Not Just Another Day at the Beach

Not Just Another Day at the Beach

[June 11, 2017]

When Stacy, my husband, and I first began seeing each other in 2001, we lived in different cities. Stacy lived in Kingston and worked at Queen’s University and I lived in Toronto pursuing my freelance illustration career while working part time at OCAD University. Those first few months together were magical. Though it was long distance—a three-hour drive— we had a very meaningful and deep connection right from the start. Seeing each other every second weekend meant that our time together was limited but because of that it was also very special. I remember being very mindful of my visits with Stacy, carefully logging every watershed moment of our relationship in my memory. I had been alone for so long that I was determined to be acutely aware of every special moment that Stacy and I shared together and my memory library of that time is very vast indeed.

Like everyone does in a special relationship I, of course, remember our first kiss. It was sweet and passionate and I remember feeling a rush of adrenaline when I felt his stubble brush against my lips— an unfamiliar sensation for sure but one that I found that I thoroughly enjoyed. We kissed in front of the bookcase in his living room after having talked an entire night away. Etched in vivid detail alongside that memory are other moments that were equally important to me. Even now, I get teary-eyed thinking about the first time I fell asleep with him holding me, or remember the night that we came home late from a smoky party and he tenderly washed my hair. I guess that I took such care remembering those moments because even way back in the beginning I knew that I had found someone very special.

Now, watershed moments come in two varieties. There are the ones that you remember because they fill your heart with joy and change you for the better and then, unfortunately, there are the ones that you wish you could forget. Though I have many positive memories from the beginning of my relationship with Stacy, there is one negative thing that happened to us during that time that irrevocably changed the way that we both look at the world.

As I said, in those first few months Stacy and I were ridiculously happy. We cherished every moment that we spent together and were so gratefully that the universe had brought us both together. On one gorgeous summer day when I was in Kingston visiting Stacy for the weekend, we were invited by some of Stacy’s work colleagues to a public beach on a lake north of Kingston. Packing our towels and sunscreen we jumped at the opportunity to take advantage of such a beautiful day. Arriving at the beach, we found a sprinkling of people already there enjoying the sunshine. Surveying our surroundings we quickly found a spot - between a family playing frisbee and a young straight couple making out - and laying our towels down we claimed it as our own. Our day was spent joking and laughing with each other as we alternated from swimming in the lake to sunning ourselves on the beach.

Midway through the day, after taking a dip in the lake, I returned to my place on the towels by Stacy’s side. Grabbing a book that one of Stacy’s colleagues had brought, I leaned against him and absent-mindedly began leafing through the book. After a while, a shadow appeared and I looked up to see the man who had been playing frisbee with his children. I innocently thought he was perhaps going to ask us for the time, or something like that. Instead, in a self-assured voice he looked us both in the eye and said “Hey guys, this is a family place.”

Taken by surprise, I blankly starred at the man trying to grasp what he was saying. There was disapproval in his voice and anger behind his eyes. Once my initial shock subsided, I realized that the man before us was having a problem with me sitting so close to Stacy. Having watched us interact with each other all day, he probably realized that we were gay and felt it was his right to let us know that our public displays of affection—which consisted of me simply leaning against Stacy—were not at all welcome. Standing his ground a few feet from our faces, I could tell that the man was awaiting our response.

After what seemed like an eternity, I tried in vain to find the words that would put this man in his place. The words never came.

It was Stacy, instead, who broke the silence that afternoon. With a courage that I could not muster, but will always respect, Stacy stared up at the man trying to intimidate us and simply said “We are a family, sir”. I don’t know how he found the courage in that moment to stand up for us. How he had the presence of mind to come up with such a perfect response—one that did not escalate the situation and make it worse but instead just shut it down—I will always be proud of him for so expertly holding his own.

Seeing that he could not intimidate us so easily, the man backed down and made his way back to his family, who were all watching the scene unfold. As he walked away, as a parting jab, he told us that we were “a fucking sick family” and though those words were spoken to the sand and not directly to us they still unfortunately found their mark.

Though Stacy clearly won the argument we were still severely shaken by the confrontation and, gathering our friends out of the water, we quickly told them what had happened. Outraged by what had transpired, our friends insisted that we just ignore the man and his family and continue enjoying our day. Wanting to show the man that he hadn’t gotten to us, Stacy and I agreed to stay and tried our very best to put the incident behind us. After about 10 minutes, however, the full weight of the man's words began to overpower us and the feeling that we were no longer welcome on the beach became too much for us to bear. Asking our friends to leave, we cut our day short and got them to take us home.

On the car ride home we went over the incident in detail with our friends. We were angry. We couldn’t understand why we had been targeted and why just leaning up against each other had upset this man so much. When he spoke to us, it was clear that he believed that what we were doing was in someway “damaging” his children. From what we could tell, it didn’t even look like the children were aware of us at all until he confronted us. They had been having a blast, like any kids would, enjoying a fun day on the beach. But hate is learned. As far as we were concerned, his actions were teaching his children to hate us; that it was ok to confront others with your bigotry; surely his actions were far more damaging to his children than our subtle displays of affection could ever be.

But what was most upsetting and maddening was the hypocrisy. Stacy pointed out that just a few feet away from us, a mostly unclothed teenage boy and girl had literally been kissing and groping each other for most of the afternoon. But the man did not call them into question for being inappropriate. Clearly, their very sexualized behaviour was fine by him since they were a straight couple. But, for some reason, us leaning against one another and reading on a towel threatened the family beach. Being a gay couple was wrong. Our anger soon turned to despair.

When we arrived at Stacy’s apartment, and said good-bye to our friends, our emotions finally got the best of us. I remember standing in Stacy’s kitchen, that sunny afternoon, crying in each other’s arms. We cried that day because for a split second both of us wondered if we had done something wrong; denying that we had a right to be openly affectionate with one another. We cried that day because we both knew that that incident could have easily become violent, and the thought of either of us getting hurt chilled us to the bone. But most of all we cried that day because we became aware that there are people in this world who are going to hate us just because we love each other.

I wish I could say that we put that incident behind us and that it doesn’t affect how we relate to one another in public, but the truth is that incident deeply scarred us. I don’t ever want to be subjected and targeted by someone else’s hate again, and I certainly do not want to subject my husband Stacy to it. We are always careful now when we are out in public. We do not hold hands and we do not kiss in public—something that most straight couples likely take for granted and never even think about.

To some people, the simple act of holding the hand of my legally-wed husband is “flaunting” my sexuality. Though I certainly don’t believe that, I never want to put Stacy in potential danger because I know that there are people out there that would attack us verbally or physically (or both). Of course, such things should be equal but they’re not. The reality is that I live in a world where it’s okay for a man to hold a woman’s hand but it is unacceptable for me to hold the hand of the man that I love.

I wish that I didn’t feel this way. I wish I had the courage of the many young gay men and women that I see out there holding hands together. But the truth is that I am afraid. We both are. Though I am a proud gay man there are some things that I am not willing to risk and the safety of my husband and me is far more important to me than being able to hold his hand in public.

Now I know you are probably thinking that we have let the homophobes win, that they have taken something away from us, and in a way that is true. But, to leave things on a hopeful note, let me just tell you that though we are very cautious in public, every once and a while we throw that caution to the wind. We are not adverse to stealing a moment once and a while, like the time, two years ago on a secluded street in Venice, I stole a kiss from my beloved. We might not have been comfortable holding hands through the streets of Venice, which was a shame, but I’ll be damned if I wasn’t going to kiss my husband in one of the most romantic cities in the world; yet another watershed moment made all the more precious because of its rarity and the courage it took just to carry it out.

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