PDA in the LGBTQ | Thoughts on Relational Freedom in the Post-Marriage Equality Era

By Jeff Lutes, LPC. On the morning of June 26, 2015, I texted Gary, my husband of nearly 18 years, and we cyber-celebrated that our 2008 California marriage was now legal in Texas and in every other state. I cried, knowing our three children would finally be able to tell friends that their parents were married too. They deserve that kind of legitimacy and the sense of security and comfort that comes with it. I reflected on the number of friends and clients that have been waiting for decades, and the magnitude of advocacy and activism it took to reach this historic day. The Supreme Court ruling hit me like a ton of bricks, yet I felt so much lighter.

How will day-to-day life for same-sex couples and families change in the years following this landmark decision? Over time, will it help increase safety and allow them to more openly express affection in all the ways their heterosexual counterparts take for granted?

A study published in the December 2014 edition of the American Sociological Review surveyed more than 1000 people in a nationally representative dataset about their views on same-sex relationships.* The study examined attitudes toward legal rights like marriage, adoption, and hospital visitation, as well as social privileges, like holding hands and kissing in public. While respondents were generally in support of legal equality and formal rights, they were much less likely to support certain social privileges. 95 percent said straight couples should be allowed to kiss on the cheek in public, 72 percent said lesbian couples should, and only 55 percent said male couples should do so. Somewhat surprisingly, even the gay and lesbian respondents in the study were less likely to approve of public displays of affection by same-sex couples.

The lead author of the study, sociologist Long Doan from the University of Indiana, believes that gay and lesbian respondents might have been concerned about safety and hate crimes, while straight respondents were simply uncomfortable with that which remains foreign to them. They are accustomed to seeing straight couples hold hands in the park or give each other a peck at a restaurant, but internal reactions of disdain and repugnance emerge when they witness a gay couple doing the same things. The authors called for more positive portrayals of gay and lesbian intimacy in pop culture and wrote, “A sole focus on formal rights may overlook these other potentially subtle, yet important, aspects of marginalization.”

Think for a moment about the relative invisibility of physical affection among gay and lesbian characters on television. We have certainly come a long way since the days of The Ellen Show and Will and Grace, yet gay and lesbian characters, with some notable exceptions, remain largely sexless. Cam and Mitch rarely touch on The Modern Family, and even provocative shows like Masters of Sex handle gay and lesbian intimacy far more cautiously than heterosexual closeness. When television does show a same-sex kiss, it typically only lasts a second before cameras cut away to avoid viewer discomfort. Television execs probably took note earlier this year when fans of The Walking Dead lit up Twitter in objection to two gay characters that kissed on that night’s episode. Not wanting to push the envelop too far, physical intimacy among same-sex couples is most often inferred or suggested, while affection among straight couples is considered less risqué and therefore depicted more fully. But that’s television. What about real life?

A few summers ago my family relaxed in several hot springs while vacationing in Santa Fe and Taos. One afternoon we found ourselves in a large pool with three other families that behaved remarkably alike, despite the obvious fact that our kids were the only ones with same-gender parents. The kids in each family laughed, splashed brothers, dunked sisters, and climbed relentlessly all over their parents. But then something happened that was simple, natural, and completely unremarkable.

Two of the three heterosexual sets of parents began to slowly close the distance in their interpersonal space. One of the spouses in each pair leaned against the side of the pool, while the other moved in closer. They smiled, touched each other gently, and whispered softly in the way that intimate couples often do. From time to time, one would give the other a quick kiss as they talked. No one sitting around the pool objected. No one shouted, “Get a room!” No one even seemed to notice. Would the same be true if I pulled Gary in close? Sadly, I was not brave enough to find out.

Please understand, I have no desire to see porn on television, but if opposite-sex characters can make out, same-sex characters should get equal representation. Likewise, I don’t want to see any couple grope or fondle in public, regardless of their sexual orientation. But I do want the freedom to express natural feelings of affection to the man I love without concern for our safety.

One might argue that the younger LGBTQ crowd is way ahead of my generation since twenty-something gay couples can occasionally be seen holding hands at Whole Foods Market and other hot spots around town. I guess I’m wondering if I want to wait for those brave young people to change the world for me, or if like Gandhi said, I can be the change I seek. Maybe I owe it to myself, my family, and my community, to keep pushing the social boundaries until we get full relational freedom — not just legal equality. Perhaps I owe it to my clients too. After all, don’t we have an ethical and professional responsibility to serve as social change agents, both in and outside the therapy office?

  • Doan L, Loehr A, Miller L. “Formal Rights and Informal Privileges for Same-Sex Couples: Evidence from a National Survey Experiment.” American Sociological Review, 2014, Vol. 79(6) 1172–1195.
  • PDA | Public Display of Affection

Jeff Lutes, LPC, is a licensed professional counselor who works with individuals, couples, and groups in his private practice in Austin, Texas. He is the founder of the Contemporary Relationships Conference — an annual event on LGBTQ relationships that brings speakers and attendees together from around the country to create collaborative learning from both experience and social science research. Jeff also provides therapy in American Sign Language to his deaf clients.

Private practice: 5524 Bee Cave Road, STE F3, Austin, Texas, 78746. 512–419–0600. jefflutespsychotherapy.com. Conference: contemporaryrelationships.com.

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