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"Gays on a Plane": Kenji Yoshino on the Canoodling Controversy

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In the current issue of The Advocate, the Yale law professor comments on the galling story first recounted in Lauren Collins’s September 25 Talk:
I first encountered this story in The New Yorker’s Talk of the Town, a section to which I repeatedly turn for consolation after confirming that I have once again failed to win the Cartoon Caption Contest. I found the story oddly riveting. A spin through the blogosphere showed I was not alone. Why was the incident so compelling to so many? I came up with three answers.
First, the gays on the plane expected equal treatment. When Varnier was woken from his happy slumber on his boyfriend’s shoulder and told to “stop that,” he didn’t know what “that” meant. Before that rude awakening, he didn’t think of his “kissing” and “touching” as extraordinary. It was less like a gay kiss-in than a 1980s straight honeymoon.
The right to canoodle is not in the Constitution. The couple’s assumption that they had that right, however, marks a milestone in gay rights. When I teach gay history to my students I tell it as a history of weakening demands for conformity to straight norms—the demand to convert, the demand to pass, and the demand to cover. Through the middle decades of the 20th century gays were routinely pressured to convert to heterosexuality, whether through psychoanalysis, electroshock therapy, lobotomies, or even castration. After the rise of the gay rights movement the demand to convert shifted in emphasis toward the demand to pass—we were told that we would not be witch-hunted out of our closets so long as we spent our entire lives in them. And at the turn of the millennium the demand to pass is shifting toward the “demand to cover”—sociologist Erving Goffman’s phrase for how people experience pressure to downplay known stigmatized traits, even after we reveal them. Gays are increasingly told that we can be openly gay so long as we don’t “flaunt” our sexual orientation by being too “flamboyant,” too “militant,” or, as in this case, too “public” in our displays of affection for each other.
In other news, Robert Gottlieb’s son, Nicky Gottlieb, is the star of a new movie about life with Asperger Syndrome, directed by daughter Lizzie Gottlieb; the true complexity of women in James Webb’s novels; Truman Capote’s stuff is being auctioned off by Johnny Carson’s second wife; Ved Mehta returns to Arkansas for a visit; and the late Art Schroeder of Walnut Creek once dazzled Dorothy Parker on the dance floor.
If you’re thinking of bidding in the Capote free-for-all:
Among the other 337 lots is the tuxedo Capote wore to his famous Black and White Ball ($4,000 to $6,000), a 7.05-carat fancy colored diamond and emerald ring Joanne Carson received from Capote ($20,000 to $30,000); Capote’s passport ($1,000 to $1,500); a signed Richard Avedon portrait of Capote ($800 to $1,200) and a Courreges windbreaker he wore to Studio 54 with a “VIP complimentary drinks” ticket still in the pocket ($300 to $500).


I lived in France, where public displays of affection were commonplace and indulged in by all walks of life. I got used to it.
However, there are times when one is alone, perhaps recently dumped, and sitting next to or near enough to an overly affectionate couple (and there is such a thing as overly affectionate, even in France!), when a happy couple is liable to get on one’s nerves. Perhaps these gentlemen simply made someone else feel rather forlorn.
I once sat next to a heterosexual couple on a plane that would not stop noisily kissing — their kisses were as annoying as the constant cracking of gum: it began to make my ears feel very grouchy, and I’d have begged them to stop if I had the wherewithal to live it down for the rest of the flight!
That said, I have noticed that people (of every sexual orientation) tend to unconsciously redefine their notions of privacy in a contained space like an airplane cabin, often to the annoyance of other passengers. I say this no doubt being guilty of the same.

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