Although some societies have accepted homosexuality, there are still many societies that consider it as an unnatural, devilish thing or simply have a problem with accepting it as a fact of life. I believe that it would be safe to assume that social attitudes towards homosexuality are somewhere on the continuum between Iran and The Netherlands.
In Iran, officially (at least according to the president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) there is no homosexuality. Considering that Iran has a population of around 75 million it is hard to believe that there are absolutely zero gay men or lesbian women. Despite the relatively uniform distribution of homosexuals in the global population, officially homosexuality does not exist in Iran. Let’s say that Iran is one prototype of homophobic society.
At the other end of the continuum is The Netherlands which has a very open and accepting society. The Netherlands was the first country to legalize same-sex marriages in 2001. Living in this beautiful country I see that same sex couples have absolutely no problem in making it public that they are homosexuals. It is normal to see same sex couples holding hands or kissing in public. Similarly no one is surprised to know that same sex couples live together.
To some people what I’ve just wrote above is trivial, but for people coming from societies that are less accepting with homosexuality, it would be at least surprising to see these things happening.
This post is not about how societies should be or whether homosexuality should be accepted or not. Both those in favor of accepting it and those against it have very strong arguments (or at least in their opinion). What I want to talk about in this post is a remark made by a Dutch instructor (for one of the courses I took in the last 2 years).
He said that he is surprised that in more homophobic societies such as Turkey or the ones from the Balkans heterosexual men have a lot of physical contact in public. When men get together for a friendly meeting such as having a coffee and smoking the water pipe with friends they tend to have a physical interaction that goes beyond a “manly” hand shake. What they do is that they hug as a form of greeting or of saying good bye. Many times they also kiss on the cheek when saying hello or good bye.
This is kind of surprising since the social norms in these countries are against same sex relationships. A gay couple would be at least socially excluded if they would exhibit physical interaction such as holding hands or kissing. Now, I’m trying to be moderate here by saying “social exclusion”… this is what it is polite to say. Unfortunately, in homophobic societies, homosexuals that make public their sexual orientation have to face much more unpleasant things like public humiliation, beatings or even criminal charges and punishments.
So it’s a bit puzzling why heterosexual men in homophobic societies are so physically friendly with other men. It’s almost “Despite living in a homophobic society, heterosexual men are so physically friendly with other men”. And yes, you’ve got it! It’s Not DESPITE; It’s BECAUSE!
To better understand why it’s not despite; it’s because, let’s look at the other end of the continuum of homosexuality acceptance in society, namely to heterosexual men in The Netherlands. In this very accepting society, heterosexual men barely have physical interaction among themselves. Usually when two heterosexual men meet they shake hands. That’s it! When they say “Good bye” there is just a hand shake. No hugging, no kissing on the cheek. Of course, there are exceptions in case of extreme drunkenness and when the National Football team actually wins a game at a big football tournament. However these exceptions occur only when self-control is close to zero due to alcohol or extreme emotions of joy and amazement. (At Euro 2012, the Dutch Football team was a big disappointment).
Again, it’s a bit puzzling, right? In this case, it would be “Despite living in an accepting society heterosexual men are not so physically friendly with other men”. And, YES… It’s Not DESPITE; It’s BECAUSE!
Before revealing the “secret” explanation, I’d like to take you to the (apparent) paradox of suntan. In brief, there are two types of countries. The ones that get a lot of Sun and those don’t. Think of countries like the UK, Iceland, Ireland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Estonia etc. Most likely what pops into your mind when mentioning these countries is far from “Sunny”… Actually, how would it sound “Sunny Norway”? It’s a bit of an oxymoron. Now, think of Spain, India, Thailand, Cyprus etc. Now, “Sunny Cyprus” sounds natural.
As you might have guessed by now, attitudes towards suntan are very different in the two groups of countries. Moreover, not only attitudes, but the social meaning of suntan is very different. Let me explain a bit.
In countries that lack sunlight having a suntan means that the person is wealthy enough to go on long and expensive holydays abroad. In countries that benefit from abundant sunlight having a suntan means that one has to work all day long in the sunshine most likely on a field. In different societies the same thing – having a suntan – means exactly opposite things and transmits different information about a person. So if in Norway having a suntan means that you are rich, and in India means that you are poor, isn’t it normal for people to behave differently with regard to suntan?
Rich people in Scotland show that they are rich by getting as much suntan as possible, while rich people in India show that they are rich by whitening their skin as much as possible (meaning that they can afford not to work).
Now, coming back to the behavior of heterosexual men in homophobic and accepting societies, the situation is quite similar to the one regarding suntan. Heterosexual men need to show that they are heterosexual. I’m not implying that it is wrong to show that one is homosexual. It’s simply a matter of social communication of one’s sexual orientation. More so, on the “mating market” sexual orientation is one very basic piece of information. Heterosexual men will want to be in the same “mating market place” as heterosexual women, while homosexual men or women want to be in the same “mating market place” as homosexual men or women. So, communicating one’s sexual orientation is crucial in social interaction. Thankfully people don’t ware signs on their foreheads with their sexual orientation. Behavior is a much better indicator, especially behavior in social groups.
The relationship between wealth and suntan and the relationship between sexual orientation and physical interaction among men are very similar. If we translate them into abstract terms it would be something like this: an individual wants to transmit to others (an “audience”) a piece of information (wealth or sexual orientation) about him /her-self. The means used to transmit this information are under the contingency of the social norms of the group or society the individual and the “audience” are members of.
In a society that benefits form a lot of sunlight, having a suntan means that a person in poor. If that person would not be poor and would not need to work 12 hours on the field, he or she could afford to stay indoors, with air conditioning and buy cosmetic products that make the skin whiter. More so, if that person would have been very, very (almost obscenely) rich he or she could have taken a long vacation in Norway (during winter).
Similarly in a homophobic society a man that hugs and kisses on the cheek other men is heterosexual. If that person would have not been heterosexual, first of all other men would not interact with him, second he would not have dared to come close to heterosexual men since they would mistreat him if they found out that he was homosexual.
In homophobic society men that hug and kiss on the cheek HAVE TO BE heterosexual since a homosexual men would NOT DARE to show in public physical interaction with other homosexual men.
In an accepting society homosexual men (and women) are free to show in public physical interaction with other homosexual men (and women). This means that heterosexual men will restrict to a hand shake to show that they are heterosexuals.
It is not despite, it is because!