The radical art of holding hands with strangers

Children holding hands

Rosana Cade | The Guardian | 19 August 2016


As an artist who regularly invites complete strangers to hold hands in public, I could not ignore the incident at a Sainsbury’s in Hackney, east London, last week, when two gay men were asked to leave by a security guard. Much of what happened makes for depressing reading: the woman who complained about their s

ame-sex hand holding, the guard’s decision to approach the couple and, of course, the impact on the two men involved.

For the past five years, I have been touring Walking:Holding, which takes one audience member at a time on a walk through their town or city, and invites them to hold hands with six different individuals along the way. The hand-holders are local participants who range in age, gender, race, sexuality and background. The idea is to give people an opportunity to experience their hometown from someone else’s perspective; and to see what can happen when you share an intimate act with a complete stranger.

I developed the performance in Glasgow in response to my own experiences. My first girlfriend was much older than me and wanted to hold my hand everywhere, which was fine in London but felt completely different and difficult in the small Hertfordshire town where I grew up. Another partner in Glasgow preferred not to draw attention to herself. Hand-holding always felt like a complex act – the tussle between visibility and risk, public and private intimacy, activism and fear.

Since 2011, I have toured the work to more than 30 locations in the UK, Europe and Hong Kong, in each place recruiting new people to perform as the hand-holders. It’s always an open invitation to anyone interested in exploring intimacy and identity in public. I’ve worked with people who identify as disabled, homeless people, children, older people, an ex-Tory councillor – all bringing unique perspectives on where they live.

As it has developed, this intimate interactive performance has gone beyond addressing only sexuality. However, its roots lie firmly in the experience of lesbian, gay and bisexual people, and my understanding of same-sex hand-holding has broadened massively through the conversations I’ve had with participants.

We have spoken positively about it as a political act, that declares the space where you are as one where same-sex love is permitted and where queer sexualities and gender expression should be allowed. Conversely, some lesbian and gay people I’ve spoken to have said they avoid hand-holding, as they don’t feel comfortable with their relationship being displayed as a political action.

Many others, predominantly men, talk about how the fear of violence prevents them from ever holding hands with a partner. I have met many people who have suffered violent homophobic abuse in the UK in the past five years. A woman in Brighton had been targeted by a group of men when she was holding hands with her girlfriend. They jumped out of a car and attacked them, then drove off. She now suffers a lot of anxiety in public spaces.

The simple, and you would think harmless, act of holding hands, so often an act of protection or care, can – in some situations – expose you to real danger. For a generation that remembers when homosexuality was illegal, there is a lot of unlearning to do before believing it safe to hold hands, or that, actually, it’s being homophobic that is the crime.

There are still many places around the world where homosexuality is illegal, but the codes around intimacy and same-sex hand-holding also vary greatly. In parts of Africa and the Middle East, it is more common to see two men holding hands than a mixed-sex couple – but the hand-holding isn’t seen as a sign of a sexual relationship.

Visibility can be tiring, frightening and detrimental to intimacy. For some couples, it might feel easier and safer not to bother. We can never tell whether there is a real threat of homophobic abuse, but the fear is real. And when that fear prevents us from holding our partner’s hand, an act of homophobia is taking place. Not the type that will be reported on the news, but a subtle, internalised homophobia that still pervades many lesbian, gay and bisexual people’s lives.

It might affect the route they take through a town, where and when they hold hands with their partner, what they wear, and how they speak. But what do we risk by hiding who we are on a regular basis out of fear? How do we bring about change in attitude if we remain in hiding?

Walking:Holding gently encourages people to abandon fear and trust the hands of strangers. What emerges is often uplifting and empowering. While the awareness that it is a performance allows for this abandonment, it is also “real life” and in a public space – anyone en route could be a potential hand-holder. I am interested in turning the stranger into a human, turning the “other” into a human, and, yes, seeing a wider range of queer hand-holding.

This week, the show comes to Leith, Edinburgh, as part ofForest Fringe’s 10th anniversary. We first performed it there in 2013 – after one of the male participants had been banned from the local Tesco for walking through in women’s clothing. I’m interested to return three years on and discover what has changed in the area and how the performance will be received in 2016.

Walking:Holding is at Forest Fringe, Edinburgh, from 18 to 20 August; Appetite, Stoke on 27 and 28 August; DNweekeND, Doncaster, on 3 and 4 September; and Compass festival, Leeds on 11 and 12 November.