I learned that men don’t kiss men when I was about 11. We were visiting an aunt and uncle, and I kissed my aunty when we were greeted at the door. As I moved to kiss my uncle, he stuck a hand out for me to shake. The gesture was very clear. I was too old to kiss other men now. Men don’t kiss men.
After being openly gay for nearly 20 years, I look back on that moment and think ‘what a load of bullshit’. But even so, the taboo on men kissing men is hard to shake off. When you grow up in a culture that sees male displays of affection as shameful, the message gets deeply embedded in you.
Last month, while out with some gay friends, I was introduced to some other gay guys, and I instinctively stuck out a hand. The other man, who had been going in for a kiss, said jokingly ‘Oh, are we doing a manly handshake?’ Of course, if I was the sort of person who prefers a handshake, then that would have been fine. But I’m not that sort of person! In that moment my own internalised homophobia became visible. Why shouldn’t I greet another guy with a kiss?
On my mantle piece is a picture of two bearded Jewish men kissing each other on the mouth with their arms round each other. It’s a small, golden Eastern Orthodox icon from Israel/Palestine, given to me by a friend who knew instinctively that I’d like it. It represents the two leaders of the early Church, Peter and Paul, giving one another the ‘holy kiss’ that is referred to in the New Testament (Rom 16:16; 1 Cor 16:20; 2 Cor 13:12; 1 Thess 5:26). By kissing one another, Peter and Paul symbolise the unity of the Church – Peter is the apostle to the Jews, and Paul is the apostle to the Gentiles (non-Jews). The inclusion of Gentiles within the early Church (which was originally a Jewish sect) was a source of great conflict, so this icon is a symbol of reconciliation.
I love the icon of the holy kiss, not only because it’s a symbol of peace, but because, to my eyes, Peter and Paul clearly read as bears, and not the Winnie the Pooh kind. In gay culture ‘bears’ are what we call beardy, burly, hairy and cuddly gay guys (so I guess I’m one too). Bears even have their own flag. I’m not claiming that Peter and Paul were gay (though some have) or lovers. That would be anachronistic, probably unlikely and ultimately speculative. However, when I first saw that icon I couldn’t help but read them that way. In the straight world I grew up in, men don’t kiss men the way that Peter and Paul do. In the gay bear world I now get to be a part of, I see Peter and Paul everywhere! It’s like they’re the patron saints of bears!
In the company of bears, I see men express the joy of friendship through kissing each other on the cheek, on the mouth, hugging, squeezing and caressing. Straight-world might see this and assume such contact must be sexual, to which I’d say ‘yes and no’. There’s a sense in which such tactile male friendship is sexual. My favourite definition of ‘sexy’ is ‘being comfortable in your own skin’. A key characteristic of bear culture is body positivity, a celebrating of different shapes and sizes, and all degrees of hairiness. You might say a central virtue of bear-ness is being comfortable in your own skin. So the bear community is deeply sexy in a way that the straight world should be envious of. Sexy, but not lascivious, sordid or creepy. I can embrace and kiss my bear friends with no sense of infidelity to my husband. It’s a mark of how screwed up a heteronormative world is when it assumes that kissing can only be between sexual partners.
The more time I spend in the company of body-loving bears, who are not afraid to express their friendship through physical affection, the more my internalised homophobia is chipped away. In a world where macho bullshit damages us all, bears model a ‘holy kiss’ that expresses a particular kind of reconciliation, the reconciliation of men to their own perfectly imperfect bodies and emotions, and to their need for tactile male affection. Thank God for bears and the way they ‘greet one another with a holy kiss’ (Rom 16:16).