What’s wrong with holding hands?

Photo: Henrik Garlöv/The Royal Court of Sweden

Oh, come on! Another one of these pictures? Where the speaker of the Riksdag and the king look even more like mismatched step brothers forced to dress up and pose for the camera?

Publicity still from the movie Step Brothers (2008), about two bickering man babies who end up under the same roof when their parents get married. Alamy Stock Photo.

Is there any pose we could suggest which would defuse the air of hostility?

Here’s an idea: how about having them hold hands? In many African and Asian countries, men walking around hand in hand is actually a common sight.

Photo: Vincent Dolman / @theholdinghandsproject

That this isn’t the case in the West became clear (if it wasn’t already) in 2005, when George W Bush was ridiculed by the media for holding hands with Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia during a walk.

Photo: AP / Montage: The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

Before you let out a delighted “aaawww!!!”: remember that in Saudi Arabia, homosexuality is punishable by flogging, life imprisonment or death. Other countries where bromantic handholding is commonplace also tend to punish homosexuality severely, or even consider it so taboo that it “doesn’t exist”*.

And therein lies the explanation. Physical contact and affection between men is noncontroversial in countries where homosexuality is so marginalized as to barely even exist in the collective consiousness.



That’s why six Dagestani MMA fighters can share a very small bathtub without anyone even thinking of questioning their manhood.

MMA fighters Islam Makhachev and Khabib Nurmagomedov with friends (unknown photographer)

By the same token, it’s easy to understand why Western (heterosexual) men shy away if another man touches their hand. After all, interpreting it as a romantic gesture is not out of the question. (And the fact that this would be something bad lays bare the fact that homophobia exists in the West as well, if anyone was under a different impression.)

But it hasn’t always been like that! In the 19th century, even Western men had a more relaxed attitude to other men’s bodies. This is evident from portraits that groups of male friends had taken of themselves in photo studios, posing and touching each other in ways that 21st century historians (with their warped perspective) at first interpreted as sexual.

Photos from the Art of Manliness article Bosom Buddies: A Photo History of Male Affection, in addition to my own remake featuring Victor and Håkon from the Norwegian photo exhibition Ungdom. Identitet. Mangfold. (Youth. Identity. Diversity.)

The key to understanding why the men of that era could touch each other without fearing what people would think: the word “homosexual” wasn’t coined until 1869**.

What if we could create a culture where men can be near each other AND it’s completely irrelevant who you have sex with? One step in that direction would be if the king and the speaker would at least give each other a pinky finger.


* In a speach at New York’s Columbia University in 2007, Iran’s then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said: “In Iran we don’t have homosexuals like in your country.”

** In 2019, Uganda’s state minister for ethics and integrity told Reuters: “Homosexuality is not natural to Ugandans.”