I remember the first time I held her hand in public. Not where we were, how it felt. The headlines were full of the Rebecca Wight murder. Wight and her girlfriend had been camping in the woods. Another camper met them on the trail and, when he learned they were lesbians, he stalked them and then shot them 8 times, severely injuring Brenner and killing Wight. He was convicted for his crimes, not before his lawyer introduced the defense of "gay panic". In 1988, when the murders occurred, it was admissible in court to claim the panic of being exposed to homosexual behavior could create a legitimate, violent response.
I remember the act of courage it felt like, to reach over in a public mall in Orem, UT, and touch my fingers to her fingers. I remember forcing myself not to look around and see if people were looking as our hands slid from touching to entwined. I remember the simple, sweet feeling of her palm against my palm. And my racing heart, inspired by the first rush of romance and the background awareness of possible violence. Was I creating gay panic with my fingers caressing her fingers?
Other headlines, like Sakia Gunn and Matthew Shepherd's murders, furthered a belief of unexpected violence. Friends of mine, told me stories of being teens and playing "smear the queer" with their friends. (A game where several boys would chase one boy and then kind of beat on him.) They hadn't known what it meant and felt pretty awful about it. And where did they get the idea? Kids learn these things. In 1992, Colorado passed Amendment 2. The only place in the country where it became legal to discriminate against LGBT people. A psychologist, Glenda Russell, studied the impact and eventually wrote Voted Out. She learned minority groups show signs of PTSD when their basic human rights are voted on. That doesn't surprise me. I felt constantly under siege.
Flashback to 1999. I put gay bumper stickers on my car, hopeful I wouldn't find my tires slashed because of it. We moved to Tacoma, WA and bought wedding rings. We probably paid more for them than we should have, we were both so delighted when the salesperson commented we were a cute couple. She worked Borders and I ran the Rainbow Center, Tacoma's LGBT Center. We decided to be out, as much as possible, to stand for those who couldn't be out. I volunteered with the Legal Marriage Alliance of Washington and appeared on television and debated in public across the state. We were interviewed by the local paper, twice. We got married in Canada when it became legal and had it spread across the front page of the paper. And still, when she was stuck on the freeway in a snowstorm and I had to call the highway patrol, I told them my sister was trapped. I didn't want our gayness to delay her possible rescue. And I believed it might.
I didn't wonder if I was safe. I knew I wasn't. When 9/11 struck and the country reacted with panic and fear, I realized the rest of the population was having a moment of experiencing what I felt when I held my girlfriend's hand in public. I didn't feel less safe after 9/11, I felt less alone in knowing I wasn't.
We have come far. We have achieved social equality and legal equality in many areas. I don't fear for my life when I hold a woman's hand in public any more, most of the time. And, on Feb 10, I sat and listened to Orlando, a poem about the 2016 massacre of LGBT people at a nightclub in Florida. It reminds me however far we have come, we have farther to go.