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When two grown men hold hands in public, does this mean they are gay. The majority of Americans would probably believe this to be true, but this is far from the reality in many other cultures around the world. In most African and Middle Eastern countries it is perfectly normal for heterosexual men to hold hands in public!
I spent 28 years of my life in the United States Army Special Forces (SF). During most, if not all of my assignments the one thing you learned (in SF) was to accept and respect other cultures. In the 80's and 90's our primary mission was to deploy to foreign countries and to train their defense forces in military tactics. In the SF community it was instilled into you - that often (to complete the mission), you must ignore some of our American values and be prepared to accept the host nation's way of life. Before we would deploy to a foreign land we would study the country's culture and learn about the people and the customs. Many times we would have regional experts give us briefings on the country we were going to. Normally, these experts were current or prior citizens of these countries or other expatriates who had lived there for a very long time. You (as a member of the deploying team) were responsible to know the culture or customs of a country you were deploying to and this became one of the most important aspects of our pre-deployment training; for us, it could mean mission success or mission failure! The easy part was learning about the culture of foreign countries, the hard part was implementing what you had learned while you were there.
As I said, while in the military, I had the opportunity to travel to many different countries, the majority being in Africa and the Middle East. This was one thing I really loved about my job - traveling to exotic places that most Americans had never had a chance to go to or even heard of. My very first deployment to Africa was in 1984, to Kenya. Before leaving the US, I received all my pre-mission briefs on the customs and culture of the country, and the troops we would be training. I was informed that Kenyan soldiers often held hands together in public and that it was a sign of friendship and (normally) didn't mean they were homosexuals. I remember, at the time, I didn't think too much about this fact (although I had thought it was a bit strange), I figured like so many other customs, it was part of their culture and I wouldn't let it bother me. When I arrived in Kenya, I was assigned to a Kenyan airborne infantry company as their primary instructor for military tactics. After being in the country for about three weeks the company commander and I became good friends and he even invited me to dinner several times to meet his family.
One day, while I was addressing the Kenyan company of about 140 men on the day's training, the company commander came over to me and took my hand as I talked. I was shocked! What should I do? I nervously thought to myself. I knew through my training he was not coming on to me and that he was helping me - by showing to his men that he and I were friends and that the men should show me more respect because (now) I was his friend and not just a foreign stranger here to train them. The men in the company could tell that it was uncomfortable for me, because they started to laugh. Even though I did not jerk away from him, I became very stiff and rigid in my appearance.
The company commander then quieted the men down and explained to them about how in America men do not hold each other's hands, because they would be considered homosexuals. He knew much about American culture and was very surprised when I did not pull away from him. After that we became even better friends. That young Kenyan captain taught me a lot about the culture of Kenyan and Africa as a whole. Subsequently, during my time in Kenya I could be seen walking hand in hand with many of my new friends and also, with my good friend the captain. For several years I stayed in contact with my captain friend through letters, until one day I received a letter from his wife stating that the young man, who had taught me so much about Kenya and Africa, was killed (in 1990) on the border between Kenya and Uganda while fighting in a skirmish against Ugandan soldiers. The irony of the whole thing is in 1991 I was sent to Uganda to train their military. While on the mission I learned that the Ugandan unit I was training had been directly involved in the border fighting against the same airborne infantry company I had trained in Kenya, years earlier; A sad fact of reality in the complicated world of Africa.
Why is it "ok" for heterosexual men in Africa and the Middle East to hold hands in public? (General Tips for Crossing Cultures Effectively, 2011) "Men holding hands while walking down the street in non-Western cultures are often a statement of friendship, not of sexual orientation. Men often hold hands with male friends in public as do women with female friends. If you find a local person of your gender wanting to hold your hand in public, consider the action a giant compliment - you have been accepted as a friend. Unlike in the U.S., men and women usually do not display affection to each other publicly, whether by holding hands or otherwise."
The people of Africa act quite strongly against gays, even to the point of killing homosexual couples publicly. (Chursinoff, 2010)Â "Africa is quite homophobic. If you are a gay traveler you would be well advised to hide the fact. It is not uncommon for openly gay Africans to suffer dearly for their openness. It is a sad and backwards aspect to African culture. So don't mistake those Kenyan men who are walking down the sidewalk holding hands, as a sign of a liberal society. Men hold hands here. It is likely a passed-along Arabic custom. Go ahead, give it a whirl!"
So what does American culture say about heterosexual men holding hands in public? I believe one of the biggest reasons American men don't show any type of platonic feelings towards other males is because they are afraid of being classified as gay. (Examples of Cultural Differences in The Interpretation of Body Language, 2011)" Even something as simple as holding hands, also varies from culture to culture. If a man and woman hold hands in the US, in public, it is considered to be a sign of intimacy. However, in reserved cultures like in Japan and the Middle East, if two people from opposite gender hold hands, it is considered to be promiscuous and vulgar. On the other hand, when two people from the same gender hold hands, like two women or two men, then it is considered to be a sign of friendship with no sexual connotation. However, in the US or the UK, it could/would be considered a sign of lesbianism or homosexuality."
I would have to say with all my travels and exposure to the many different cultures I have encountered, I have always kept an open mind to accept what that culture has to offer and I tried not to judge any culture by American values. I have seen other Americans and the U.S. Government try to instill, and even sometimes force American standards on other countries and their cultures; only to fail miserably and waste human lives and dollars in the process of creating democracy in a country that did not understand the meaning of it. I am no longer afraid to hold another man's hand where it is accepted to do so. One very important observation that I have noticed, it seems during my travels I have always seen more soldiers than civilians holding hands. Is this because of the close bonds that soldiers have with each other? I know that for myself I would only give another male a hug if he was a fellow soldier, one who has shared the same suffering and hardships that I have endured.
Chursinoff, R. (2010), Top 10 Ways To Be Less Of A Westerner In Kenya, Matador Travel. Retrieved form http://matadortravel.com/traveler/r-chursinoff/blog/top-10-ways-be-less-westerner-kenya
General Tips for Crossing Cultures Effectively (2011). the task. Retrieved from http://www.thetask.org/clientimages/44564/general_tips%20for%20crossing%20cultures%20effectively.pdf
Examples of Cultural Differences in The Interpretation Of Body Language (2011). Elderlyjournal. Retrieved from http://www.elderlyjournal.com/senior-dating/body-language/Examples-Of-Cultural-Differences-In-The-Interpretation-Of-Body-Language.html