of anger, humiliation and shame at being screamed at for being gay would have worn off in that time. It makes me wonder whether I honestly could say to a teenage bullying victim “it gets better”. This is one incident in a spectrum of incidents that will not cease for me, but last night was the one which happened at a time in my life where I feel safe and secure enough in myself to say at last “That hurt me. I’m tired of this shit”.

I wanted to put down in words what happened because, whilst the guy who shouted has probably forgotten he even saw us last night, when A got up for work at 5am this morning I lay awake till 7 just thinking about it, running through what he said over and over. And I’ll think about his voice again the next time I’m out in public and A makes me laugh and I want to hold his hand, or when he meets me from my office and wants a kiss hello. That’s the point of policing and punishing; it’s meant to get inside your head, so that next time you’re tempted to commit an offence, you think twice. As a gay person, when I feel love in public, I think twice. I check my behaviour, I check my environment. When I see young straight couples in love, kissing by the river, I get a taint of bitterness. When I feel affection, I also feel danger. That’s why these stupid, minor incidents hurt so much: they poison love.