Waymon Hudson

Gay PDA? Call 911.

Filed By Waymon Hudson | April 29, 2008 1:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Media
Tags: 20/20, gender expression, public displays of affection, same-sex couples, television

20/20 recently did a segment on public displays of affection (PDAs) between same-sex couples as part of their "What would you do" series. While many on the gay blogosphere tried to see the good in the reactions of passerby's in Birmingham, Alabama and New Jersey, I think the experiment itself was flawed and insulting.

It should be noted that the PDA wasn't hard core making out or public sex. It was tame arm-around-the-shoulder affection and the occasional chaste peck on the cheek or lips. The response, however, was anything but tame.

The most obvious and egregious response was when a person from Birmingham called 911 to report that there were two men "kissing and drooling" on each other and asked the operator to send a police car. And they did.

The video of the segment and my thoughts are after the jump...


iPhone users: Click to watch

Here's a transcript of the 911 call:

Operator: "Birmingham Police operator 9283"

Caller: "We have a couple of men sitting out on the bench that have been kissing and drooling all over each other for the past hour or so. It's not against the law, right?"

Operator: "Not to the best of my knowledge it's not."

Caller: "So there's no complaint I could make or have?"

Operator: "I imagine you could complain if you like ma'am. We can always send an officer down there."

So not only did the person call in an emergency of two men sitting on a bench together (which somehow turned to "drooling all over each other" in her head), but the 911 operator actually suggested that maybe an officer should come down.

And what happened when the officer came down? He was let in on the news show's experiment, yet still told the men to: "Just don't do that in public."

If that was his reaction after the show told him it was a hidden camera experiment, imagine what it might have been if he didn't know...

Pretty PDA only need apply

Now I will say that some people were kind in both Birmingham and Jersey. However, this is where the flaws of the show come into play. Both the male and female couple were pretty, nonthreatening people. The men and women were all movie-star attractive.

Of course, men seemed to like the two attractive women kissing ("it was hot") and even women seemed to be okay with the two men because they were "good eye candy."

I wonder how the reaction would have been if they were average-looking folks who didn't look like movie stars sitting on a bench together. If it wasn't "hot" people kissing, would the reaction have been the same?

I doubt it.

Traditional Gender Roles only, please...

The other glaring problem was that both men were hyper masculine, muscle-types. Of course no one was going to bash them or be too aggressive because they looked like they could kick your ass.

I wonder if the same could be said if you put two feminine skinny boys there.

I would imagine that a less traditionally "masculine" couple would have gotten much more harassment and even faced bodily harm and danger.

The same could be said about the women. Both were pretty fem girls. Both were men's fantasies of lesbians, so the reaction to them was to turn them into harmless sex objects. Men approached them and hit on them in packs.

However, stick a nice butch girl on the bench and I can see the scene turning more violent. Men would have their masculinity threatened and responded with typical machismo.

By using only what many consider to be acceptable gender roles, it really became a Hollywood set rather than a true experiment of what people's reaction would be to anyone that seemed different or in the least bit vulnerable to attack.

All you have to do is look at the pictures of hate crimes victims and see that the majority of them are those that don't fit into gender stereotypes. The issue of gender expression was glossed over.

Just the tip of the iceberg...

To me the whole premise is a bit insulting: "You can't turn on the TV nowadays without gays kissing..." Because you NEVER see hetero couples kissing on TV. Ever. The underlying assumption is that gay affection is still something dirty and different.

It was good for people to see the visceral reaction of many folks to even mild affection between same-sex couples. However, the experiment wasn't representative of what many LGBT people go through on a daily basis.

If these pearly-teethed, Hollywood folks get shaken down by the police and glared at for having their arms around each other, what hope do the rest of us have?


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Wow, this was really interesting. I can't believe someone actually called 911 because those two guys were sitting together on the bench.
The last lady in the video has it right, love is love!!
All these Bible thumpers need to re-read the Bible and find out what it actually says!

I agree Jenn. It's also interesting how two guys with their arms around each other turned into "drooling all over each other" in her call to the police...

I don't do PDA in America, esp. since I live out in Indiana when I'm there. (Although in Walla Walla I did hold a boy's hand down the street one night. He had just driven up from Beverly Hills.)

Out here in St. E, it's pretty much the same thing. But in some areas of Paris and Lyon I've started to open up with Alberto. It's interesting b/c outside of the gayborhoods in those towns we're pretty much the only same sex couple holding hands. And making out. A lot.

We get some stares and most people are indifferent, but in Lyon there was an American frat boy type student group and one guy shouted that we were "fucked up" because we were kissing chastely (I think he thought we didn't know English... he was half right). And in Paris we got honked at, and when I turned to look, it was two women on a motorcycle together! Fun stuff.

All in all, yeah, those are some pretty good criticisms of this. I wish someone (like a university) would do a real social experiment along these lines. I know that at my college some UG's would do it for the social psych class a few years back, but nothing controlled. It'd be interesting.

Awesome post, Waymon.

Great insights.

A few years ago, while I was working in the queer press, we tried to run a project where we took pictures of couples kissing for the magazine. I was shocked at how many open, committed and proud same-sex couples refused to participate - even in nonthreatening locations like queer bars - because they weren't comfortable expressing affection a) in public and b) in front of a camera.

Not everyone, but certainly a significant number of people still felt that showing public affection for their partners was taboo or something to be ashamed of. One of the comments I heard a lot was, "I don't want to see straight people kissing in public, either." I don't buy it.

Bruce Parker Bruce Parker | April 29, 2008 6:03 PM

I may have a death wish. I don't really consider the context in terms of PDA unless I already feel unsafe for some reason. It would just never occur to me to only be myself in certain spaces. Unlike and Alex and his new man I am not much for public making out (unless public sex is on the agenda that day) but am pretty big on expressing affection when I feel like it.

That said if I am already feeling unsafe in the environment I am very self-conscious of pda. I think Indiana was actually where I felt most safe.


My girlfriend will be coming to visit in two weeks and I told her that the Atlanta area is not the best place for PDA. It tears at my very being to not be able to hold her hand or give her a kiss like I did when I was a man married to a woman.

I have lived both sides of the issue and it pisses me off. I don't want some ass pull out a gun on the streets of Atlanta and blow us away because they think they have the right to do so. Why do I have to worry about my life when I am with the woman I love?

We will, however, give each other a big hug and kiss on the curb at the airport when I pick her up, and at that point, to hell with everyone else. When we go to the gay locations in Atlanta, we will also not be so reserved. The adjustment for me is easy, but she is a new trans woman and the memories of how she got to act as a man are much fresher. I hope we can have some forms of PDA when she's here.

Well, the first thing I noticed was the source. It's 20/20 trying to get a controversial subject on the air so they can advertise, etc. Uh, sensationalized I think they call it. Those guys are drop dead gorgeous, I would be staring too! The same with the women, they are very attractive from a cultural persective. They are wearing clothing that is very gender specific and their hair/makeup seems to be perfectly "20/20". Neither couple was in their Saturday morning walking the dog just woken up look.

So, I don't get too riled up because it was staged and I have grown cynical towards that sort of TV journalism. Is there some truth to the reactions of the spectators? Yeah, I think so, I was certainly disturbed by the 911 call. I'm not surprised by the Alabaman's reactions. The Deep South in America is an easy pot shot to take which only takes away from the credibility of the story.


Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | April 29, 2008 11:23 PM

Although I am still for throwing away the entire bible with the exception of the 23rd Psalm I cannot resist:

"...and Judas betrayed him with a kiss."

No wonder they hung Christ on a tree.

unless public sex is on the agenda that day

Well, it is Paris....

"You can't turn on the TV nowadays without gays kissing..." Because you NEVER see hetero couples kissing on TV. Ever. The underlying assumption is that gay affection is still something dirty and different.

That was my first reaction too, Waymon.

Have you seen the one they did on opposite-sex partner abuse? They had mixed race couples in a park acting out an argument where one partner is threatening the other to see how many people would intervene. I have to admit, one of the women who stepped in moved me to tears.