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Love in the time of homophobia: The right of LGBT couples to be couples in public

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If you are a heterosexual, chances are you have never really given much thought to the daily public displays of affection that we make with our girlfriends or boyfriends, husbands or wives, all the time. 

You very likely kiss your partner hello or goodbye in basically any context without any hesitation, hold hands while strolling down the street, stare into each others eyes and touch romantically while lying on that blanket in the park,  and put arms around each other at the movies or in a restaurant while waiting for your food to come.

You never worry about what neighbourhood, venue or restaurant you are doing this in, thinking that some might not be accepting of it, because all are. You don't worry if children or "families" are around.

This is the day-to-day behaviour of love and it is accepted and expected. No one notices when you do this, and if they do notice they likely smile and think that it is sweet, cute or heartwarming. 

Which it is.

Except, that is, if you are doing the exact same things and are an LGBT couple.

Over a year ago a young couple in my community started a new initiative for the South Etobicoke (West Toronto) neighbourhood I live in. Bram Zeidenberg and Jamie Berardi had had enough of the homophobia and lack of an LGBT public presence where they lived and they did something about it. They started the Lakeshore Villages LGBT Community Group, went door-to-door to neighbourhood businesses getting them to put up stickers supporting inclusion, made presentations to and got the endorsement of local Business Improvement Areas and during the  last Pride Week, for the first time in this part of the city, the commercial strip had many businesses flying pride flags. 

Yet just this past weekend they had to organize a local protest and awareness picnic to stand up against treatment that they say they received at the hands of a local diner's waitress when they sat on the same side of a booth together as a couple. 

While the owner of the diner denies many of their claims, there can be little doubt that public displays of affection and small levels of intimacy by LGBT couples are held to an entirely different standard than those of heterosexual couples and that what are seen as perfectly ordinary expressions of love in the one case are labeled as lewd, inappropriate or "disturbing to children" or families in the other.

In fact, of course, many of these seemingly ordinary actions for heterosexual couples result in glares, abuse, harassment and violence for LGBT couples. A common sentiment is that any intimacy between LGBT couples, no matter how minor, belongs behind closed doors or "in the bedroom" as if a kiss is akin to sex. Thus the restaurant owner in the above incident allegedly saying that Mr. Zeidenberg should  “leave his relationship at home”.

This is something that heterosexual couples are simply never asked to do. 

In addition, the threat or specter that LGBT couples supposedly present to "families" or "children" is constantly raised. It is raised even by many of those who claim to be fine with LGBT rights, unless, of course, they actually see members of the LGBT community in the real world acting like everyone else does. It is usually framed something like "I have no problems with gays/lesbians/trans people, but they really should keep it to themselves and not force my kids to watch it."

After I had gone with my kids to the rally that was held in Mimico by the Lakeshore Villages LGBT Community Group last Sunday, Mr. Zeidenberg put up a message on my Facebook wall that read:

 

So terrific to see so many families and kids at our event. We are a family too and no matter what some people might think, children do NOT need to be protected from seeing two individuals in love. There is nothing harmful or offensive about a same-sex couple sitting next to one another in a family restaurant.

 

This comment made me very sad. Not because of what he said, with which I agree entirely, but because he felt he needed to say it all.  Because of the fact that so many people do still think that children and "families" need to be "protected" from LGBT citizens or couples.

In fact, a report released in 2010 by the Southern Poverty Law Center listed the myth  that "Gay men molest children at far higher rates than heterosexuals" as the number one myth propagated by the anti-gay movement. It is a profoundly widespread and destructive myth. And it is completely false.

What is actually harmful to children, however, especially children who may be starting to feel that they do not fit into the heteronormative construct that surrounds them, is to be told and taught by their parents or role models that being an LGBT couple is abnormal, dangerous, or "acceptable" but still something not to be talked about or seen. This is truly harmful.

More to the point, it is also simply wrong. Morally, ethically and in every sense. The notion that LGBT couples should have to behave in a way that would seem prudish by Victorian standards so that citizens who cannot adapt to the 21st Century are not made to feel "uncomfortable" is disgraceful.

Heterosexual citizens and couples are the people who need to get past this. It is incumbent upon us to change. It is not to the LGBT community and couples to accommodate the bigotry and biases that we hold.

The sight of a couple in love is one of the most life affirming things that we are fortunate enough to be able to witness almost daily. I want my children to grow up in a society where LGBT couples kissing, holding hands and sitting beside each other at a diner booth is seen as an equal part of this affirmation of human love. 

In the end, you are not truly free to love and to exercise your human rights as equals if you are not able to do so publicly. You are not really free to love if the love must be expressed in the bedroom or in the closet alone for it to be without the danger of humiliation, discrimination or violence. 

Heterosexual couples do not have to worry about this or think about it at all. It is time that this was true for every couple.

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