As someone who has for the most part been involved in “straight” relationships (despite identifying as bisexual/pansexual), the question of heterosexual privilege is something that troubles me often. When I’ve been in relationships with women, I have without a doubt felt more “legitimate” in identifying as queer, even though I realise the problem inherent in this thought process. The pressing political need for recognition has also been more salient during these times. Turns out walking through the mall holding hands with your girlfriend garners a lot of gawking. I never experienced any danger of any kind but I have many friends who recount feeling unsafe because of their queerness in public spaces.
“Straight” hand-holding gleans no such double takes. In fact, people assume that you are coupled up even if you’re not holding hands. This is opposed to the girl-on-girl scenario wherein if you escape blatant discrimination it’s probably just because people think “hmmnn…maybe they’re just really close friends?”
The list of privileges for the straight hand-holders seems obvious (see this post from Queers United for the full gamut of heterosexual privileges to mull over). For one thing, there’s recognition of the relationship, but there’s also no real danger of encountering social-norm policing about said relationship manifesting as violence of any kind, physical or psychic.
However, the problem of the notion of heterosexual privilege is that it ascribes heterosexuality to heterosexual-seeming couples, thereby risking erasure of the queer complexities unknown about the relationship being judged. Unless you wear your kink, polyamory, bi-proclivities or otherwise on your sleeve, the man-and-woman-holding-hands scenario is going to be lumped into the category of normative heterosexuality. This point isn’t to deny that material and social privileges exist for the heterosexual-seemers, but it undoubtedly contributes to a problematic social notion that sexuality can easily be defined by the categories of straight and gay (with in-betweeners oscillating between the two poles).
Part of this problem is the assumed erasure of past experiences and desires in relation to the person you are currently holding hands with. How often do we hear the story of someone coming “out of the closet” after years of a “fake” heterosexual marriage? These kind of narratives reinforce the notion that desires should conform to one spectrum of the hetero-homo pole, in such a way that all temporality is reconfigured in light of one’s current sexual trajectory. That is not to say that the labels and identities that people align themselves with don’t matter – they should be respected. But next time I catch myself in some hetero-hand holding, I’ll try and remember who I was, am and might be… and in doing so resist the tempting oversimplification that happens when I see other possible dyads, triads, partners and complex kinship relations hanging out in public spaces.