April 25, 2008— -- Two years ago, ABC News hired two actors, a man and a woman, to publicly display their affection for each other by kissing in public at a restaurant. Reactions from other restaurant-goers varied; some onlookers enjoyed the sight of young love, while others lost their appetite.
This year, we once again decided to explore how the public responds to public displays of affection -- but this time, our couples were gay.
ABC News asked two couples, Kaolin and James, and Ashby and Leslie, to sit on park benches in Verona, N.J., and then in Birmingham, Ala., to see if there were any differences in reaction among passersby in the two regions of the country. Although all four individuals were actors, showing their love and affection for each other was far from acting. Kaolin and James have been in a committed relationship for two years, while Ashby and Leslie are a married couple who have been together for eight years.
"When I see a gay couple, if they want to kiss or whatever, I really don't mind as long as they're happy," Chris, a Verona resident, told ABC News. Interestingly, feelings about PDA (public displays of affection) varied if individuals observed the female couple kissing as opposed to the male couple.
Naomi Goldman from New Jersey noticed Ashby and Leslie kissing while seated on the park bench and told ABC News, "I'm in support of displaying public affection. I think [it's] great. Spread more love in the world." When asked if she would maintain the same opinion if she saw our male couple being affectionate, she sang a slightly different tune.
"I think if I saw two males doing the same thing, I might have a slightly different reaction. I might not think it was as cute or charming." 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."
There weren't many children who saw the couples showing affection in Birmingham, but there were plenty of adults who did.
Instead of a public park, ABC News brought the couples to a bench in the popular Five-Points section of Birmingham. During the two days of filming, hundreds of people walked by and noticed the couples. A police officer even arrived at the scene after a woman called 911 because she saw Kaolin and James kissing each other in public.
ABC News obtained a copy of her call:
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."
And they did. One of Birmingham's finest came to Five-Points and spoke with Kaolin and James. Though city officials and the police department signed off on ABC's social experiment, this officer was somehow not in the loop. The officer told our couple that the police dispatch received a call because the two of them were making out.
"Just don't do that in public," he told them before leaving the scene.
It wasn't long before a local Fox news station was reporting that "a national television show was spying on Birmingham."
As in New Jersey, ABC News received various opinions about gay PDA, and PDA in general, from the residents of Birmingham. It quickly became clear that there is no set regional opinion. The feelings and opinions of people are as varied as the individuals who express them.
Delores Spraggins of Birmingham and her daughter June seemed to speak for the majority in both the red and the blue state. "There is a lot of hatred in the world. Love is good wherever you can find it," Spraggins said.
Leslie, one half of the lesbian couple, explained to ABC News that she was glad to participate in the social experiment because of the greater good.
"We are very proud of our relationship. We don't hide our love. We hope we can inspire people to just love each other and accept loving each other."
When we asked her wife, Ashby, how she felt about the police being called to the scene after a woman reported Kaolin and James for PDA, she responded with a big smile on her face.
"If 911 calls are because two guys are kissing and holding hands on a bench, that's great news! I mean, there's not much real crime happening if 911 calls are placed because two guys are kissing every once in a while. And that is awesome!"