Knoxville couple’s viral engagement photos generate fury, hope

On May 3, 2014, Navy Lieutenant Kyle Bandermann, clinical psychologist and recent Ph.D. from UT Knoxville, proposed to his boyfriend, Lance Buchanan, in a romantic scene. The proposal is lovingly detailed on their blog. Lance volunteers with the American Military Partner Association (AMPA). The group has posted photos and announcements of many LGBT service persons’ engagements, as part of their advocacy for LGBT rights in the military. When Lance’s supervisor posted their photo, everyone was surprised by the result. “It truly is surprising to us,” Kyle said, “that our photo has been seen by so many. To us, this was just one magical moment in our life together that I asked to be captured by friends, so we could remember it forever. What started as a friend’s ‘congratulations’ by posting it on his organization’s page quickly became more attention-gathering than we ever imagined.”

Lance and Kyle’s engagement exposed millions people to the reality of a gay couple in a very direct way. In Kyle’s family it led to a very real change. “Due to the photo going ‘viral,’ my family chose to finally tell my 85-year-old grandma that I identified as gay, after years of me requesting to be able to ‘come clean’ to her. Her response: ‘I never would have known in a million years’ and ‘I will love you the same when I go to bed tonight as when I got up this morning.’” Beyond this kind of healing, they believe that sharing their story will expose a wider segment of society to images of gay men which defy the stereotypes, perhaps helping move us forward in some small way.

Nevertheless, the pushback came early. When asked about the negative responses their photo elicited, Lance was stoic: “ I respond in silence or by just ignoring it. I don’t focus on the negative comments—negativity spreads like a plague, and I refuse to take part in it.” Kyle, however, admits that it is harder for him: “I am not nearly as strong as Lance—the negative comments do get to me, and I have a weakness of getting “sucked in” and taking them personally. One in particular suggested that my Navy shipmates should throw me overboard when we are out to sea.” He’s not worried someone would actually carry through on that specific suggestion. Rather, such comments risk influencing the thoughts of vulnerable psyches in a dangerous direction, which “makes my job as a clinical psychologist—trying to increase the resiliency and restore the mental health of our service members—that much more difficult.”

Why did their photo garnered the attention, and in particular the negative? For Kyle it is not unrelated to the positive hope of changing stereotypes. Their portrayal challenges stereotypes about gay men on the one hand, but about masculinity on the other. Unlike the majority of AMPA posts, which “portray females or couples partaking in more passive displays of affection,” Kyle and Lance were “engaging in such an active display of love previously thought to be reserved for heterosexuals...” To a conservative mind, this means that at least one of them is “quite comfortable standing in the same place as a female,” challenging a worldview based on a stereotype of acceptably masculine behavior.

However disheartening, the negative response has its upside according to Lance, who says it can be easy for those close to LGBT people to underestimate the harm. The negative comments, which some family and friends could barely stand to read,  “allowed them a rare opportunity to see how cruel some people are towards the LGBT community (and us directly) when it has been so much easier to ‘bury their heads in the sand’ and assume all is well.” To this extent, the expression of negative sentiment has backfired.

The couple has taken a very reflective posture regarding the attention they have garnered. On the one hand, they have not allowed the negative to obscure the positive. “We as a culture are progressing and the negativity is becoming more of a fringe attitude. I am certain that the response would have been mostly negative even five years ago.” Indeed, five years ago Kyle would have been discharged over the photos from his engagement. The overwhelming positivity, however, doesn’t outshine the negative personal reactions, and social realities, gay couples still face. “We very obviously still have a ways to go. ‘Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.’” Despite the relatively warm reception and federal protections they will enjoy as a couple, servicemen and -women can be transferred to places where their spouse is not allowed to join them, and if stationed stateside, spousal benefits like in-state tuition for same-sex military spouses are still not guaranteed everywhere.

Beyond the legal disparities, the comments highlight social attitudes which are impossible to legislate away. Both men exhibit deep spirituality, so religiously motivated, hateful comments touch a familiar nerve. Like many spiritual LGBT people, they have each felt a greater or lesser degree of isolation from religious communities. Though the couple has found a home in the Metropolitan Community Church, Kyle remains concerned that “the ‘Church’ will continue to ostracize an entire people group. In church history, we have seen the same happen with women, people with disabilities, and people of color... Do we really want to continue to keep an entire group of people from worshiping God with us?”

Their experience has also made them even more acutely concerned for groups less protected by both military culture and society at large. As much as their experience highlights the lag between legal recognition and social acceptance, their brush with social outrage has strengthened their solidarity with others:  “we haven’t even began to touch trans rights. Individuals who identify as trans can still be (and are being) administratively separated for ‘coming-out’ with a cross-gender identification. This is destroying their hopes of continuing to serve and protect the country they love.”

These young lovebirds’ story highlights, if nothing else, this one point: “We’ve come a long way—but there is more to do!”

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