This is about men holding hands. In India, where I grew up, men showing affection this way was common and not construed as homosexual activity. I look back on how I interpreted this social action differently and how it has shaped me today as a gay man.
While in the middle of a job hunt, I asked an older relative of mine for some advice. He offered the few connections and bits of wisdom he had. Then, after a pause, he suggested something that seemed like an obvious choice.
“Why not move back to India? Plenty of contacts. The money is good now. Family will help you. You’d be all set.”
I have been asked this question before. Usually by other fellow immigrants. My answer was the same.
“I know that. You’re absolutely right. But…as a gay man, I don’t think that would be possible. I wouldn’t be happy. I want to live somewhere I’m able to walk down the street holding another man’s hand, you know?” My relative nodded, considering this. Then chuckled. I knew what he was going to say
“Well…you could. Just not in that way.”
Whenever friends or colleagues visit India for the first time, I love hearing about what their experience was like. They marvel at the crowds and traffic. The compliments flow about the architecture and food. Souvenirs from bazaars are shown off, along with bargaining stories.
What I prefer are their thoughts on are some local cultural mannerisms. Many find them curious. I remember them with fondness.
Like the way people wobble their heads side to side as a sign of agreement (‘A cow shaking off flies’ someone once described to me). Or when children bow low and gently touch their elder’s feet to show respect. Or British inflections like ‘touch wood’ instead of ‘knock’.
The one they always bring to my attention is how men show affection in public. To someone unfamiliar, it can be quite surprising.
Many Indian men walk together in pairs holding hands. Like a couple. Often you see them interlacing fingers or just the pinkies. Sometimes they lean on each others shoulders or even engage in a semi embrace, arms wrapped around waists. No one considers this odd, save for Western travelers. I’ve seen the same behavior in other Asian and Middle Eastern countries.
Some assume these men to be of lower income or education levels but that is not necessarily the case. The one thing they lack is exposure to the western social mores. They only know culture steeped in tradition.
Holding hands with a woman, even one’s wife, is rare. And two women are not normally seen sharing the same physical familiarity like, say, American girl-friends or sisters do.
Despite this level of closeness something must be pointed out. These men are not boyfriends. They are not even gay. Well, I’m sure some of them are (there’s over a billion people so it stands to reason), but this is not an expression of sexuality. It is one of camaraderie. A sign of brotherhood and support.
India is a sexually repressed country. Kissing and love scenes are edited from American TV shows. Hints of nudity are blacked out in foreign magazines. Despite the fact that there are temples filled with statues depicting every erotic act and position imaginable, the subject of sex is still very taboo.
Many of these men will never know the touch of a woman until their wedding nights. These signs of affection they share with each other, seemingly tide them over.
For me, growing up in India meant a different kind of suppression. Homosexuality, or rather the act of sex between two men was and still is a criminal offense. Happiness as an out and proud gay man never seemed possible. At school, being ‘one of them’ was an open invitation for bullying and threats to be reported to the police. With these perils in mind, gay men tend to keep their distance from one another so as not to draw attention.
I had a fairly privileged childhood. My father was a senior banker and our family lived quite comfortably. I was driven to a country club and my private English school by chauffeur. My passport was well stamped. As a teenager, I never wanted for anything, be it the latest videogame or pop CD from abroad. I was no stranger to western culture.
As a small child, I held hands with other boys, mainly for safety as one does when crossing the street. When I got older, and western values replaced eastern ones, I learned that those affections were expected to be directed at members of the opposite sex. Boys bragged constantly about how far they got with a girl. Even though none of us understood anything about American baseball, we adopted the terms first, second and third base from Hollywood teen movies. Holding hands with a girl was the ultimate triumph, showing that you had won her over and she was yours. Older people would stare at these brash young couples defying tradition.
As I grew and began to understand more about myself, I realized I wanted more than what our high status could give me. Despite my advantages, I envied these men. After years of not giving them a second glance, I would watch them walk hand in hand with the same fascination tourists did. I longed for the ease they felt being so physically comfortable with one another without caring who saw them. To feel the warmth of another man’s palm. Walk without shame, resting my head on his shoulder. Casually hug his waist or hook my finger through his belt loop. Could it ever happen? When?
At first this need was simply physical desire. Then once, while on holiday in New York, I saw two American men holding hands near Times Square.
I knew this was different. The stolen glances. The way one rubbed the others finger. The fact that there were no other people of the same sex doing it. This meant something deeper. I could feel their love. Though I probably shouldn’t have, I stared. This was my new goal.
So many closeted Indian men follow the path they feel necessary. Marry and start a family all while leading a double life. There are no winners in these cases. Suicide rates among South Asian LGBT youth is a heavy concern. Advocacy has risen in the last few years to combat this and challenge the status quo. Gay rights are currently one of the hottest topics in India right now. Voices are finally being heard. I’m proud and glad that these conversations are finally happening. I wish it started sooner. So many of us needed it.
I was one of the lucky ones. I escaped. My father switched careers and moved our family to America nearly two decades ago. Our lifestyle downgraded severely. No more villa with servants, tutors and chauffeurs. We lived in a small rented condo, shopped at Wal-Mart and I attended public school. I couldn’t have been happier. Barely a year after immigrating, I came out.
When I started dating, I was a little hesitant at first with public displays of affection. But that passed. Practice makes perfect. I’ve held hands, hugged and kissed many men in the street, fully visible to everyone. It sometimes still draws a look or two.
I don’t care. I do it because I can.
It was worth the wait.
Photo: Flickr/David Amsler