Clean Hands is the story of a relationship between a straight black woman and a gay white man.
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After being dumped by the latest in a growing list of men he’s tried and failed to maintain a long-term relationship with, thirty-three-year-old community college English instructor Brian Daly sets up an online casual encounter with a stranger who robs and assaults him. As Brian stumbles through the streets of Center City Philadelphia trying to make his way home, he collapses and is helped by good Samaritan Olivia Carter.
Having recently moved from her hometown of Detroit to her husband’s hometown of Philadelphia, Olivia is slowly finding her way around a city that is strikingly different from the Motor City. Although the twenty-eight-year-old misses her friends and family in Detroit and has a rocky relationship with her in-laws, she is determined to build a life for herself in the City of Brotherly Love.
After coming to Brian’s aid, Olivia and he become friends. Brian, whose social circle is overwhelming white and male, finds himself drawn to Olivia, a black woman with whom he feels comfortable in a way that he never has with a woman or any person of color. Despite teaching a largely black, female student body, he often feels estranged from and frustrated by them. But he recognizes his own cultural shortcomings and sees his relationship with Olivia as a progressive step in the right direction.
Olivia is drawn to Brian also. She’s curious about his sexual orientation and wants to know more about the way her gay white friend lives his life. She too has lived amongst a largely homogeneous group of people and feels her friendship with Brian is an attempt to break out of her racial and social comfort zones.
Brian and Olivia’s relationship is tested when her marriage falls apart and she turns to him for emotional support. In one drunken night, their relationship moves from platonic to sexual and the aftermath is difficult for them both to handle.
Clean Hands is a story of race, class, sexuality, and love between two people who, in spite of their differences, are able to forge a bond that withstands the many obstacles placed before them.
Olivia’s race added yet another level of complexity in Brian’s desire to establish a friendship with her. He knew in his heart that he wasn’t a bigot. However, he did recognize a distance between himself and his black students who were, really, the only black people he had any association with since he didn’t date black men and didn’t have any black friends. He viewed his students as people separate from himself not only in terms of things like race and class, but also in terms of knowledge and intellect. Even though he couldn’t imagine having any kind of social relationship with them, he wanted to see them excel from their lowly station in life and hoped he would play a pivotal role in their educational and intellectual development. A former boyfriend once told him, “You don’t have to like them to teach them.” Truer words had rarely been spoken, but whatever dislike he had for any of his students was overshadowed by his desire to see them succeed. Yes, he was hard on them, but only because he wanted them to take their work seriously and do a good job. Was that too much to ask? And, more importantly, did that make him a racist?
Brian was encouraged by his meeting with Olivia and by the fact that she hadn’t run away screaming once he’d told her he was gay. Even though he wasn’t ashamed to admit his sexual orientation, he did hesitate before revealing the information to her because he worried how she could react to the news. He knew a lot of blacks disliked homosexuals. Olivia was practically a stranger to him and her opinion of him shouldn’t have mattered, yet it did. He wanted her to like him and he just couldn’t handle one more rejection in his life.