Men's Displays of Public Affection

Do displays of physical affection by politicians flaunt heterosexual privilege?

Posted Jun 11, 2019

This guest post was written by Nicholas Newman.

The ongoing controversy over Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s displays of physical affection leaves me indifferent. The discussion invariably focuses on whether anyone who loves to hug and touch should scale back their expression, or from the obverse position, how a person receiving such admiration should respond.  

What I see as missing is a discussion about the public arena that frames such expressions—who is witnessing this—yet Biden’s role as a public figure was the source for the story’s power. Perhaps my unwillingness to inhabit either “hug-ger” or “hug-gee” position is testimony to the distancing I learned as a gay man in this society, so I invariably reverted to asking the most remote question: How does such behavior appear to an audience?

With Pete Buttigieg’s candidacy suddenly generating increased interest in the upcoming Democratic primary sweepstakes, it might be worth revisiting the issue of Joe Biden’s perceived excess of touching, and what difference is made by changing the sexual orientation of the hug-ger or touch-er. 

Based on stereotype, convention, and culture, gay men have been perceived as more expressive emotionally, but most gay men I know manage that behavior carefully and quite self-consciously, aware that there is always an audience for such acts beyond the binary of hugger/huggee.

At my last job in New York City, in the weeks before I started graduate school, I counted 22 gay men amongst that company’s 80 employees. I was 35 years old, and it was an hourly event to peck a cheek, hug, and comment on clothes while touching. All this was done in good fun and was well intended and accepted within the company and even parts of that city.

But at my new graduate school, most of my new colleagues were young women in their early twenties. They were perfectly okay with me doing these acts in private settings, but I never dared do them in public precisely because I knew a lot of straight men would misunderstand this as permission to do the same themselves. 

None of the women implored me to behave thusly—this was my decision. That job had felt liberating for its openness in touching, so it was particularly difficult for me to rein in that tactility, but I did, and I believe it was the ethical thing to do. But I didn't learn the lesson about how to hold myself back because of that job, that setting, or even that moment. 

In fact, I had been managing public displays of affection all my life. I don't believe I'm the only gay man who has found problematic the issue of public displays of even the most rudimentary forms of affection or engagement.

That's why candidate Pete Buttigieg will find himself scrutinized continually for every hug and touch he initiates—and even those he doesn’t initiate. 

What I worry about most is this: What will be made of his interaction with children? Despite progress in the social acceptance of gay men and lesbians in almost all professions, I know plenty of gay men who remain quite hesitant to display affection for any child, since any interaction whatsoever is seen by some through a filter that assumes gay men (but not gay women) are potential child molesters. 

In contrast, a few years ago, a close friend in casual conversation made the quick, illogical leap that since gay men don’t have children, they must hate children and want to harm them—yet this same friend assumed my hesitation at full engagement with children was due to an inborn lack of parenting skills. 

As a gay Caucasian man, if I hug my half-Thai nephews at, say, a park playground, some assume I am not only a child molester but a child trafficker. But if I ignore those boys physically, I harm their psyche. Yet, when they misbehave, if I scold or discipline them in any way, my ability to deal with children as a gay man is immediately under scrutiny. Is there a way to win this war of the visible? I feel like an anxious imposter, trying to perform a range of roles for an anticipated but unwieldy public.

Buttigieg’s announcement that he wants to have children soon appears to manage his public’s perception of gay fatherhood, adding that he rests assured that his husband Chasten would make an excellent parent, which deflected the issue of Pete’s own parenting skills. Indeed, his spouse’s name is reassuring, chaste yet chastening.

I was raised by a fairly private father who I perceived as remote and undemonstrative, like many men who are uncomfortable with both offering and accepting affection. In contrast, my mother was effusively warm and possessed great social ease. I grew up regarding myself as a chip off my mother's, and not my father's, block. 

In the years since his death, and as I have matured, I have come to appreciate my librarian father’s circumspect and gentlemanly demeanor. The testimonials at his funeral by many female co-workers consistently highlighted his kindness, for example, as well as his ability to listen and give temperate, measured advice. He was fatherly, let’s say, to all. 

While it was liberating for me to be free with embraces and displays of affection to others at my workplace when I was younger, I now admire my father’s judicious behavior as a method for maintaining respect, trust, and dignity among relations. Yet this puts me at odds with one set of cultural expectations of gay men: Although I believe I am disarmingly honest in conversation, making myself known through stories and personal accounts, I am no longer a fan of indiscriminately public displays of physical affection. 

While I still cling to my gay generation’s bias that such displays are the luxury of heterosexual privilege, I nevertheless wonder how American voters will respond to Pete Buttigieg’s genial sense of empathetic generosity. I hope they will be able to see him as a candidate first and, as such, reach out to shake his hand.