It’s about seven in the evening and I’m on a London overground train with my girlfriend. Tired, I’m leaning on her shoulder and she’s stroking my head. On a scale of one to ten, one being looking lovingly at each other and ten being sixty-nining in the middle of Leicester Square, this level of PDA is probably a 2.5.
This is something you think about a lot when you’re in a same-sex relationship. You assess the perceived controversy of how you’re behaving in public. Knowing when to tone it down so as not to, say, end up in an ambulance, comes as naturally as avoiding a pile of dog shit on the pavement. So I’ve calculated the chances of our PDA on the train attracting unwanted attention, and they seem low.
I’m wrong. A middle-aged, dishevelled-looking, very-clearly drunk man standing near us is giving us a death stare and muttering something incoherent about “homosexuals”. It’s an odd word choice. People usually go for “dykes” or even just “lesbians” (bizarrely, this is still thought to be a slur). I ignore him. I somehow give him the benefit of the doubt. He’s drunk (not an excuse). He’s clearly having a hard time (not an excuse). He possibly has mental health problems (not an excuse). He continues.
“Something, something, something, HOMOSEXUALS, something,” he says, swaying slightly and looking like he’s about to puke.
“What’s your fucking problem?” I say.
I realise that the “fucking” is upping the ante. It could make him physically violent. But I’ve said it now, it’s out there. I was angry. I snapped. I’m lucky though, and he just carries on babbling about “homosexuals”, at the same moderate level of aggression. Meanwhile, everyone else in our crowded carriage keeps their head down, in the default British state of “don’t get involved.”
I shout something else at him, I can’t remember what. Probably something Wildean like, “Go fuck yourself.” My girlfriend bursts into tears. I take her hand and we push through the gormless spectators to get to another carriage. Then, after a few minutes of hugging and talking about what just happened, we get on with our evening like nothing just happened. All the while, our confidence in expressing any kind of affection towards one another in the hallowed space of a South West Trains carriage getting that little bit lower.
Again, though, we were lucky. Lucky that we were only verbally, not physically attacked. Meanwhile, this week, a lesbian couple – Melania Geymonat and her girlfriend Chris – were beaten up on a bus by a group of men who wanted the two women to kiss for their entertainment. The women refused to put on a “show” for the men. The men left Melania with a suspected broken nose. A tale old as time: homophobia combining with misogyny like ammonia with bleach. Not only did the couple have the audacity to be women unaccompanied by men, they also had the nerve to be lesbians in public. And lesbians, they only exist for men’s titillation, right?
Most of the lesbian couples I know have stories that fall somewhere in between mine and my girlfriend’s, and Malania and Chris’s. I have friends who have been intimidated, followed and ultimately made to fear for their lives by men who can’t (or just won’t) grasp the idea of two women in love, without wanting a man to be involved.
So what are we supposed to tell young LGBTQ people? That “it gets better”? That the dark days are over? I want, more than anything, for them to stand tall and kiss their partners, and be sparkly, and screw with gender norms until the cows come home. I also don’t want them to get hurt. Our rate of evolution, they must understand, is a lot faster than heterosexuals’. While we debate pronouns and the corporate appropriation of Pride, they continue to punch us in the face for merely existing.