International headlines recently celebrated that hundreds of Dutch men were holding hands. The men—a majority of them straight—did so in Amsterdam and other cities in response to a gay couple’s brutal attack in Arnhem, Netherlands. The gay victims were allegedly attacked for holding hands themselves.
When I saw this, I admit I was bothered. As a gay man, I appreciate the gesture. I don’t denigrate the men who stood hand-in-hand as a display of solidarity. What’s upsetting is that it’s remarkable at all.
That straight men holding hands makes the news speaks to a problem larger than gay bashing.
In Western culture, when men hold hands—gay or straight—it matters to us. We’re all complicit in teaching that it matters. It’s what most of us were taught. It starts young.
In a diverse range of schools over twelve years, I taught in Kindergarten and first grade classrooms. I frequently observed five and six year-old boys hug, hold hands, sometimes kiss other boys. This was true across class, race, religion and ethnicity. Dads during drop off and pick up—a still far-too-infrequent occurrence—held their boys’ hands, hugged and kissed them too. Just as frequently, in fourth and fifth grade hallways boys quickly defended touching each other at all with the qualifier – “No homo.”
Boys aren’t born blue-clad with arms tight at their sides. We do this to boys. They learn, as we learned, just like any bias that sticks. They grow into pre-teens, high-schoolers and men who are compelled to believe their simple human nature is not acceptable. So unacceptable that some men turn to violence to prove it.
In 2008, two Ecuadorian men were attacked in Brooklyn by other men wielding glass bottles and a baseball bat. The two men had been walking home from a bar one December night, arm in arm, trying to stay warm. The attackers yelled anti-Hispanic and anti-gay slurs at the two men—the latter clearly suggesting they were mistaken as a couple. In fact, they were brothers. One of them was beat to death. Just the perception of gayness caused by them touching contributed to the end of a man’s life.
One of the victims in the Arnhem attack commented afterward that he and his boyfriend rarely hold hands in public unless they’re alone. This line of thinking is not uncommon among gay men.
In the past fifteen years, I’ve lived in New York and San Francisco – two U.S. cities to which LGBTQ people have flocked for decades. Yet, I’ve repeatedly observed male couples drop held hands when they noticed they’re being noticed. I’ve done the same with my own boyfriend. While holding hands with another man, we’ve been screamed at from blocks away by pedestrians and passing cars, had glass bottles thrown at us mid-day, and physically threatened multiple times—once on the same street as the historic Stonewall Inn.
We were lucky. The bottles didn’t hit us, assaults weren’t carried out, and the ones yelling passed us by. Still, each time it happens, the body’s fight or flight instinct kicks in. What happened to the Dutch couple confirms the fear that makes this so. It’s a natural response to threat. Whether we stand our ground, girded for fight, or flee, is irrelevant. What matters is the instinct is triggered at all for a touch as innocent as hand-holding.
Hand-holding is a casual intimacy straight couples can easily take for granted.
I propose a different statement of solidarity. Let’s pocket our hands for a while. We could call it “A Day Without Touching.” One of our most primal instincts—simple touch—is disallowed for the day. Walk empty-handed in public. Straight couples, in particular, imagine being fearful when you feel like reaching for each other.
On that day, let’s pay close attention to why we pay attention.
This enduring legacy of masculinity that tells us men shouldn’t hold hands—what makes it noteworthy—is unnecessary and, frankly, sad.
Upon reflection, maybe we’ll start to raise and treat our boys differently. When boys go from five year-olds to fifteen to forty-five and comfortably show affection between them—straight or gay, holding hands or something else harmless and inoffensive—maybe we won’t do a double-take when we observe it.
In the eyes of some people, gay men are inherently un-manly. Or, they’re not men at all. It’s unfortunate, but gay men making the measured choice to hold hands in public—knowing attacks for doing so exist—still takes bravery. Ironically, it’s bravery that is meant when someone demands – “be a man.”