In spending a fair amount of time in the Middle East and North Africa, I've been witness to a lot of what's called "homosocial" culture.
Despite variable views on homosexuality, Islamic countries maintain extremely friendly, touchy-feely contact between men. When walking the streets of say, Marrakesh or Cairo, it's common to see men touching each other's thighs in all-male cafes, and holding hands as they walk through busy souks.
Homosociality, which is defined as same-sex relationships that are not of romantic or sexual nature (such as friendships and mentorships), has only really been theorised in the West since the 1970s, but has been present in Islamic culture for centuries.
Though not to the same extent, I've started to notice homosocial communication down here in New Zealand, too.
Case and point: at the weekend I was told by a straight, male, army colleague of my husband's that I was "looking fit", before proceeding to innocently touch my chest to give my muscles a bit of a squeeze. Perhaps this seems strange to civilians, but the military encourages a homosocial culture – I find it common to see male Army officers complimenting each other, hugging, even – when they're drinking – kissing on the cheek.
When your profession is warfare, it's unlikely that you're worried whether people consider you manly enough.
The majority of those army men are heterosexual and are simply expressing their love for their fellow man – a man who, at any given time on an overseas deployment, could be in charge of saving their life, after all. Sometimes it seems like military men are daring onlookers to challenge their inherently self-assured masculinity with such friendly, jovial behaviour.
Homosocial culture is also prevalent in New Zealand gyms – another mostly male-dominated environment. The "bromance" is certainly popular at my local City Fitness – workout buddies do the "bro hug" upon seeing each other, tell one another when their arms are looking big or their legs are gaining serious definition, and don't flinch when they brush hands or touch each other on the lower back for form correction.
As a gay man, I'm used to this kind of behaviour being chastised as the pejorative. I grew up in a world where boys and men exclaimed "no homo!" when they made accidental physical contact. As a closeted man learning to shield my true self from my peers, I learned to steer clear of anything that could be perceived as "gay", because the subsequent insults were just so damaging.
Though my military experience has proven a welcome exception, I can't ignore the fact that homosociality and homophobia remain interlinked. This is exemplified in many of the Islamic nations I've been to – for two straight men to hold hands in the street is expected, for two gay men to follow suit could literally result in death. Here in New Zealand, too, homophobia is still present amongst those who practice any form of homosocial culture.
Rugby grounds are a good example: players maintain a high level of physical touch on and off the field, yet you'll still hear anti-gay slurs in changing rooms – All Blacks like Tawera Kerr-Barlow have even (regretfully) admitted making such themselves.
It's interesting that the straight guys who uphold homosocial culture are some of the "manliest" men out there. It's army lads who fire rifles as their profession, it's Muslim men from deeply patriarchal countries, it's 90kg muscle-bound dudes who can squat twice that.
I like to see homosociality as a good thing for mankind. Examples of homophobia aside, it makes me more comfortable as a gay man. It also tells me that the toxicity of modern masculinity might be slowly fading in New Zealand. We guys are not so afraid of each other anymore. Nobody can argue that's a bad thing for men the world over.