I sat in a small photo booth watching a smile spread across my face as my girlfriend, Jane, pressed her lips firmly onto my cheek. It was one month after the election and we were at Dave & Busters, distracting ourselves with arcade games and oversize beers. The countdown for the last photo came onto the screen in front of us, “5 … 4 … 3…”
Suddenly, a man stumbled into the booth and purposefully jumped in between us.
I tensed immediately. On the “fight or flight” scale of dealing with crisis, I usually fall somewhere in between “flight” and “melt into the ground and hide.” Jane usually chooses to fight. She pushed the stranger out, looked back at me, and then back at the screen. We both smiled in a way that didn’t reach our eyes as the camera flashed.
“What a fucking jerk,” Jane spat as she walked out, grabbing our photo absentmindedly. “If we were a man and a woman - he never would have walked in,” she said.
“I know,” I said, the depth of her anger just dawning on me.
“We should say something,” she said. “We should tell him he can’t just do that.”
I wanted to advise against it but it was too late. She spotted him.
“Hey. You’re a real piece of shit, you know that?” she said, pressing her index finger into his chest. My stomach flipped - I knew how these confrontations usually ended for LGBTQ people. He flashed an unaffected grin and laughed.
“Relax,” he said and walked away.
His response, though brief, turned inside me. “Relax.” I realized now why she was so mad. She was mad because we couldn’t relax. We couldn’t kiss and touch and be us, and not be watched by other people. That was a privilege that we had not yet been afforded as a same-sex couple. Not even in a photo booth. Not even behind a curtain. Especially not in 2017.
If we played into a game with rules we didn’t make, we’d never be allowed to make our own.
Maybe in the past, we would have brushed it off. We would have taken the photo and hung it up on the fridge, ignoring the context which it was taken in. But we were exhausted. We were tired of small moments being taken away from us; we wanted things to be easier. But under an administration with a hugely questionable LGBTQ track record, that end didn’t feel like it was in sight.
I remember the first time a man made me and another woman feel unsafe. It was at the Baseball Tavern in Boston, a bar known for heavy pours when the Red Sox lost. Her name was Angela, and she would end up with a good Boston boy a few years down the road, but not that night.
She touched my wrist softly, pulling at a bracelet an ex-boyfriend had given me. Electricity pulsed through me.
“Kiss her, already!”
We turned to see a group of guys ogling us. Angela dropped her hand.
“Maybe buy us a drink first,” she said, smiling at them.
She wasn’t sick of it yet - the attention we got while out. She didn’t realize that accepting a Whiskey Sour from a guy hoping for some sort of group sex scenario meant that guys would keep asking. She didn’t realize the more we played into a game with rules we didn’t make, the more we’d never be allowed to make our own.
The guys smiled. Angela turned back to me.
“Don’t worry. I’m just kidding,” she said. “But hey, if the drinks are free,” she laughed.
Her words cut through me, despite the protective layer of cheap tequila. I was upset because their ogling and her acceptance made me feel like there wasn’t an “us.” It made me feel like our relationship, as minor as it may have been, only existed to the outside world as a performance, even if it was the most real thing to me.
Being a feminine bisexual woman, I have the privilege of passing as straight. I can walk down the street and any Tom, Sue, or Larry will assume I’m your average hetero gal. I’ll be read as “normal.”
But when I’m dating a woman or a person of color, that story changes. That makes Tom, Sue, and Larry all stop.
During Barack Obama’s presidency, various legislation protecting the LGBTQ community was passed, including the legalization of same-sex marriage in all 50 states. Stationary goosebumps sat on my arms as our former president stood at a podium and declared the Supreme Court ruling a victory not just for the community, but for the country.
I felt like maybe people were starting to get it, like maybe the days of leering at two women in a bar or giggling as two men held hands were over.
The night it passed, I went to a bar with two male friends who were dating. I remember how they looked at each other like the whole world was laid out in front of them. As they exchanged whiskey-soaked kisses, I couldn’t help but feel like we were finally getting somewhere, like the community had been handed a little Monopoly card that said we could all pass Go.
Then Donald Trump came into office and things got even harder. Because even if we had the card to pass, it didn’t mean it would be easy.
What was scarier than any of his potential legislation were the people who marched proudly for him. Suddenly, people felt safe in their hate again. Suddenly, holding my girlfriend’s hand brought first glances that led to second glances, and second glances that led to stares. Even in Los Angeles, a city bursting with people from all walks of life, people were watching us again. My relationship wasn’t just my relationship anymore; it was a political statement.
At least it sure as hell felt like it.
The news cycle brought rumors of anti-adoption LGBTQ bills, but outside, the news was scarier. A friend was spit on walking down the street with her girlfriend. Hateful graffiti was painted on the Los Angeles LGBTQ center. Trolls starting finding me on YouTube and Twitter.
“Two girls kissing? Nice.” one comment read. “Why is everyone turning gay?” said another. “You’re going to hell,” said another. “Die,” said countless others.
People who hated us all along aren’t just silently steaming anymore: They’re knocking at our doors.
It was clear the floodgates that had been struggling to hold back hate for so long had been perforated in a big way. Jane and I were whistled at walking down the street more and jeers flew more easily from car windows. And it wasn’t just happening to LGBTQ people. A Muslim friend rode the train five stops past her apartment to avoid a group of leering white men. A Mexican-American friend pretended not to see graffiti that read, “Go back home,” as we walked to our favorite lunch spot.
And none of us feel home, not really. Because people who maybe hated us all along aren’t just silently steaming anymore: They’re knocking at our doors.
I realize that the love that exists between me and the person I’m with won’t be understood by everyone; not completely, and not right now. Men will continue to leer and mothers will continue to avert their children's gazes. The highest form of government may even say someday that I don’t deserve the same inalienable rights unless the future I choose is with a man.
And knowing that does make it hard to “relax.”
But I must remind myself to enjoy the small moments that are just for us; the moments that no other person, group, or legal system could ever call into question.
I’ll enjoy the way the nerves in my stomach bubble over with a mixture of excitement and terror every time I realize how much I care for the person I’m with. I’ll enjoy the way electricity moves through me when we touch and the way our laughs sound when we know we’re laughing for no other reason than feeling completely understood.
And most of all, I'll enjoy the way my girlfriend's hand is the only thing that can make me feel safe, even when I know I am not.
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