This essay is inspired by true events. I’m hoping to generate some discussion and possibly send this out into the rest of the world…Comments welcome and appreciated.

I was standing at the corner of Bleecker and Father Demo Square when I heard, “Oh my God, those two girls just kissed!”

I whirled around to find a group of late teenage boys, possibly even of fraternity age, snickering and clapping.

I had just kissed a girl I had met a few weeks prior. It would be one of several unsettling encounters we would face in the beginning of our relationship. And one thing all of these encounters had in common was the location: New York. If someone had told me I would have problems being out in this city, I probably would have responded, “Yes, perhaps twenty or thirty years ago, but surely not now.”

Considering I wasn’t even alive thirty years ago, much less living in Manhattan perhaps elucidates my inability to appreciate or comprehend the progress gays have made toward acceptance in major cities and elsewhere.

Admittedly, I came out of the closet in safe microcosm: a private liberal arts college surrounded by supportive friends and family. The only people I had to do battle with were my parents and even they arrived at plane of tolerance eventually. I could hold hands with, kiss, and all but publicly declare my love for another girl in the middle of campus without one person doing a double-take.

I was fortunate, but also handicapped to come out in such a particular bubble. While it had the advantage of safety and comfort, it was also had a distinct disadvantage of a warped reality. I would soon learn what was acceptable in the foothills of  relatively progressive New Jersey was not always acceptable elsewhere.

Prior to the early evening encounter with our “frat boys,” my girlfriend and I also met the cat calls and whistles of a slightly older man. He called out, “Now that’s what I’m talking about!” as we kissed good night in front of her West Village apartment building. My first thought was immediately of an indignant and irritated nature. To a degree, this reaction was rightfully so – we were in the middle of gaytown in New York City. Muttering “duh” in response doesn’t even begin to cover it. However, to think I would never get hassled or receive an eye roll for what I perceived as a little harmless PDA was simply naïve.

Another day, another borough. We were on our way to Astoria, Queens on the N train. Leaning against the subway door, my girlfriend put her arm around me and whispered in my ear, probably just some sweet nothings to pass the long ride. At one point she caught the eye of an older woman, older than our mothers but not by much. This woman gave her one of those disapproving eye narrows combined with a slow, deliberate head shake. As though we were smuggling cocaine from Manhattan to Queens. I know there were – and still are – probably much more pressing issues to agonize over that day. But two silly dykes were became this woman’s ridiculous fixation.

Naturally, we both had to go all the way to the end of the train line so we did our best to dodge our ruffled passenger. Part of me finds us cowardly for going out of our way to keep this complete stranger a little more comfortable. The age-old mantra of “why should we be the ones to change our behavior and not the other way around” gets beat back into my head repeatedly. But, perhaps we are better people for it, giving that woman a slice of peace for a moment. Perhaps her daughter or friend or sister-in-law had just come out and declared herself Proud Lesbian, trademark and she just couldn’t take one more second of girl-on-girl lovey dovey crap.

Yet, in 2008 in the middle of an extremely liberal, anything-goes wear your underwear as your outerwear kind of city, you would think an eye roll wouldn’t be able to survive.

While these encounters all revolved around a kiss or hand hold, the most invasive occurred when my girlfriend were standing several feet apart on the 1 train in Manhattan. I was talking about some friends of mine who were having problems in their relationship when a man interrupted me to ask if I was gay. No exaggeration, he simply asked me that question as though he were asking for the time. I was so flabbergasted, I could barely form a response. I decided, somewhat idiotically, to go with the truth. Why lie, I thought? What’s he going to do? After I responded yes, he continued to hurl a barrage of questions my way.

“What’s that like?” (My favorite question of all time. You seriously have time for me to answer that question?)

“Have you ever been with a man?”

“Why didn’t it work out?”

And then finally, not so much a question, but a statement, “Maybe you just need to find the right guy” and something to the effect of “you’re a pretty girl…” Yes, sir, I know I am, but I really love my girlfriend, thanks.

This confrontation left me so shaken that as we left the subway, I began to cry. I couldn’t believe that a total stranger would think to invade someone else’s life like that. And furthermore, that I would allow them to do so.

Cut to a hot summer week in the middle of Texas. We traveled to Austin, more specifically the town of Kerrville, for a friend’s wedding. We were on my girlfriend’s home turf. I trusted her judgment to know how to act around fellow Texans – what was too much, what didn’t require caution – but when she took my hand in hers while crossing a parking lot in the middle of nowhere hill country, I thought she had lost her mind. It may have been the middle of nowhere to this suburban-raised, New York-dwelling woman, but there were still people around – and not the kind of people who would consider two lesbians inoffensive.

Yet, we received no disapproving looks, no cat calls, no gross stares. And this bizarre phenomenon of live and let live continued for the duration of our trip. We traveled around the middle of the state and I cannot recall one uncomfortable instance.

From the Big Apple to the Lone Star, I have experienced all sorts of decency and indecency. We are living in a country where most would have assumed what I assumed: New York = safe for queers, Texas = better get a gun at the airport. Part of this assumption has formed from the political climate of the last treacherous eight years – we were “feared” into believing in two Americas. One America declared as the two coasts combined with the smatterings of blue interspersed in the Mid and Southwest while the other had been deemed the “Real America” – the deep south, certain chunks of the Midwest – the parts of America where the working and middle class upheld traditional values and scorned any round pegs that didn’t fit into their square holes.

I admit I bought into this gimmick as well. I had never even been to anywhere west of the Mississippi that wasn’t California or Chicago until I traveled to Texas last summer. I believed the people of Alabama or Louisiana would hang me in a heartbeat and I’d do well enough to just stay away. Keep safe and happy in the carved out havens like New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Boston.

Then I learned there is no such thing as safe, and not just in the abstract Matthew Shepherd kind of way. All of our hearts bled that day, but I think those of us not living in Wyoming thought, “That would never happen to us.” Or, perhaps for older gay men and women, “Well that won’t happen here now.” But despite the previous battles fought and supposedly won, it seems we haven’t won all the hearts and minds necessary to freely co-exist in this world. From middle of the plain states to Lake Shore Drive to Bleecker Street to East Texas to the Castro, every American has their own idea about what is acceptable in their backyard. And surprisingly, the acceptance can come in the places you don’t always expect. Then again, isn’t that part of what makes this country worth exploring?