You Need Help: How to Be Gay In Public

Q:

I’m 26 and l just came out last year. Until then, I hadn’t dated anyone – l was just sort of biding my time, waiting to figure out what l wanted /who l wanted to date. This summer, l started dating a really wonderful woman, who is totally accepting + supportive of my complete lack of experience. But because of Corona, our dates until now (and, by extension, all the dates I’ve ever been on) have been at our houses, completely in private. Now, we’re beginning to venture out, to go to an outdoor beer place, to meet each other’s families, etc. And it turns out: l have no idea how to be around her in public. I’m new to PDAs and new to being obviously gay. How do I not act like an awkward high schooler at her first cool-kid party?


A.

First off, I want to say congrats! Coming out, especially during the year we’ve had, is a big deal and I’m so happy you live in a community with people that made you feel safe enough to do so. Also, you found someone to date in this climate which is an incredible feat! Sorry to be using so many exclamation points I’m just genuinely so excited for you. I came out when I was 12 and then again around 18 so I keep thinking to myself “this is someone that came out later in life” which is maybe not true but it is the lens I’m approaching this from.

Being gay in public can be daunting, and it is not only because PDA discourse is fraught with questions of respectability and modesty. No, for us in the LGBTQ+ community, it can be a matter of life and death, so I completely understand your confusion and possible hesitance around showing PDA to your partner. I’ll share a personal experience. In college I entered a “relationship” with someone that was not out. Because of this, we were a secret from both of our friends and were only seen together when we had class or happened to be at the same party. I can still remember the look of fear on her face when I looked at her with anything other than passing complacency, she was so afraid of being found out. That fling did not last very long and was destined to fail for a variety of reasons. I didn’t date anyone after her for years and only had one-night stands and hookups in between.

So, when I entered my first real relationship at 24, I found myself where you are: completely lost about how to let someone show affection toward me in public. In some respects, I was starved for it. I was also terribly afraid. Of being found out, of being hurt by a stranger, of rejection, of being in love in general. I think the first time we showed affection in public toward one another was one day before we were official. She visited me at work during my lunch break and we walked hand in hand down to a crystal shop to buy amazonite. We had come to a crosswalk where the walk sign was off and she gently kissed my neck. This was one of our many fond, tender moments that I think about often even though the relationship has ended. It was revelatory for me to have someone show me love in a physical way when I had previously been so careful to not reveal myself to others around me. I remember smiling at that moment and being so aware of the people around us who couldn’t care less that we were there.

My ex would often visit me at work and bring me roses, food, or little gifts. Each time, we greeted each other with a kiss and hug and each time, I looked around nervously to see who was watching. Shaking that feeling of “how do I do this, how do I be gay the right way” is a journey. For me, up until then, all my contact with women had been sex and done in private (or drunkenly on display at parties). The first step, for me, was contextualizing what PDA meant for both of us. We talk a lot about love languages now and I think that’s great. My ex was very big on touch as a mode of showing love and appreciation. Once I understood that this was a need for her, it became easy to engage in this way. I wanted her to know I loved her and so I had to show her in the language she understood. Talk to your partner about her relationship to PDA and what she is/isn’t comfortable with. That’ll be the most important step in this journey for you, knowing what she expects and needs.

PDA is also just… very fun? I should say I’m speaking for myself here but I just find kissing and holding hands to be so lovely and warm. When I start to feel shame about it, I think back to all of the straight couples I have seen in my life openly displaying their love without a care or worry. Isn’t that our right too? If you’re struggling with how to act around your partner in public, I suggest starting small. Maybe link arms like your old pals first, then progress to sliding an arm around their waist. From there, you can upgrade to holding hands. Then, kisses on the cheeks, and finally landing at kisses on the lips (if that’s your jam).

Another important thing to remember if you’re nervous about people watching: people generally are busy with their own lives and own internal monologues to know what’s going on around them. Yes, you will have the occasional creep leering or an asshole saying something unprovoked: I once had a man tell me I was too pretty to be doing “dyke shit.” These people are few and far between. Most PDA happens without a passing glance to the couple engaging in it. So feel free to be open about what kind of PDA you want to display, whether it’s linking arms or full-on making out.

Meeting each other’s families is a whole different ball game. I never met my ex’s family because they weren’t exactly friendly to her dating women. I met her brother once but it was before we were together. For this aspect, my advice would be to keep it clean, which is not to say no PDA but that it should be mild like hand-holding and sweet little smooches. The idea of making out in front of my parents or my partners’ parents just feels off to me so I personally would not do it but maybe you are braver than me.

Maybe the most crucial thing I’ll say is: there’s no rush. Move at your own pace. Your partner seems understanding and patient and that is a blessing. You don’t have to be comfortable with being gay in public tomorrow or next month or six months down the line. Take as many baby steps as it takes until you’re really ready. I was with my ex for a year and some months and it took me about 5 months to feel really comfortable being with her in public if we weren’t exclusively around other gays. Having a girlfriend that I could call my girlfriend was big for me, so I eventually began to relish in the little affections we showed each other. You will get to that place too but it has to be on your own time. It’ll take however long it takes.

again, congratulations on being gay and having a new boo!

Best,

DJ

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Dani Janae is a poet and writer based out of Pittsburgh, PA. When she's not writing love poems for unavailable women, she's watching horror movies, hanging with her tarantula, and eating figs. Follow Dani Janae on Twitter and on Instagram.

Dani has written 44 articles for us.

5 Comments

  1. 100%! My first ex was really hesitant to be gay in public with me and would always stop holding hands if anyone was nearby, especially people with kids (!!). With my next gf, the comfort of being able to be together in public comfortably felt so warm

    • Here in the midwest I’ve always been fairly anti-pda for myself. I’d say you should keep in mind the average of your area in mind when thinking about how much pda you want to do. Here in MN I essentially never see couples of any type making out in public (outside of a bar), and I would feel really uncomfortable doing that because I would feel rude to passerby who didn’t expect to see that, and also I like the idea of some things are meant for just you and your partner to share and other people don’t get the chance to see it.

      In general, if you would see a couple doing it in a children’s movie, I think that’d be fine everywhere (holding hands, kiss on the cheek, going on a picnic together, peck on the mouth), but if it’s more them that think about your local area and what the sensibilities there are

    • But can you really always trust that other people don’t care? As two women of color who live abroad and often travel places where we’re already being stared at for multiple reasons, not showing PDA or passing as ‘friends’ is a learned behavior that we chose long ago for safety:

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