Holding Hands: Experiences of Shame, Pride and Protest among LGBTQ Relationship Partners

Our project explores the experiences of shame, pride or protest amongst lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer (LGBTQ) relationship partners around ‘holding hands’ in public. The project is based at the University of Essex and funded by a British Academy/Leverhulme Small Research Grant.

Prejudice hurts. It’s not just physical violence (a real possibility for LGBTQ people across the world, and in some places a regular reality) that can leave an imprint, it’s how the fear of that violence can affect how we live – and love.

 Over the last ten years, after books The Velvet Rage by Alan Downs and my own, Straight Jacket, it’s become clearer that the experience of living in a world designed for straight and cis gendered people, has left the LGBTQ community with disproportionate levels of depression, addiction, body image issues and other issues related to mental health and wellbeing. Of course, thankfully, more of us thrive than ever before, but countless studies around the world now show the discrepancies, but not much research has been done into how homo and transphobia affect our relationships and our own attitudes towards our ability to be in those relationships.

 Even for those of us privileged to live in relaxed parts of big cities such as London, as I do, holding hands with a partner, that simple expression of intimacy that straight people never have to even think about, is something most LGBTQ people do give a great deal of thought to; and many of us, understandably, feel too self-conscious or scared to do in public. Indeed, it’s something many, perhaps most, never ever do.  And it’s for good reason. In 2019, UK police recorded 14,500 homophobic hate crimes and 2,333 against trans people, because of their gender identity. The UK LGBT rights lobby group Stonewall estimates only 1 in 5 hate crimes are reported.

 When researchers Poul Rohleder, Róisín Ryan-Flood and Julie Walsh, asked me to help with this study looking at LGBTQ peoples experiences of expressing intimacy in public, I was delighted to help. In some ways the results are self-selecting. People who feel strongly about this issue are obviously most likely to want to share their experiences. It’s true that seeing same sex couples holding hands is more common that ever before. Where I live in London, I see it most weeks, but not every day. I have also seen it in the University town of Canterbury and elsewhere, but there is no doubt that there are many places where most of us wouldn’t dream of holding the hand of a same sex (or queer) partner. I would also say there is not one same sex or queer couple who have never self-censored. From my own personal experience, I would suggest many same sex couples simply decide never to hold hands in public – at least the issue is then not a constant source of stress or discussion.

 Individuals and couples were invited to submit images that expressed some of their feelings and were interviewed about their thoughts and feelings. Below are some of the images and stories from the Holding Hands study. Click on an image to read the story behind it. More pictures and accompanying stories will be added, so come back to visit! Feel free to contact us and send us your comments.

Matthew Todd, Author of “Straight Jacket: Overcoming Society’s Legacy of Shame