Yesterday I walked in Washington, D.C. with a man that I am getting close to. We had gone to a museum and then lunch. As we walked down 17th Street in what is a heavily gay area of D.C., I put my arm through his for what was probably only a few steps. I was very conscious that we were in what I thought of as a safe part of town for gay men, and loved the intimacy of being able to walk in this way. It was a freedom and public display of affection that was intimate and pleasurable.
This all gets me to Panti. Last year I discovered a video of Panti, a drag queen in Dublin, who calls herself a “gender discombobulist”. Panti had gained international recognition from her speech about homophobia, titled Panti’s Call at the Abbey Theatre that was posted on YouTube. This January she is back with a TEDx talk called, All The Little Things, that is again powerful and a lesson for everyone.
Panti begins by saying, “I am 45 years old, and I have never once unselfconsciously held hands with a lover in public.” The truth is, had I been unselfconscious yesterday, I would have put my arm through my friends arm for a much longer period of time as we walked. But I was self-conscious that we were two men walking arm and arm down the street, so my arm didn’t rest long through his, even though I wanted to linger in that linked arm position.
Panti goes on to say:
“gay people do not get to hold hands in public without first considering the risk. Gay people do not get to put an arm through another arm, or put a hand on a boyfriend’s waist without first considering what the possible consequences might be. We look around to see where are we? Who’s around? Is it late at night? What kind of area is it? Are there bored teenagers hanging around looking for amusement? Are there bunches of lads standing outside a pub? And if we decided ‘okay, maybe it is okay’, well then we do hold hands, but the thing is that now, those hands are not casual and thoughtless; they are now considered and weighed.”
This was true for me yesterday. I wanted to walk with my arm through my friends arm for a nice long time, but I only did it in a few short steps, because, as Panti describes, there is a part of me that was conscious of those around us and what the risk might be.
Later in her speech, Panti talks about homophobia, the topic that brought her to international attention last year:
“Our society is homophobic. It is infused with homophobia. It is dripping with homophobia; and when you are 45 years old and you have spent 30 years putting up; 30 years absorbing all of those small sleights and intimidations and sneers and, occasionally, much worse, you just get tired of it.”
I have written a lot about homophobia, including my own internalized homophobia. I have done battle these past four years with my own internalized homophobia, and have changed how I see the gay world in a big way. You know what really fought my internalized homophobia? Coming out. Coming out in a big way fought my internalized homophobia. Once you come out you have crossed over an invisible line and can no longer have your quiet homophobic thoughts in exactly the same way.
My son, as much as he loves me and accepts me, is frightened of what his friends would think if he told them his dad was gay, so he keeps quiet. And as my son keeps quiet, he is now in the closet, while I am quite out of the closet.
I am lucky because I have not felt the “small sleights and intimidations and sneers” as a gay man, but then I have been in hiding most of my adult life. When I made the decision to come out in my mid-50’s, I told myself that if I was going to do this, I was going to do it all the way. And so far I have been true to my goals of coming out big and exploring all different aspects of the gay community. Just to be clear, I’m not talking about sex here, but simply exploring all kinds of events and aspects of the gay community.
So I hope to have many more walks arm and arm with a man down the street. It is such a delightful intimate gesture that I want in my life. And as Panti ends her speech, she says, “I am not putting up anymore because I don’t have the energy anymore. Putting up is exhausting.” I don’t want to put up any more either. Being in the closet was exhausting. I don’t have the energy any more either except to live my life honestly and openly. And if that means walking down the street arm and arm with a man, then I will.
* The title of this essay is from the song Dancing, from Hello Dolly. Charles Nelson Reilly, who never came out as gay until the end of his life, originated the role of Cornelius Hackl, in Hello Dolly, sings Dancing.