Monday, November 1, 2010

More Than Appropriate

This is my column for the November edition of The Triangle. To see the entire publication go to trianglelgbt.com.

The recent Cameron Village “incident” has been all over the media. Caitlin Breedlove and her girlfriend were asked to leave the popular shopping center by two security officials for displaying physical affection for one another. By now most of you have heard about the subsequent apology by York Properties (owners of Cameron Village), the suspension and required sensitivity training for the security guards, and a rally held on October 17 by Breedlove and about 100 supporters across the street from Cameron Village.

Some of our neighbors in the community who are less than supportive of LGBT rights have cried foul saying Cameron Village is private property and can do what it wants. Apparently these people missed the civil rights era and the Supreme Court rulings that determined private businesses open to the public cannot discriminate against certain consumers because they don’t like “their kind.” My word, the lunch counter sit-ins that helped spark the civil rights movement took place in Greensboro and Raleigh. You would think if people anywhere in this country should understand the basic legal principles at play in this situation it would be those who live in North Carolina.

Beyond the legal and ethical debates this event sparked, however, there is something else about this story that deeply disturbs me. It is the assumption by the security guards, and those who have been quick to jump to their defense, that displays of affection like holding hands and kissing are inappropriate.

We live in a society where our connections with people are increasingly made through electronic devices. Technology has made it possible to do many of the things we once had to do face to face. We can work from home, shop from home, develop friendships with people from all over the world without ever seeing them, and a host of other activities that just a few years ago would have been impossible without physically interacting with other people. The convenience of these cyber activities and connections is amazing. But what is it costing our souls and psyches to work, play, and relate to others without touch?

Americans have long been more repressed than other cultures around the world when it comes to physical touch. This truth struck me a few years ago when I made a trip to the Republic of Georgia. Georgia was a part of the Soviet Union and only gained its independence in the early nineties. It is a country dominated by the Orthodox Church and old traditions.

So, imagine my surprise when walking around the capital, Tbilisi, to see men walking hand-in-hand with men, and women holding hands with women. I thought I had discovered a gay utopia in this tiny Eastern European country. When I asked one of my hosts about the possibility that Georgia was far more gay-friendly than other places, she said I was misinterpreting what I was seeing. She remarked that it is perfectly normal in their society for friends of any kind to hold hands or link arms in public. Then my host laughed and said she had no doubt that some of the people I saw holding hands were gay, but that even the most macho straight guy in Georgia would not think twice about holding hands with a dear friend.

Which brings me back to the original charge made against Caitlin Breedlove and her girlfriend. The idea that two women holding hands or exchanging a quick kiss is inappropriate is obviously rooted in a deep homophobia. Yet, those who have bristled at this accusation say they don’t want to see such public displays of affection from anyone, gay or straight. And that comment makes me wonder what kind of society we are becoming.

To be fully human we need to love, to laugh, to play, and to touch one another. If what is “appropriate” is to stay disconnected and separate from each other we become a culture increasingly isolated. Affection in its many different hues and colors is one of the rare things that makes us feel whole. To say we need less of that in our world makes me sad.

As a counselor I occasionally will have a client who is in such distress that he or she will ask if I will hold his or her hand for a moment. Many therapists would consider any physical touch with a client to be inappropriate. I do not. The simple act of holding another person’s hand can make anxiety dissipate, reduce the sense of being alone in the world, and create a connection that makes sharing painful stories easier. Are there limits to this kind of touch. Of course, just as there are limits to most things in life. But to suggest all physical touch is inappropriate is absurd.

So, thank you Caitlin and anonymous friend for not only standing up against an obvious civil rights injustice, but for reminding us that one of the best things in life is the exchange of touch and loving affection. We all need more of it.

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About Me

former pastor who is now a pastoral counselor and consultant (mckinneycounseling.org); married with two teenagers; progressive in my politics and theology