For the past six years, I’ve been touring a performance called ‘Walking:Holding’ where one person at a time is taken on a walk through the town and invited to hold hands with a range of local participants along the way. Next week I will be presenting this work in Leeds as part of Compass Festival with Live Art Bistro.
The impetus for the performance came from my own experience of holding hands in same-sex couples and the complexity I discovered in this seemingly simple action. Across six years of touring the work to various towns across Europe, there have been many different experiences and reactions to the piece and the idea of holding hands with strangers. More often than not, there has been a lot of fear and tension around the action of two men holding hands in public.
Recently there have been two incidents of male audience members attending the performance and then refusing to hold hands with the men on the walk. In two other instances in the past two months, male/male couples have been called names or laughed at while taking part in the performance.
We have had many discussion around how our culture affects the way in which we view acceptable forms of intimacy in public, and also what we consider to be natural traits for men or women. I’ve worked with men from Nigeria and India, who talk about holding hands between male friends being common as a form of brotherly love. In western society, it seems that physical contact such as holding hands has been framed as feminine and therefore, perhaps, weak.
Sadly there are many gay men who I talk to as part of the project who don’t feel safe enough to hold hands with other men in public. Ultimately, though, the performance is about challenging the idea that anyone should have to hide who they are, and hopefully inspiring those who haven’t felt confident enough before to change their behaviour.
We toured to Dublin in 2013, and I felt that there was an accepted sense of homophobia in the city. Two gay men had been beaten up in the city centre about a week before I arrived, and there was a palpable tension in the air following this. A lot of the gay people that I spoke to said they would never feel comfortable expressing their sexuality in public, and carried a certain resignation and acceptance of that. However, for some of them the experience of taking part in Walking:Holding was transformative. Firstly, it broke a threshold – they held hands with another man and nothing bad happened. It also gave them a sense that they should be able to hold hands, that it shouldn’t be a privilege. They said they the experience had given them a whole new perspective.
Here is an account from a recent participant:
“I suffer with social anxiety and agoraphobia meaning that I find it hard to leave the house without a purpose. I took part in Walking:Holding in Leith this summer. In the workshop, I was asked to walk outside and hold hands with one of the other male participants. He was the first man I have ever held hands with in daylight since being a child. There may have been some late night occasions when I’ve been drunk, but never in the broad light of day.
“It’s amazing how daylight illuminates things. It felt like there was a spotlight on us, and everything was heightened. I identify as being a-gendered so don’t feel like a man but I’m aware of what I present. To the outside world, we looked like two big beardy men holding hands. We spoke about how we felt like we were doing something wrong. We both felt frightened but we also felt protected by each other, at the same time as realising we were protecting the other one. This experience was intense but through holding multiple people’s hands across the week of doing the performance it became much less extraordinary and I felt braver with every new hand that I held.
“The thing that made me the most emotional was that it changed my perception of myself. It gave me more confidence because both men and women were saying we look like we could be in a relationship. It doesn’t mean that now I can just go out and find a partner, but it gave me a kind of confidence that people don’t mind being seen with me – I’m not as bad as I thought I was. They were proud of me of those few moments.
And from the male artist Laurie Brown who has collaborated with me on the project many times:
“I’ve been involved with Walking:Holding now for over 5 years, so naturally I’ve held countless strangers hands of all kinds of backgrounds. Being involved with this piece has allowed me to empathise with others on a totally new level. It has challenged every prejudice I had and continue to have, and it reminds me of how massively different people’s experiences are of the same world. It is also a reminder of the immense joy vulnerability can bring. Holding someone’s hand can be really revealing, both of the other person, but also about yourself. When you hold someone’s hand and really focus on that experience it’s impossible to be bored, it’s never simple, and it is never the same.
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