As you may have heard (or perhaps you are beginning to tire of hearing) – I’m trying a new method for funding one of my upcoming research projects: crowdfunding. Basically, what this means is that the research won’t happen unless I’m successful in raising the funds from individual members of the public – i.e. you, your mom, your friend, your friend’s mom, your dentist, your dentist’s mom, you get the picture.
The study that I’m raising funds for is part of a larger project focusing on affection in relationships, and more specifically, the health implications of affection shared between couples. The entire project will seek to answer the following questions:
- How does affection shared between partners - at home, in private - impact their ability to handle stress and their overall physical and mental health?
- Does affection shared in public have similar health benefits as affection shared in private?
- Do same-sex couples experience stress when sharing affection in public or do they have more difficulty in accessing the potential health benefits of shared affection in public?
- What happens when other individuals witness a same-sex public display of affection? More specifically, what happens when prejudiced individuals witness a same-sex public display of affection?
It is this last research question that we are seeking support for through crowdfunding. What causes someone to go from seeing gay (people holding hands), to seeing red? To find out, we’re going to use some fancy methods in the lab to monitor physiological responses during the precise moment that someone witnesses two men holding hands or kissing each other. If we can better understand the physiology of prejudice, we will be better prepared to intervene and help reduce prejudice at the source. Furthermore, if we can demonstrate that prejudiced individuals have a negative psychological and physiological response to the target of their prejudice (in this case, a same-sex PDA), then this could be useful information for same-sex couples, as it answers the question of whether their potential fears concerning the safety of PDAs are rational or irrational. To clarify though, we’re not trying to send anyone back into the closet. The ultimate goal of this research is to make the world a safer place in which everyone is free to hold hands with the person they love.
In the process of campaigning to raise the funds for this study I’ve been asked by a number of individuals and journalists what exactly gave me the idea of doing this study, so I thought I’d share with you the story of how the idea first popped into my head.
A few years ago I was on vacation in Mexico at an all-inclusive resort. For the most part it was your typical all-inclusive winter getaway that many of us Canadians begin to crave after months of cold darkness! There were lots of pools, palm trees, white sandy beaches, tequila dispensers in each room, and the much needed and craved SUN. What set this trip apart from your average all-inclusive winter vacation was that it was being operated by a travel company called Olivia Travel. Olivia is a company designed for women, by women, to take women who love women, on vacation together. Did you follow that? No? I’ll spell it out – it’s a lesbian travel company. That means that when you take a vacation with Olivia, they take over the entire destination. If it’s an all-inclusive resort, then they book the ENTIRE resort. If it’s a cruise, they charter the entire ship. Often this means you have anywhere between 600 and 2000 women, vacationing together. That either sounds like heaven to you or like your worst nightmare – I don’t meet many people who fall in the middle of that spectrum!
Olivia’s tag line or slogan is “feel free” – and it is a fairly accurate and well chosen one – because that is precisely the atmosphere that they create for each and every one of their guests. Women come from all over the world, from all kinds of different experiences and for some it is the only place in the world where they can ‘feel free’ to be themselves, to hold their partner’s hand, or to share a lounge chair by the pool. The point is, when you’re on an Olivia trip, it is as though you have entered an alternative universe, where same-sex sexuality is the norm. At the end of the trip, Judy Dlugacz, the company’s founder, always reminds everyone that “re-entry” into the “normal” world can be difficult and to remember that as they travel home, not every woman that they see will be ‘one of them.’
But back to how I came up with the inspiration for this study. On this particular trip to Mexico, the resort that Olivia took over was sandwiched between other resorts, such that if you were to walk down the beach, you could keep walking through the beaches of multiple resorts. I don’t like the beach very much. I hate sand and I really hate salt water, so I tend to steer clear of beaches, but one day I ventured down to the edge of the beach and sat safely on the border of grass that separated the resort from the beach. I mostly wanted to listen to the ocean and partake in my favourite past time – people watching. As I sat there I began to notice a pattern of behaviour among the women of Olivia. Many would walk down to the beach, hand in hand with their partner, wife, girlfriend, or girl they met last night at the swim up bar, kick off their shoes and embark on a romantic walk along the ocean. They would walk the whole stretch of the beach that belonged to the resort, and then they would cross an invisible line and keep walking on the beach that ventured off into the territory of the ‘other’ resorts. The resorts not taken over by Olivia, the resorts that still functioned in the realm of heteronormativity and the nuclear family.
These other sections of the beach were filled with families, couples vacationing, European men in speedos, and locals playing games of soccer (given that I hate sand, and even walking on sand makes little sense to me, playing soccer and KICKING sand makes even less sense to me… but, I digress). Get to the point Karen! What happened next hit me with sadness … and curiosity. As the women crossed the invisible line in the sand and walked out into this “other” world, they would slowly, and I’m almost certain – unconsciously – let go of each other’s hands. They were on their romantic vacation beach walk, but something changed when they left the Olivia resort beach – whether they consciously noticed it or not. As they began to navigate their way through heterosexual couples cuddling on the beach, mothers chasing their kids down with bottles of sunscreen and rowdy groups of young men playing soccer, they transitioned from being the loving, romantic, vacationing couple that they were, into two women, walking separately down the beach.
By the time the women would return to the invisible line and cross back onto the Olivia beach, they would often be as many as five feet apart from one another, even though when they left they were arm and arm or hand-in-hand. As they crossed that line back into Olivia’s oasis of “feeling free” they would find each other’s hands again, and continue their walk, just as it had begun.
The researcher in me was itching to run after them and ask them – did they notice that they stopped holding hands? Did they have a particular reason for letting go? Were they just navigating crowds of people or did they feel unsafe continuing to hold hands? Did they have a fight and not want to hold hands and then miraculously make up when they returned to the Olivia beach? Of course, I didn’t do this – mostly because there was sand in the way – but also because as a researcher, you need to have approval from an Ethics board to ask people questions like that. But at that moment, this set of studies that I am embarking on now, was born. Of course, I originally envisioned the study taking place on another Olivia vacation (sneaky eh?), where I could actually test what happens when two alternate worlds collide – one where same-sex sexuality is the norm and another, separated only by a thin line on a beach, where heterosexuality is the norm. But as I thought about the study more, I developed less expensive ways of testing similar concepts. Although, one day, I would like to do the study on an actual Olivia vacation. If holding hands in a heteronormative world can be a stressor for same-sex couples, then holding hands in a homonormative world could quite possibly be very beneficial for the health of same-sex couples. THAT means that one could actually do a study to see whether an Olivia trip has health benefits for same-sex couples that go above and beyond the regular health benefits that come with rest, relaxation and vacation.
As a researcher and avid people watcher, I love to pull my research inspiration from the events that take place around me. Ultimately, I want my research to make a difference in the lives of the people that I study. When I study same-sex relationships and health, I want to be able to provide research that contributes to improving the health and relationships of LGBTQ individuals. In conducting this research on same-sex PDAs, I want to contribute to a world in which everyone can feel free, whether they are on an Olivia trip or not. Everyone should be able to hold hands with the person that they love without fearing for their safety and without feeling the piercing and uncomfortable stare of onlookers. Until then, we have Olivia Travel and other travel companies that cater to the LGBTQ community – but we shouldn’t have to seek out a special travel company (as fun as it may be) just to be able to comfortably hold hands with our partner. Of course, many same-sex couples have no qualms about holding hands in public and bravely (whether they consider it brave or not) continue to do so regardless of where they are. I believe that the more we do that, the better this world will become, but at the same time, there’s also nothing wrong in taking to heart the conditions in which you live and making decisions based on those conditions. As LGBTQ individuals, even though our rights seem to be expanding on a daily basis, we must remain cognizant that we cannot take those rights, or our safety, for granted. NYC, one of the most gay-friendly cities in North America, has seen a violent upsurge in hate crimes this past year, with many of the targets being same-sex couples who were ... holding hands. As one couple who was attacked put it, ‘if holding hands in broad daylight in the Gay Village of NYC is not safe, then where is it safe?’