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Although life for LGBT+ people in the UK is generally a lot easier now than in previous decades, a multitude of invisible barriers can still stop LGBT+ people from feeling fully at ease in public.

Whether it is incidents of hate crime, or gay couples being asked to leave supermarkets for kissing, visibility is often met with retribution.

Public hand-holding, which to heterosexual couples may seem normal and mundane, is a frontier that many gay couples are still fearful to cross.

A 2017 survey revealed that more than half of gay men are too scared to hold hands with another man in public.

To learn more about why so many couples are still fearful of showing public affection, we spoke to UK-based LGBT+ couples about their experiences of holding hands in public.

For 29-year-old Danny Shocklidge and his boyfriend, whether to hold hands is a constant negotiation that depends on their surroundings.

He says:

We do hold hands, but it is dependent on feeling safe. For instance, we don’t hold hands in my hometown

Danny’s experiences of growing up in a rural town, where he was attacked twice growing up for being gay, contribute to this unease.

You can say times change, but they don't change at the same pace in all places, so you have to adapt your behaviour appropriately.

Acts of physical violence are traumatic, but verbally abusive encounters can also deter gay couples from walking hand-in-hand.

This dilemma is even more immediate for couples who live permenantly in rural communities. Adam Smith and his long-term partner live in the Lake District. He admits that they never hold hands in public following an incident where two men were verbally abusive towards them.

Two rugby lads walked behind us saying “batty man” when we were in a supermarket buying food. Every straight person we told about it seemed really shocked, but LGBT+ people definitely weren’t.

Homophobic incidents like this are in no way isolated to the countryside. Last year, James Besanvalle and his husband had homophobic abuse shouted at them as they held hands in East London.

I’d be lying if I said that incident didn’t run through my mind whenever I reach for my husband’s hand.

I try so hard to live unapologetically visible as a queer man, but there’s no doubt the fear of receiving verbal or physical abuse is constantly there.

Having to make these constant judgements on a daily basis can create tension and negative feelings between couples. 24 year-old Paige Cochrane says that in the past, when girlfriends haven’t wanted to hold her hand, she has become self-conscious about whether or not this is something to do with her.

Even in 2018, she and her current girlfriend have an unspoken rule that they don’t hold hands in central London for fear of abuse.

The hand-holding situation has always been a difficult one for us. Even now when we are both feeling brave we don't maintain touch for more than a few minutes.

The only thing I would say that is positive about this reluctance to hold hands is that when we do choose to, it's ours. We get to make the decision and enjoy that physical touch.

Carrie Lyell, editor of lesbian magazine DIVA, also feels on edge when holding hands in public, particularly around groups of men.

We're constantly having to evaluate the risks, which is kind of a mood killer, let's be honest. What a simple thing – holding hands. But I can only imagine what it must feel like to take your partner's hand and have no worries about it at all.

For gay couples who are happy and hopeful that attitudes can change, the hand-holding conundrum creates a particular type of frustration. How can people accept gay couples holding hands if they never see them in public?

26 year-old Alex Francis describes the conflicting emotions that hand-holding can create.

For the most part, we want people to know that we’re a queer couple and are very much proud to be so in public.

But as we both have social anxiety and two men holding hands in any public space often attracts a lot of unwanted attention, it’s something that we certainly have to be cautious of in certain places to avoid the inevitable stares, comments, and generally awkward behaviour that people show upon seeing us together.

In the last couple of years Alex and his long-term boyfriend Ben have experienced threatening and intimidating encounters whilst holding hands in public. Just last weekend the pair were standing at a bus stop, barely leaning on one another, when a group of men hurled abuse out of a car window at them.

I think we’ve both been conditioned to always use our sixth sense before showing any public displays of affection.

By this I mean generally just knowing the space that you’re in, asking yourself whether it feels safe or not by scouting for other queers or looking out for groups of people that might be homophobic

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