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Alabama: 20/20 experiment on gay PDA generates 911 call

Ah, Birmingham’s in the news again as a result of the airing of 20/20’s experiment on public displays of affection by same-sex couples last  Friday. We’re not talking about public sex, mind you, just arms around the shoulder and some nuzzling kind of thing. A male couple was stationed on a park bench at Five-Points with a camera rolling. Wouldn’t you know it — someone called 911 to complain about the PDA. The emergency?

Operator: “Birmingham Police operator 9283”

Caller: “We have a couple of men sitting out on the bench that have been kissing and drooling all over each other for the past hour or so. It’s not against the law, right?”

Operator: “Not to the best of my knowledge it’s not.”

Caller: “So there’s no complaint I could make or have?”

Operator: “I imagine you could complain if you like ma’am. We can always send an officer down there.”

Yes, they sent a patrol car down there, and the officer, after calling his superior (the Birmingham PD was in on the 20/20 experiment) backed down, but told the couple “Just don’t do that in public.”

The remarks of two Birmingham women passersby when 20/20 has a lesbian couple sit on the bench are predictable. That’s below the fold.When Leslie and Ashby sit, hold hands and snuggle, two local women volunteer their thoughts about the PDA:

I just don’t want to see the same sex kissing.”

It’s not what we say, it’s what God says. The chances of them going to heaven may not be very good if they continue this lifestyle.”

Of course it never occurs to that last woman that the two lesbians may not share the same faith/belief system she does. I wonder what Kathy at Birmingham Blues will have to say about this. Anyway, contrast that with the reaction of Verona, New Jersey residents when the experiment was performed there.

It seems that people who were strolling through Verona Park during the filming of the social experiment were either indifferent to, in support of, or slightly bothered by the PDA they witnessed. There were no extreme reactions. A topic that did come up repeatedly was children.

“I don’t really find it inappropriate, especially during the day when schoolchildren aren’t running around. They might get confused and want an answer for what’s going on,” bystander Mary-Kate told us. The majority of the people who spoke about children seemed to echo Mary-Kate’s feelings. They are indifferent to gay PDA but did not want to, or know how to, address homosexuality with children.

And then there was Kristin Kenneavy, who said, “I would actually want our kids to grow up in a place where they would see various types of people engaging in behaviors that [are] loving. As I walk by, I’m thinking ‘Oh, that’s sweet,’ you know, that people are in love. I would have absolutely not a problem with our children seeing something like that.”

So, what does this all mean? The 20/20 report is interesting, but it plays into some of the pre-conceived notions about the South in a way that is a bit disingenuous. Of course it’s easy just to say the average resident of Birmingham is homobigoted, but that’s too pat, as someone who’s a native Southerner. (I do have to say that the 911 call is over the top by any stretch of the imagination. Birmingham tax dollars at work.)

Yes, Alabama isn’t NC (Kate and I can hold hands in public), but generally speaking, people down here tend to be more modest, regardless of sexual orientation, so I’m not surprised at the reaction to same-sex couples. The discomfort threshold is much lower down South than it would be for straight couple PDA because it isn’t the norm yet.

I’d hazard a guess that if a man and a woman were pawing each other in a more sexual manner, people would be as uncomfortable with that as the more chaste PDA in the experiment, but, quite frankly, if this was 20 years ago, you might have seen violence as a response to gay PDA. Heck, it still happens all around the country — even in large cities — if the wrong yahoos witness it.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding