Who’s Allowed to Hold Hands?

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…

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