Guys Aren't As Touchy-Feely As Girls -- But They're Getting There

For a long time in the early twentieth century, male-on-male affection was in. Now, it's coming back with a vengeance.

Aug 17, 2012 at 12:00pm | Leave a comment

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High school logic: why eat cake off a spatula sitting up while you can eat it while lounging on two people's laps?

When my baby brother graduated high school, I couldn’t help squealing a little at how physically affectionate he and his friends were with each other. I didn’t really grow up with dudes when they were at their prime back-slapping and dry-humping phase, so their sheer glee at being around each other took me a little off-guard. 

My friends in high school had certainly all kissed each other on the face at graduation, but we were girls, and semi-queer ones at that. My little brother, as far as I knew, was totally straight, but he had one of his friend’s heads firmly held in place as he enthusiastically slobbered all over his jaw line.

“We’re graduated, bro!” the dudes yelled, trying frantically to all give each other piggyback rides at the same time. I watched, smiling and trying to resist the urge to text photos to all my friends with “LOL FRIEND-LOVE” as the caption.

I consider myself a pretty freaking liberal person. But when I see two guys holding hands, biting at each other’s shirt collars, sitting on each other’s laps, or nosing in the hollows of each other’s throats, it sets off an hysterical fuse in my brain that burns its way straight to my queermo squee-center.

“One of us!” part of me always wants to chant. “One -- of -- us!” 

I don’t know if it’s the fan fiction habit or what, but this is especially bad with youngish guys. I just want to tuck them both into my bosom and give them pep talks about self-actualization and condom use, which I know from experience is not the best actual way to become someone’s gay mentor. 

This tendency of mine and others to assume GAY when I see men being affectionate isn’t entirely benign, however. The stereotype -- that women can be physically affectionate to the point of actually performing cunnilingus on a street corner and people will regard them as just friends, while men just need to glance sideways at each other and I’m practically editing a fan-video about their relationship set to Ingrid Michaelson songs -– can be an incredibly harmful one. 

My intentions with assuming affectionate guys are gay comes from a positive place, but I’m certainly not the only person with eyes in America. For the casual homophobe -- including the guys in the fake couple themselves -– such behavior can make you a pretty easy target. As a result, most straight guys scaled far back on the affection after homosexual identity became a commonplace idea in the 1950s.

This much is evident in the “Art of Manliness”  project, a series of male friendships as documented in photographs throughout history. 

As authors Brett and Kate McKay note, “From the Civil War through the 1920s, it was very common for male friends to visit a photographer’s studio together to have a portrait done as a memento of their love and loyalty.” The posed photos range from completely bro-y  Gossip Girl stills  to what looks to me like secret signals of codependent affection.

The self-taken snapshots are even cuter. And though I am a firm believer in taking people’s identities as they claim they are, not how I suppose them to be, it is damn hard to look at, say, this picture or this one  and not start planning for beautiful commitment ceremonies.

The curators, though, remain firm that these were not covert messages of homo-love echoing from the early 20th century. Rather, since the idea of homosexuality as an identity hadn’t yet taken hold in the American consciousness, the guys in the photos probably believed they were acting completely platonically. Much like I was baffled how anyone could think the hickeys my friends gave each other for “practice” in high school were anything but innocent, I’m sure that the dudes in these photos would be dubious of my logic in mentally Photoshopping “Blonde Dude + Other Blonde Dude = <3 Forever” all over the albums. 

As the century wore on, though, and homosexuality became a more pervasive identity in America, this easy affection became replaced by a stiff-armed “no homo” pose. The 1950s, with their masculine haircuts and jingoism, were not a place for a gentle-eyed lamb-boy to drape his legs over a friend’s lap in a photo booth. Tragedy. 

This furrowed-brow Extreme Heterosexuality has continued until very recently. Now, though, with the continued emergence of LGBT characters in mainstream media, most boys are apparently not as fussed about how gay they might appear to a random onlooker as they pinch playfully at each others’ waistlines. 

Take the research done by British researcher Mark McCormac, who spent months observing young men in the sixth form of a British secular school. McCormac found that in contrast to the rough-and-tumble, super-straight, no-touching landscape that had defined British boys’ schools in past decades, most of his subjects were comfortable expressing physical affection with each other. 

One boy, he declared memorably, had “started a back-rub on another boy during an assembly. Instead of reacting negatively, the other boy just responded, ‘Mm. Bit lower.’” Yeah. I dare you not to giggle.

Furthermore, McCormac said, boys who felt they had gone “too far” with their physical advances no longer reacted with disgust. They still expressed “heterosexual reaffirmations,” but instead of shoving the other boys away or acting violently at the suggestion of homosexuality, they went the other direction.

“I’m so gay right now,” 16-year-old British boys are apparently fond of saying as they tousle each other’s hair and compare moisturizer. Not the most politically correct stereotyping, but certainly better (in my opinion) than associating homosexuality with the need to immediately stamp it out. Instead, boys are exaggerating so-called “gay traits” (which, as far as I can tell, mostly means kissing other boys) in order to reinforce their own straightness. 

McCormac’s findings all sounded awfully familiar when I heard them on the BBC. They weren’t just reflective of what I’d seen with my brother; they were also, almost verbatim, the kind of behaviors that my friends and I had sometimes indulged in at my all-girls’ school. 

This, to me, suggests that we’re approaching a major change in young people’s attitudes regarding homosexuality in all genders. Lots of people in my peer group and a whole lot more in my brother’s are caring less and less about setting themselves apart as distinctly heterosexual; instead, they’re allowing their sexual identity to emerge as it will amidst a flurry of spooning and chin-licking. 

In a few years, it seems, rather than the declaration of a non-hetero identity acting as a political statement, it’ll likely be another fact of life for LGBT individuals just entering high school.

Unsurprisingly, this is consistent with the  attitude of young people toward same-sex marriage. Of course most late teens and young adults think gay people should get married. Who cares. They're way more concerned with what Skrillex is doing these days.

And though it may mean that I’ll have to make a concerted effort to stop chin-handsing at guys holding hands -- of which there will probably soon be many, many more -- I think that’s pretty freaking cool.

Kate is cooing over gay couples at @katchatters.