- Public displays of affection are more likely to elicit feelings of vigilance for individuals in same-sex, versus mixed-sex, relationships.
- Individuals who report having a more feminine partner in a same-sex relationship experience greater levels of PDA-related vigilance.
- Men in same-sex relationships who are themselves more feminine experience greater general levels of overall vigilance in public.
- Affection in women's same-sex relationships can draw unwanted sexual attention from male onlookers, sometimes leading to violence.
This article was co-authored with Lauren Matheson, a PhD student at the University of Victoria.
When you reach for your partner’s hand in public, what is the first thing that crosses your mind, if anything? While for many couples, public displays of affection (PDAs) are so innocuous that they may feel more instinctual than deliberate, such experiences can be more complex for individuals in same-sex relationships.
Indeed, same-sex PDAs can have serious consequences, ranging from discrimination to violence. Such was the case in the story of Melania Geymonat and Christine (Chris) Hannigan who were attacked on a London city bus in 2019 by a group of teenage boys. Melania and Chris were returning home after a date and had been casually affectionate with each other while riding the bus when the teenagers began making crude hand gestures representing sexual acts and asking the women to "kiss for them." The interaction culminated in the women being physically assaulted and robbed.
The experience of Chris and Melania is, unfortunately, not unique. Men and women in same-sex relationships face the prospect of violence whenever they share affection in public, as doing so "outs" them and their relationship. As a result, many LGBTQ people report feeling vigilant about engaging in PDAs. Indeed, when they reach for a partner’s hand, they must first consider whether the environment is free of potential threats.
Chris and Melania's story garnered significant media attention focusing on the continued, and potentially increasing, levels of societal homophobia that may have contributed to the event. However, could there have been more at play? Melania herself questioned whether the story would have received the media attention it did if they had not been two “conventionally attractive, cisgender, white women.” Indeed, their gender expression raises the question of what specifically landed them in the crosshairs of the group of young men—was it their femininity, their gender, their relationship, their sexuality, or some combination of the above?
New Research on Gender Expression and PDAs
Researchers at four Canadian universities, including myself, recently published an article in the Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality exploring the role of gender expression in the experiences of affection sharing within same-sex relationships. Participants were 528 individuals currently in same-sex relationships. Participants described their own gender expression as well as that of their partner in terms of how masculine and/or feminine they appeared on any given day.
The Feminine Target
The results of the study indicated that the more men and women in same-sex relationships described their partners as being feminine, the more vigilant they themselves were—both in terms of general awareness of their surroundings as well as specific awareness connected to sharing affection in public. In other words, having a feminine partner appears to have drawn individuals’ attention to the potential risks they may face when in public.
The study also detected some gender differences, such that men in same-sex relationships reported engaging in PDAs less frequently than women, and reported, on average, higher levels of PDA-related vigilance. These findings make sense given the generally higher levels of hostility directed at queer men, compared to queer women. Women in same-sex relationships may feel that they can generally "fly under the radar" in terms of PDAs due to society’s general acceptance of platonic affection between women. However, this acceptance often comes at the price of invalidation or invisibility, such that affection between two women in a relationship with each other may be misconstrued as affection between sisters or friends. Once their affection is recognized as intimate, the situation can quickly change, as it did for Chris and Melania, resulting in their affection being eroticized by onlookers.
Men and women in same-sex relationships also varied in how their vigilance was associated with their own gender expression as well as that of their partner. For men, when they themselves were more feminine, they reported higher levels of general vigilance—or a heightened awareness of their surroundings and sources of danger when in public. When men reported that their partners were feminine, this was associated with increased PDA-related vigilance, such that they became more aware of their surroundings specifically within the context of sharing affection with their partner.
The findings were somewhat more nuanced for women. The highest level of PDA-related vigilance was reported by women who described their partners as being highly feminine and not at all masculine. This may be related to the hyper-sexualization of highly feminine women, causing them to be viewed as "performing" their femininity in service of the male gaze. Given the eroticization of lesbians, feminine women in same-sex relationships may be particularly susceptible to unwanted sexual advances, the rejection of which may escalate into violence.
Indeed, Melania expressed her belief that women in same-sex relationships make “men feel displaced… because they’re not invited, they’re not needed, and it drives them crazy" (White & Geymonat, 2002). Other research has also noted that men’s feelings of anger over expressions of femininity that are not performed for them are often connected to a variety of violent outcomes, including sexual assault.
The Role of Masculinity
But what about the experience of having a more masculine partner in a same-sex relationship? Men with partners rated as more masculine showed lower levels of PDA-related vigilance. Women who described their partners as being relatively high in masculinity with a moderate amount of femininity perceived the greatest amount of support for their affection sharing habits.
However, feelings of PDA-related vigilance increased for women who reported having very masculine same-sex partners who were not at all feminine. As the authors put it, for women in same-sex relationships, “once a partner’s masculinity is sufficiently high to denote a stereotypical [lesbian] aesthetic” affection within that relationship serves to clearly "out" the couple as queer, thus opening the door to homophobia.
Overall, women in same-sex relationships must walk a fine line in terms of gender expression, displaying just the right amounts of femininity and masculinity. Given that most women likely fail to find the perfect "sweet spot," most gender expressions within women’s same-sex relationships may lead to increased perceptions of risk and associated vigilance when sharing affection in public, uniquely underscoring the combined experiences of sexism, homophobia, and femmephobia (the devaluation and regulation of femininity).
Preventing Future Violence
The bus attack on Chris and Melania was not an isolated incident and is linked to a pattern of homophobia, sexism, and femmephobia. Repeated incidents and new research show the importance of combating not only sexual prejudice but increasing acceptance of gender diversity and fluidity, particularly with respect to femininity.
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