Nicole Dennis-Benn: Who’s Allowed to Hold Hands?

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An Op-Ed piece by Jamaican novelist Nicole Dennis-Benn for the New York Times.

On our first date, I dared to give her a lingering hug on a crowded subway platform on West Fourth Street, an unusual display of physical affection on my part, which I blamed on the wine. It was the start of spring, the city in bloom.

Charmed by the hug, she agreed to see me again.

We wandered the city, strolling through the Upper West Side and Harlem. Smiling her shyest smile, she told me she dreamed of living in Harlem and starting a family after finishing graduate school. I began to visit her at her studio in Washington Heights, where we would spend hours.

She would make us dinner, mostly pasta sprinkled with Parmesan cheese — the only thing she knew how to cook. We spent evenings watching CNN and debating politics, whether or not Obama would win the election. By the time she laced her fingers with mine and kissed me as we sat crisscrossed on her carpeted floor, our mouths reeking of garlic and tomato sauce, it felt like we had known each other all our lives.

During one of our evening strolls, our hands brushed. It never crossed my mind until then to hold hers in public. I felt a thumping in my chest when I did. She took my hand without question or pause, as if she expected it.

It felt so right. No one blinked an eye. Then one sultry day that summer, I felt comfortable enough to lean in and kiss her in Central Park where we were sitting on a beach towel. I never knew something inside me was transforming until the L-word slipped from my lips and she smiled.

 I wasn’t always like this. I hadn’t been around displays of affection growing up. My stepfather and mother were in love but showed it only with a subtle smile across the room or a vague innuendo that passed as swiftly as a breeze rustling the mango trees.

At 17, I moved to the United States from Jamaica, where I had felt as if I were the only lesbian in a country in which police turn a blind eye to mob violence against gays and sex between men is punishable by law. When I arrived in New York City and had the opportunity to date women, I was still glancing over my shoulders.

At first, I kept my romantic affairs with women casual, never getting too invested. Though I was out about my sexuality, I never felt the need to display affection in public. But when I met my future wife, things changed. We wanted to hold hands everywhere. We kissed goodbye on the subway and put our arms around each other in the theater to keep warm.

This might seem like nothing for a straight couple. But I’ve noticed that there is a strange hierarchy of handholding that dictates who gets to express physical affection without repercussions. For straight couples it’s fine, of course. For white gay couples it’s a little less fine. For black lesbians like us, it can feel like a radical act.

Two years into our relationship, I convinced her to move to Brooklyn, where I had been renting. Bedford-Stuyvesant was more affordable than her Harlem fantasy.

We also fit easily into the scene on Fulton Street, with its mostly African-American and Caribbean population. A place where the bass of dancehall and reggae merged with hip-hop and old-school R&B; a place where one can smell curried goat and jerk chicken alongside fried chicken and catfish. A place where summer months mean block parties, people-watching on stoops and strolling through the neighborhood to another backyard barbecue. A seemingly urban utopia populated by well-dressed transplants and those born and bred in the “do-or-die.”

But I would soon learn that it is one thing to be black and lesbian in this urban utopia and another thing to act on it.

The man was no taller than 5-foot-7. Yet he seemed to hover over us, with shoulders spread like the wings of a falcon. In his eyes were the flames he swallowed, his pupils hardened into something we couldn’t break. “No Rasta woman do dat,” he said with a sneer.

He gestured wildly at us with our dreads, our hands intertwined, me in a summer dress and her in cutoff shorts and a tank top. Surely he was not talking about our outfits but the fact that we were holding hands. He flung his condemning words into the sudden soundlessness of busy Fulton Street.

This had happened to us many times since moving to Brooklyn, but this time stood out because of his insistence on causing a scene.

My wife glared at him. “Only a coward picks on women,” she said.

He came menacingly close and repeated his words. But before my wife could say anything more, I tugged her arm and said, “Just keep walking.” My chest tightened and I felt helpless, reduced to a position of surrender like I would have been back home.

Gone from my mind in that moment was the fact that I was on American soil. I may have been able to flee the intolerance of my homeland, but it turns out that intolerance moved to New York City too.

Now there are times when my wife and I walk out of our building without reaching for each other’s hand, already too weary of the reactions we may get. Too weary of the gestures or comments that may ruin a night or an entire day.

Some Jamaican men seem to take it as a personal affront to their manhood when they see us together. After we pass, they spit words at our backs like chewed-up cane husks: “Sodomites!”

From the sides of my eyes, I can see them adjust themselves, getting ready to rise from their squatting positions and haul themselves onto soapboxes. I squeeze my wife’s hand, chilled by the hostile stares, angry that I let them get to me.

We’re married, I remind myself, holding on tighter, my wedding band pressing uncomfortably into my flesh.

By the time the man with the loud mouth hovered over us, I had almost given up fighting. Days before, we had encountered another black lesbian couple. We knew them — they are part of the large yet still mostly familiar population of black lesbians who seek asylum in Bed-Stuy because of its affordability.

When the couple saw that we were holding hands, they said, “You two are brave! We don’t hold hands around these parts of town.”

While a white lesbian couple could walk holding hands or even tongue kiss in the middle of the street, lesbians of color, particularly black lesbians, have a hard time doing the same. I felt outraged when this became more apparent to me, as an open femme, who can pass as straight — the ultimate trigger for men who have a hard time accepting that women like us are out of reach.

The fact that we could not openly love each other as black women without some men presuming ownership of our bodies shook me to the core. Something had to give. I had not left a homophobic country to continue living in fear in America.

But on that bright evening, as the man lambasted us on the street corner, I relapsed and pulled my wife away. “You don’t know what he’s capable of!” I snapped, surprised at my words and ashamed that I’d turned my fear into rage toward her. But I did not want to lose the woman I love to someone who appeared to have nothing to lose.

I clenched my teeth to steady my words. I could hear my heart pounding between my ears. Meanwhile, the man stared us down. He shook his head, baffled; our public display of our love appearing to cut him deeply, causing rippled lines across his dark forehead.

“My girl,” he whispered with a hint of possession, of familiarity. “How can you embrace dat lifestyle?” He clutched his chest in pain, looking at me as though I was the one who needed to be reasoned with — as though I had lost my mind in this foreign land with this foreign disease. “You know bettah.”

That evening, my wife and I walked home without holding hands, and I had never felt so robbed. I became angry at the world, at myself, at my wife. I grew so angry, in fact, that I could not be angry anymore, especially when I realized that I could destroy our love with my pent-up rage.

Walking down the street holding my wife’s hand is perfectly normal, I told myself. And I have become determined to fight for this love and our freedom to express it. Gays and lesbians before us fought for this, and we would too. We would dare to find a home, our place, on Fulton Street, as we have found a home in each other.

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