A Gesture of Tenderness. On the Public Display of Affection
He was the first, and I was very much in love with him. Carlo was out, dressed flamboyantly, had black suede glam-rock boots, gave ultimate care to his black reddish colored hair and used make up. I was not at all like him. I was an uiltje, an owl. At least that was what the men in the bars and discos in The Hague called me behind my back: a boy or a man, who looked straight, but was gay. Carlo, who attended his last year at a traditional Christian Latin School and barely survived there, lived by himself in a small room above one of those bars, the Venice. One wall was decorated with aluminum foil on which a big poster of David Cassidy was taped; the other walls were painted in purple and black. The Venice, pronounced the French way by the regulars, was often a late stop on my nights out, then followed by one or sometimes two discos. And in one of those I had met Carlo.
Carlo was spoiled, by his adoring mother and by a sugar daddy, an elderly interior architect who lived behind the Queenâ€™s work palace Noordeinde, overlooking its gardens. A father was nowhere in sight. Carlo was sweet and sentimental and since love was about spoiling, he brought me big bouquets of roses, gave me presents like a Dusty Springfield record and a calendar dedicated to the graphic work of the decadent fin-de-siÃ¨cle artist Aubrey Beardsley. Gay-ish stuff, pricey for a high school kid. Although I was already a student in Amsterdam and in that way his senior, he treated me like a pet and showed me off in his world. I honestly didnâ€™t know exactly what to do with him in my world: my friends were just a tiny bit nicer than usual and my family was stunned by his presentation and his demeanor.
Our love did not last long, maybe half a year, but Carlo made me do something, which I never did before and hardly ever did after. At one of his visits to Amsterdam, where I had a room in a student house, we walked in the Kalverstraat, the main shopping street in the old center, which leads from Dam Square to the Mint. In front of the fancy Fiorucci clothing store, he grabbed my hand and held it the way lovers do on a stroll. But it was 1973, even in liberal Amsterdam. It was maybe a proud gesture, maybe passionate, but it was for sure provocative. And so we walked down Kalverstraat stared at by the many shoppers, who saw a colorful gay boy with an owl at his side.
I learned from that experience and gave him some time later a kiss on the lips on the crowded platform before boarding the Sunday evening train from The Hague, back to Amsterdam. When I took my seat at the window and waved to Carlo, a man opposite of me, who had seen the small scene, said: â€˜Well doneâ€™. I liked that and felt supported, but instead of starting a conversation with him, I didnâ€™t dare to look him in the eyes or to say a word; I felt embarrassed and kept quiet till he deboarded halfway the trip in Haarlem.
Over 40 years later men walking hand in hand, let alone kissing, is in most of Holland, where I am from, and in most of the US, where I live, still a provocative gesture. A young handsome couple walked a few days ago close to my home hand in hand over Court Street in Brooklyn and the sight is still so unusual that I felt the urge to applaud them, which would have taken away the normalcy, which they sought and deserved, and I needed to respect. Yes, same sex couples gained by now almost all the same rights straight couples have, but one thing is still absent and that is the right of the public display of affection, a right no law can offer.
I remember the relief I felt on the first trip my now husband and I made together in the eighties to Italy. We walked down the winding stone paved road from the station halfway up the mountain through the still undiscovered village of Vernazza down to the harbor: my arm loosely over the shoulder of my friend. Italians may be resistant toward gay rights, but most of them donâ€™t see anything unusual in male affection.
And I remember how we in the nineties halted in broad summer sunlight on the warm wooden walkway and kissed happily, before proceeding our way from our rental to the Pines Pantry in one of the two LGBT communities on Fire Island, to shop for food. I donâ€™t like ghettos, but we loved being there and to expressing our love not being gazed at.
I donâ€™t think - but God and my therapist only know - that I have any serious issue with being a gay man in a straight world, but I resent that I never learned how to be tender and soft and touchy and sweet and childish, outside the constraints of a house or a bar or a ghetto, to the one I love the most. It might have affected our inside relationship as well, for you need some training to become that kind of person. I observed that training closely in my two years older and extravert brother: I saw it with joy and with - never fulfilled - anticipation, and with sadness as well, since I understood that I could not follow in his straight footsteps. An important human experience was never available to me and as far as I can see is still not available.
This sadness became urgently painful after we got children. Our kids very seldom see spontaneous intimacy between their parents outside the home. And I wonder what they think when we show those feelings inside the home: they might - somewhere down - perceive it, with their eyes so profoundly used to straight gestures of love and affection, as awkward. And further: we cannot model for them how to deal with affection and love in public. They and we have to rely on straight people.
I wish for all young LGBT people and for their future kids that somebody will start a tender coming out week, where we can show love in the public space, not in a parade, but just where we happen to be: in restaurants, while bringing the kids to school, in school, on the street, in shops, at the movies, on the beach. I hope these gestures will not be seen or felt as gestures of provocation anymore, but as gestures of tenderness. And I hope that that week becomes a month and then a year and so on.