Men haven’t always avoided open displays of affection for each other. Rachel Giese author of Boys: What It Means To Become A Man says:
“Our squeamishness about male friendship is a historical anomaly: connections between men have been idealized throughout Western history and understood as foundational to society, culture, and art. The veneration of men’s friendships can be charted as far back as ancient Greece (Walrus magazine, May 2018).”
Before the mid-1800s, society was structured around organizations of men –guilds, religious orders, service clubs, sports teams and the military. Displays of affection and confessions of love between men were common and unremarkable. In his essay “On Friendship,” French philosopher Michel de Montaigne describes his relationship with deceased friend as one with “souls mingling and blending with each other so completely that they efface the seam that joined them.”
Such gushes of emotion would be suspect in today’s society. Even the innocuous term “bromance” carries a certain discomfort. “It celebrates same-sex fondness,” says Giese, “but does it with a smirk—as if two men caring for another needs to be explained or justified.”
Culture changed at the start of the twentieth century as women became more integrated into public life. Schools, places of work, and politics were no longer the exclusive domain of men. Marriage shifted from an arrangement between families to one based on romance and love. The nuclear family replaced the male-dominated associations as the centre of culture and society.
Victorian values made homosexuality a perversion and a threat to social order: platonic friendships became suspect. These values resist change. Men are defined as the opposite of women, the head and provider of the family -and heterosexual. In this context, homosexuals are seen to be the opposite of a “real man.”
Homophobia has a toxic effect on boys. Professor Niobe Way has studied the emotional landscape as boys mature. The common notion is that boys are less communicative, invulnerable and less capable of intimacy, than girls. However, Professor Way found genuine affection among boys. One fifteen-year old told her of his feelings for another boy: “[My best friend and I] love each other…. I guess in life, sometimes two people can really, really, understand each other and really have a trust, respect and love for each other. It just happens, it’s human nature.”
As adolescent straight boys approach manhood, the fear of being perceived as a homosexual grows. They leave behind friends as they explore the uncertain terrain of romantic relationships of women. They are vulnerable as they no longer have a foot in either world.
Professor Way believes that young men are suffering from a “crisis if connection” as a result of being told that real men can’t be close to each other. Men can end up lonely at a cost to their health. Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy speaks of loneliness, isolation and weak social connections:
“[They] are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking fifteen cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity. Loneliness is also associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety.”