Sophie Wilkinson | Contributing Editor | Friday, 13 February 2015

Valentine's Day Isn't All Roses When You're In A Lesbian Couple

The Debrief: It's 2015, and still I get too afraid to hold hands with my girlfriend in public...

Half price deals in pubs that smell of gravy and old men’s ears, milk chocolate that’s got white bits in from being left in a corner shop’s stockroom for the past 11 months, emails about weekend drinks deals from a club you went to once in 2008, stock images of handsome jocks grappling with the tanned-white flesh of hungry-skinny models, 50 Shades of Grey’s ubiquity; there are plenty of problems with Valentine’s Day. Grievances extending beyond our own personal romantic status, more to do with how America has basically turned any day worth celebrating into five weeks' anguish, preparation and shopping. 

But what if you’re past the shit bits? What if time and luck have it that you’ve gone down the fork in the road to giddy buoyant joy and love, and you’re happy, committed, caring and fulfilled in your relationship? You’re almost guilty at how heart-acheingly in love you are? Well, it’s all smooth sailing until you account for the fact some girls love girls. Because the biggest problem for many of us this Valentine’s Day is when the fuck we’re allowed to hold hands.

When I think of PDA’s, I think of cheery straight tourists swaying awkwardly on public transport they’re unused to, gazing up together at the maps then turning to each other, nuzzling and kissing. They're thousands of miles from home, from what they know as safety, they don't know the language, but they can still kiss. They can literally show the world their love. And I can't.

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Physically I'm capable of it, but I don't do it out of fear - because I just don’t know how people are going to react. If I’m leaving the tube a stop earlier than my girlfriend, even if we’re saying goodbye for a couple of weeks (we’re long distance), I’ll be careful not to do much more than a hug, so that anyone with a problem with us can pretend that we’re just friends.

Research says 53% of British people think same-sex sexual relations are unacceptable. And I know where that disapproval comes from, geographically, at least. Friends have been yelled at, chased and beaten to bloodied pulps in homophobic attacks, and there's a map in my mind that fills up over time with pinpricks of where these attacks happened. Any time I'm near these places, I remember what happened to them, what's still happening to them, and I feel a weight on my shoulders. The next one could be me.

And the problem for gay women is twofold. Not only are we at risk of violence, but there's the sexism that comes with being with another girl. Lesbians are a mainstay of porn, yes, but mostly, I figure, for the sorts of guys who get intimidated seeing another dick when he’s having a wank.

If you’ve ever had a catcall or unwanted advance when you’re just trying to get on with your day, imagine someone coming up to you and asking ‘who’s the man?’ or ‘are you really gay?’, because ‘well, you’re too pretty to be a lesbian’. We all know some guys unfortunately find it difficult to deal with women on the street being sexually unavailable to them. Think about how those same guys react to a walking, talking hand-holding pair of women who present him with no doubt of his sexual uselessness.

I’m lucky to have nearly always lived in London, where there are just so many different types of people that onlookers have seen it all before, and so shouldn’t be phased by the presence of two girls holding hands. But I also appreciate that when it comes to social change, every couple of steps forward, there’s one back - in London alone last year, there were more than 1,000 homophobic attacks reported to police. That’s two or three every single day.

READ MORE: The Department For Education Tweet Then Delete That Gay Rights Are Not Part Of British Values

Plus, the London I live in is changing. With the shatter-proof rise in rents, the bar and club owners who manage clubs like Candy Bar, Man Bar, The Nelson’s Arms and The Joiners Arms - places where I could go and just be, could gently kiss my girlfriend without shrieks, whoops and much worse, are being forced to close. It could be that London’s become so accepting of everyone that LGBT people don’t need to sequester themselves off to get by, but something tells me that it’s much more to do with unscrupulous landlords putting money before community. And so we go instead to ‘straight' bars where we just don't know how people are going to take our PDAs. If this sort of thing can happen to me and my friends here, one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities in a country that’s meant to be pretty liberal, then where else can it happen?

The fear a lesbian couple might feel while walking along brightly-lit streets reminds me of a fear I feel when I’m alone. Fewer than 10% of rapes are committed by someone unknown to a victim, the old creep lying in wait behind a bush. But still so many women know the fear when they’re walking home alone at night; you clutch your keys a little tighter, your feet hit the pavement a little faster.

That fear goes away when you’re coupled up, doesn’t it? If you’re straight and coupled up, that is. Brawls notwithstanding – any sort of creep, from the nuisance catcaller to the terrifying potential attacker – backs off when you’re in the company of a bloke, or even when you magic one up (how many times do people use the ‘sorry, I’ve got a boyfriend’ line at the bar to deflect some perve?) But when you’re hand-in-hand with another woman? You’re double the target.

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Occasionally, me and my girlfriend will tether to each other, holding hands and staying close along what we might feel is a safe path, before murmuring ‘break!’ to each other whenever we feel we need to separate. You might think that’s overcautious; what is the actual likelihood of me being beaten up? Well, in the past three years, one in six (17%) of LGBT people has been attacked, and that’s just the people who come forward to talk about it.

But there is some hope. Studies show that younger generations are more accepting of gay people than older generations; fingers crossed the bigotry literally dies out with the baby boomers. And hopefully the basic politeness of tolerance, if not acceptance, is filtering through society, something that’ll certainly be helped along should LGBT issues ever be included on the national curriculum.

This Valentine’s Day I’ll be going to Deal, a little seaside town in Kent where Charles Hawtrey, one of the gays from the Carry On films help set up a thriving LGBT scene. He was a pioneer, causing some havoc ('collapsing in pubs; swearing at autograph-hunting children; and, taking home teenage rent boys', his biographer Wes Butters puts it) but also prodded at small-town sensibilities to show people that gays are, like your mum always said about spiders, just as scared of you as you are of them. He turned that area into a safe space for LGBT people. The shame is, in this day and age, we shouldn’t still be having to push for those spaces.

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Follow Sophie on Twitter @sophwilkinson

Picture: Maggy Van Ejik

Tags: Relationships, LGBT