In India, in Italy, In China, in fact all around the world it is perfectly acceptable for men to hold hands in a show of affection. For a society that advertises itself as a paradigm of acceptance, and it is, men in Britain and the US are scared, nay petrified of bodily contact lest they be taken for gay.
There is a painful irony to the pictures of homosexuals dangling from overpasses in Iran and yet in downtown Tehran one might very well run into bosom pals hand in hand strolling down the bazaar.
Britain and the Anglophone West is legally tolerant and by large socially progressive when it comes to homosexuality but frowns on homosocialism. The Anglophone West is scared of male touch.
Ironically in a red-blooded Mediterranean country such as Italy where prominent gay-bashers like Berlusconi get their hearty guffaws, men holding hands in a display of affection is common. Surely there is something different about Britain if men in other parts of the world consider it acceptable to hold hands and hug in a display of affection. One of the most sickly sweet examples of unbridled political affection that comes to mind is springtime April 2005 in Crawford Texas. President Bush and Crown Prince Abdullah, hardly the gay icons of our time held hands as they walked down a row of bluebonnets.
One of the most bizarre sights for NATO soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan was the sight of grown men holding hands. The Office of the Deputy Chief for Intelligence, US Army Training and Doctrine Command has this to say:
" As Arab society condones the outward display of
affection between male friends, one may see Arab
men, even officials and military officers, holding hands
as they walk together or otherwise converse with one
another. If an individual Arab does not touch you, he does not
like you--or he may be trying to restrain himself
because you are not used to being touched. "
It is not just the Arab world. One of the most enduring images of military homosocialism is this photo of a Chinese soldier holding hands with a Pakistani soldier in a display of friendship.
Here is how I, an Indian male views the West from within. Herein lies the irony of the English speaking Occidental: their society is civilised and liberal. The institutions promote equality for homosexuals and rallies against homophobia. Yet men go to extremes avoiding bodily contact with each other just to reaffirm their sexuality. Lets face it, the western man is starved of touch.
Growing up in India and travelling on public transport and walking through bazaars, the pushing, the jostling, the squeeze of humanity seemed natural. One could lean against a male friend, throw their arm around them and walk hand in hand in open without a brow raised, objections leveled or conspiratorial whispers heard.
Now course we can put it all down to the romantic ideas of the Anglo-Saxon standoffishness, the cold manly stoicism, the hirsute loneliness of this cosmopolitan competitive corner of the world; balderdash. Almost all contact between men and men and men and women is framed as being intentionally sexual until proven otherwise.
What changed? Was Britain always this way? Are we so sharply defined by our sexualities that homosexuality and homosocialism bat for the same side?
Touch in the West is a commodity. So much so that salesmen use it as a selling aid; touch is disrupting, touch is powerful and the closest that many will get to a touch is the barber dragging their fingers on their scalp and ruffling their hair.