When did it stop being OK for men to hold hands?

Date

Chancellor's Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Technology Sydney

View more articles from Alecia Simmonds

Two middle-aged men with paunches popping through their waistcoats and facial hair rustling their cravats look fixedly out of the sepia-tint of a nineteenth century photo. They resemble prospectors – men of furrowed brow, pinched skin and stoic demeanour. Except one crucial detail: to modern eyes these men look like gay lovers. Their arms and legs are entangled and one man is partly straddling the other. They’re like a couple in the first flushes of love, overwhelmed by a compulsion to be as physically close as possible. They could be Brokeback Mountain, if Ennis hadn’t a quit Jack.

But according to John Ibson, the author of Picturing Men: A Century of Male Relationships in Everyday American Photography, the men I described were most likely just friends. They join an extraordinary collection comprised of 144 photos from 1850-1950 of businessmen holding hands, sailors gazing longingly into each other’s eyes, miners waltzing, basketballers nestling into each other’s crotches and teenage boys dressed in swimsuits draped over each other’s torsos.

Men were and are still allowed to weep, hug, caress, and touch each other’s bottoms while fighting in war or playing violent sport. 

Ibson notes that these men could have been gay, but most probably weren’t. In fact, the thought probably never crossed their- or anyone else’s- minds. No-one, he claims, would have batted an eyelid at the sight of two men going to a photographic studio to have their photos taken together in various states of passionate embrace. Back then it was socially acceptable for men to be publicly affectionate towards one another in a way that it isn’t today.

So what went wrong? How did white/western men go from frolicsome fraternities to mute masculinity? How did we crash from the love-song of male friendship to the homophobic clamour of the empty seat between men at the cinema? Why does an early twentieth century photo of footballers show them amorously folded one on top of the other while a late-twentieth century picture would show them perched upright, hands on knees, legs forming a bodily barricade?

Ibson blames the rise of homophobic sentiment in the twentieth century, culminating in the feverish anti-gay witch-hunts of the 1950s. Of course sodomy was never looked kindly upon, but it wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that homosexuality emerged as a specific identity, rather than just a practice. Homosexuality moved from something that you did (like kissing or masturbation) to something that you were (a homosexual). Branded with their own label, homosexuals were pathologised as a problem for medicine or psychiatry to solve. Throughout the twentieth century homosexuals became increasingly suspect.

And the more threatening homosexuals appeared the more that male bodies drifted apart. A chill wind swept through male friendships. Heterosexual men became careful not to send messages that they could be gay. Paranoia replaced public affection.

Real men – heterosexual, courageous and physically strong– were defined against effeminate forms of masculinity. Where real men were emotionally wooden, gay men were like burst water valves: expressive, flamboyant and potentially contaminating. And in the face of this new threatening identity, ‘real men’ erected fearsome bodily barriers to keep their own dangerous desires in and the desires of other men out. Sitting on your friend’s lap or holding his hand was now a perilous activity. Post-1950, emotional suppression became crucial to the maintenance of patriarchal power.

Of course this is not in all areas of life. Men were and are still allowed to weep, hug, caress, and touch each other’s bottoms while fighting in war or playing violent sport. This may be because these are such unquestionably masculine activities from which women have been firmly excluded. And in popular culture there are still limits on how far they can go. Think about the friendship between Archie and Frank in the film Gallipoli. Archie’s too much of a beautiful fop and their friendship is a little bit too close. As a symbol of failed masculinity and suspect friendship, Archie has to be killed off so that he can be reincarnated as a sexless, dead, war hero. Kind of in the same way that tom boys have trees fall on them once they hit puberty in classic Australian teen fiction (think Judy in Seven Little Australians) before they can blossom into glorious lesbians.

Another possible reason for the decline in expressions of man-on-man-love is the entry of women into the public sphere. The photos in Ibson’s collection were taken during a time when life was incredibly gender segregated. Your primary emotional identification was with people of your own gender which meant that friendships were more intense and possibly more loving. This may also explain why it’s common to see men in certain more gender-segregated countries of the Middle East, South Asia or Africa holding hands, although Ibson speculates that this could be because homosexuality has not had the same historical trajectory there as in the West.  By which he means that the pathologised identity of the homosexual does not exist there as it did here.

But what ‘here’ are we talking about? Ibson’s photos are of Americans. Can we chart the same decline in Australia? From my doctoral research into the early nineteenth century I can tell you that men had wonderfully passionate friendships. Remember Bass and Flinders? What your Year 7 teachers didn’t tell you is that these two lads had a lot of manlove. Listen to Flinders writing to Bass: ‘There was a time when I was so completely wrapped up in you, that no conversation but yours could give me pleasure; your footsteps upon the quarterdeck over my head took me from my book and brought me upon the deck to walk with you.’ Flinders knew when sending this letter that it could be (and was) opened by any number of acquaintances. His words quite simply, were not considered suspicious.

And the future? Sociologists say young boys are more likely now to greet each other with a hug and Gen Y is renowned for its acceptance of homosexuality. Does this mean that we can expect to see a male version of the opening first season of Girls where two friends wake up in each other’s arms? Is bromance a cultural validation of male intimacy, or is it just another way of saying ‘NOT GAY’?  Will straight men ever again hire photographers to document their affection? Hopefully. Let’s keep our fingers crossed… and arms and legs affectionately interlaced.

43 comments

  • after our regular game of touch footy me and a matewere walking holding hands. swinging them as we walked like little kids do, talking about stuff as we made our way to a restaurant. Three young guys were walking in the opposite direction and when along side one king hit my mate. None of us were prepared to chase him down or use violence as payback. It was on Oxford Street a place youd expect to be safe. My mate stopped going out socially after that.

    Commenter
    grimotr
    Location
    inner west
    Date and time
    March 14, 2013, 8:31AM
    • What an interesting article.

      As a gay man I have found it interesting that in the last 5 years especially my straight male mates are a lot more open and affectionate than they were when I was younger.

      Now this might be because, as I move into my 30s I'm more confident in myself and more comfortable around straight men than I was in my late teens.

      But many of my straight friends will great me with a hug and sometimes even a playful kiss on the cheek.

      I think its a wonderful world where men feel comfortable enough to be able to show their affection for each other in public without being considered "gay" or "faggot behaviour".

      When I visited the UAE for the very first time last year, i was shocked by the number of men in traditional garb walking around shopping centres etc, holding hands. No they weren't gay, its just not "weird" there.

      We need that here.

      Commenter
      Adrian
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      March 14, 2013, 9:24AM
      • I had a similar experience. Overseas at a sporting event, and all Iranian men walking around with their arms around each other. It is cool, but over here, one would unfortunately cop a beating for being a "fairy".

        Commenter
        con b
        Location
        Glenorie
        Date and time
        March 14, 2013, 4:54PM
      • Yes , the western philosophy(if you want to call homophobic repression that)really has a lot to answer for in terms of totally screwing up normal physical relationships for males.Throughout Russia males would opnely kiss ,India likewise untill western influences .And they werent gay ,just normal friends who werent repressed ,so werent as likely to compensate through violence.But those who wanted to profit from violence ,and the legal and civil powers that arise wanted that violence,and certain sectors still do.Isuspect that since the Gay movement the world has never been more homophobic generally ,in reality.

        Commenter
        Kane
        Date and time
        March 14, 2013, 5:47PM
    • Very interesting article.

      I wonder if the whole thing is tied into the 'relationships' as goal concept. Men 'get' women, that's considered a success. Once being gay became a lifestyle rather than a series of individual acts, and being gay was considered a psychological problem to be cured, gay men were considered a failure, because they obviously weren't able to 'succeed' in the goal of obtaining women, so instead they fell back into relationships with other men.

      Any traits that were tied to being gay were to be avoided (such as physical signs of affection), since they were obviously things that reduced one's chances of achieving the prize of a male-female relationship.

      Commenter
      DM
      Date and time
      March 14, 2013, 9:34AM
      • Men can hold hands. You see it all the time in India and the sub-continent - men walk down the street holding hands or hugging.

        Also, in the Middle East, men are very affectionate and touch each other. I spent 3 months last year in Amman and after about 3 weeks, I was hugged each morning as I arrived at work, and I was often led into meetings either by the elbow or by the hand.

        I need to be absolutely clear that these gestures were in no way sexual. It was a mark of respect and friendship, and I have to admit after a day or two and it felt quite normal I even started doing it myself, and it was welcomed.

        Commenter
        Tim
        Location
        UK
        Date and time
        March 14, 2013, 9:38AM
        • Tim, did you read the article or just the headline? The writer mentioned that in different cultures and countries hand holding was considered ok. Maybe have a re-read. Or if you don't have time, read this sentence 'Ibson speculates that this could be because homosexuality has not had the same historical trajectory there as in the West. '.
          And thanks for being ABSOLUTELY CLEAR that those gestures were in no way sexual. I was about to freak out.

          Commenter
          Sheba
          Date and time
          March 14, 2013, 10:10AM
        • @Sheba,

          Your reply to the OP is a little harsh. While the article does mention that males in other cultures still hold hand etc. the OP added something extra to the article by sharing his experience and thoughts.

          Commenter
          iKris82
          Location
          Melbourne
          Date and time
          March 14, 2013, 5:34PM
      • Interesting article! Between some podcasts I've been listening too as well as a component of one of my history units on early modern Europe, it's interesting charting the changing social acceptance of male to male contact. You've hit most of the points from what I can see in this article...great to see condensed information on such a voluminous topic.

        While I'm personally completely disinterested in physical contact with other men outside of a handshake (hugged my father once in living memory, at my wedding, and never another man), and this works for me, I think as a general social trend the lack of acceptable physical contact is quite harmful to men in general. It hinders deep and lasting relationships from forming in many cases and segregates men from others who might be able to help them.

        I certainly think, despite being in Gen Y myself, that the younger members of Gen Y are more affectionate with one another, based on casual observation. I think this will be a good thing, overall, as long as it is not something mandated. Not everyone needs or wants that level of contact and shouldn't be made to feel that they are flawed (and vice versa).

        Commenter
        Tim the Toolman
        Date and time
        March 14, 2013, 9:50AM
        • Hi Tim,

          I think you're right, some people are just inherently more touchy-feely than others and I don't necessarily think a person who isn't really that "huggy" should be felt as though they need to subscribe to a "new" cultural norm, should hugging among men become more widely accepted.

          A hug or any type of affectionate gesture should be given by both parties selflessly... to force someone else to hug you when they are clearly not comfortable is no longer a selfless act.

          Having said that, who knows, one day you might find yourself in a situation where a hug from another man seems both completely natural and normal and I hope that you don't fight it and just go with it. We are tactile animals at the end of the day!

          Commenter
          Adrian
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          March 14, 2013, 10:47AM

      More comments

      Comments are now closed