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A Straight Man Holding Hands with Another Straight Man for a Social Experiment Video Doesn't Teach You About the Gay Experience

Ian Lee's social experiment may have opened a dialogue about homophobia, but he's not going to internalise the hatred, and that's a sticking point for myself and other gay people.

by Chris Mandle
13 January 2015, 5:00pm

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In 2014, cynical, clumsy "morality" viral videos took over the internet, featuring social experiments which shed light on how shitty humanity can truly be. A woman walked down the street in New York secretly filming the men who cat-called her, demonstrating how deeply ingrained female objectification is in the city and beyond.

This week, British radio host Iain Lee conducted a similar social experiment. In a nutshell, Lee walked down the street holding hands with a guy in Luton to "experience" the public's reaction, and, if you can believe it, the results were shockingly homophobic! People turned and stared, lead their children away, and – when asked – outright expressed that they thought it was "disgusting".

Lee wrote an accompanying article in The Independent today, about how naïve he (and straight men in general) are when it comes to homophobia, and suggests that an assumption exists whereby, if you're not being beaten with a tire iron in a Hollyoaks B-plot, you're not subject to homophobia at all. The reality, however, is that most gay men don't even dare to do what Lee did, because they're already aware of the politics of public handholding.

Like most of my gay friends, I don't really hold hands in public much. If I do, I know I have to perform a kind of risk assessment in order to figure out whether being that carefree is actually worth it. That's the reality.

In the UK last year, 19 UK police forces reported an increase in homophobia-related crimes in 2013. So, until I live out my pipe dream and join a commune of bears in San Francisco, basically, publicly displaying my sexual orientation puts me at risk.

Even the places we've co-opted as safe spaces aren't really ours. When a gay man can get acid sprayed in his face outside a bar in Vauxhall, you start to realise how paralysing it is to just "be" sometimes.

Where are we supposed to be gay? Are we ever really safe?

Still from Iain's video on YouTube.

This is the issue I have with Lee's piece. He's raising general awareness – which is great – and he's experienced the kind of homophobia that may well change his own understanding, but, after he's experienced the reactions of those people on the street, he clocks out for the day, punching in his gay card and picking up his straight one, like he's just finished a shift somewhere. Lee is not gay. He's not going to internalise the hatred, and that is a sticking point for myself and other gay people.

Other viral videos about life for LGBT people have been circulating on the web this week – ones that actually feature the voices of LGBT people themselves. There's a really insightful video about Muslim drag queens from The Guardian, and a TEDx talk by drag artist Panti Bliss, which one of the most wonderfully articulated discussions of gay identity I have ever seen.

"Gay people do not get to hold hands in public without first considering the risk," says Panti. "Gay people do not get to put an arm through another arm or a hand on a waist without first considering what the possible consequences might be. And if we decide that's OK and we do hold hands, now those hands are not casual and thoughtless: they are considered, and weighed. Our intimate gesture is suddenly a political act of defiance, and it has been ruined."

Last year, I took a date to a nice bar in Soho. After a bottle of wine and some chips, we were having one of those conversations taking place millimetres apart, and he kissed me. I was surprised, because this was no gay bar. It was a formal, borderline stuffy joint, but I went along with it because I knew in the back of my head the furniture anecdote I was telling him was fucking boring.

I opened my eyes, smiled, and our bartender – who was hastily pouring two glasses of champagne for us – seemed suddenly startled. He also smiled, looked at us, muttered something I couldn't hear and scurried off. The kiss wasn't supposed to be defiant, but it felt and looked that way. I couldn't tell whether the bar man was giving us the thumbs up, smirking, or whether he just thought it was nice that two young gay men were having a snog. But the moment suddenly felt charged.

In reality, we got off lightly. Two guys almost kicked out of an Uber for kissing recently – as if private car hire suddenly isn't a space where you can scale back the innate wariness you experience as a gay guy. Two guys in Devon recently got branded "disgusting" for kissing in their local pub and were booted out.

If Lee really wanted to experience what being a gay man is like in 2015, maybe he should have tried kissing his "partner" somewhere he felt inherently safe and alone and then documented people's reactions.

I'm not saying that straight people can't have this kind of dialogue with the gay community – and Lee's stunt definitely did open a dialogue – because we need to work together to fight homophobia. Another issue with the video, though, is that, for me, if you need to pretend to undergo the struggle of being LGBT yourself before you can appreciate the fact that homophobia is both rife and damaging, it negates the idea of empathy. And without empathy towards one another, what have we got?

As Panti says in her talk, the Stonewall riots were 45 years ago. People have had plenty of time to figure this out. It shouldn't take an "undercover" experiment to show us that homophobia is wrong, nor can a three minute video possibly articulate the reality of the gay experience.


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Panti Bliss