Maybe it’s because my Venus is in Leo, but I love PDA. I’ve never understood everyone’s disdain for it. Can it be performative? I mean, sure. But that doesn’t negate how grounded it made me feel in my earlier relationships with men — or how much overall joy it brings me now.
But my feelings surrounding PDA get a little bit more complicated when I consider my attraction to women and femme-identifying folks. Growing up, I never thought I would leave the proverbial closet. I used to stare enviously at same-sex couples, wondering how they found the courage to embark on a relationship, much less be open about it in public. Meanwhile, I was scared to let the word “bisexual” even leave my lips. I had learned that non-hetero identities were immoral, that we went against biology. In church, I heard disdain for homosexuality more than I heard people rebuke acts of violence.
And yet, as I navigated semi-dark party atmospheres in early adulthood, I saw public displays of affection between women encouraged. Men have offered to buy me drinks and food just so they can watch my friends and me make out. I admit that a younger me sometimes obliged. When I analyze those experiences, I realize that I was constantly searching for permission to embrace my identity, and that those nights temporarily provided it. I also felt like an object. There was social capital for men who were present for my “wildness.” They would take pictures or even record those hookups, which they had completely divorced from a queer identity. Meanwhile, I was grappling with what my desires meant in the aftermath.
Now that I openly date women and femme-presenting folks, PDA is multi-layered. I still love it, but I can feel our kisses being consumed by cishet men in the vicinity. Sometimes, I can hear them whistling or calling their friends over to watch. I wish they knew that these moments aren’t for them. But queer women are so hypersexualized and fetishized that even seeing two of us on a date is perceived as an invitation.
On one occasion, I was seated at a bar with a woman I was interested in when a guy plopped down beside us. It was past two in the morning and we were basically alone, except for the bar staff and two other guests on the far side of the space.
“I saw you when you were outside,” this new guy told us, winking.
My date and I had stepped outside to smoke and had ended up kissing. He, apparently, was closing up the bar next door. And he’d seen us. He’d been watching the whole time. He referred to my hand touching her waist. He told us we were “bad girls” as if he thought we were starring in an adult film.
That man wrapped one arm around my date’s shoulders. He insisted that we leave with him, promising to provide drinks. He even tried to offer us a job at his bar. He operated as if we only needed the right motivation to join him, even though we repeatedly told him to leave us alone. When he finally gave up and left the bar entirely, we realized that he’d only ever stepped inside to chase us.
According to the United Nations, bi+ women (and those perceived as such) are at a significantly higher risk for sexual assault and rape than other women. We’re also less likely to be believed. Black women, as well, are particularly at risk for sexual violence and are perceived as less believable victims. Standing at the intersection of those two identities, I wonder if my public displays of affection with other women are foolish. I consider other instances where my benign romantic behaviors invited questions like, “Do you guys eat each other out?” and “Who wears the strap-on?”
They were an example of who I could be if I ever found the courage. They showed me what it was to be proud.
I remember kissing my partner on the train once, only to be screamed at by an older black woman.
“My children can see you,” she told me. Back then, I was too ashamed to say anything.
And of course, I consider some infamous examples of anti-LGBTQ violence. In 2006, the “New Jersey 7” were attacked in New York by a man who flung slurs at them and threatened to rape them “straight.” In 2016, a teen lesbian couple was shot dead in Texas. More recently, a man called a woman homophobic slur and attacked her the NYC subway after he saw her kiss another female passenger. She left with a fractured spine.
There are hundreds of other news stories like these. There are plenty of statistics about the danger of being queer and female in the public sphere. Unsurprisingly, a study last year indicated that two-thirds of LGBTQ people in the U.K. are afraid to hold hands in public.
At the same time, there is something deeply political about kissing my female partners after more than a decade in the closet. What used to be an alcohol-fueled performance at bars is something that now can happen in broad daylight. I remember the first time a woman reached for my hand across a restaurant table and how we ordered wine and dessert like a regular couple. It took me so long to get there. To this day, the novelty of holding another woman’s hand can move me to tears.
And I remember the female couples I used to stare at when I was in the closet. I stared because I was envious, yes, but also because those couples were rare. They weren’t hyper-visible when I was a teenager so when I found them, I noticed. They were an example of who I could be if I ever found the courage. They showed me what it was to be proud.
As dangerous as it is to be a visible bisexual black woman, it is even more dangerous for people to think we do not exist. It is dangerous for someone on the train to think they can police who I kiss because of what their children might see. It is dangerous for young people, who may also identify as LGBTQ, not to see representations of themselves in public spaces.
And most importantly, visibility is what I owe to my former self. It’s my gift to the young woman who was once seeking permission and validation just to lean in for a kiss. She deserves it.