Brett and Kate McKay of The Art of Manliness tracked down about 100 photos from the late 19th and early 20th centuries of men being physically affectionate with one another.
It’s an amazing collection, but while the men’s casual intimacy is stunning, McKay says that it’d be a mistake to assume that they’re all gay; some of them may be, but he says it’s far more likely that they’re just sharing the physical closeness that men used to express before homosexuality got labelled as a “sinful” mental disorder and sexual identity later in the 20th century.
During the 19th century, McKay says, men regularly formed deep and emotional friendships and bonds that weren’t necessarily sexual even though they used endearing language (like calling one another “my lovely boy”) and physical closeness: some guys regularly held hands, embraced one another from behind, sat on each other’s laps and shared a physical closeness that seems jarring to modern audiences.
Rather than viewing them as all gay (or bi), McKay suggests that we ponder the nature of their relationships: could they be brothers? friends? relatives? co-workers? military mates?
He also notes the rarity of physical contact in modern photos: an interviewer of contemporary portrait photographers said that no photographer had ever had two men come in to have their photos taken together. Perhaps that will change now that same-sex marriage has been legalized nationwide and gender roles are getting tossed in the garbage.
Many gay and bi men aren’t comfortable expressing everyday physical affection with their male friends (apart from the requisite hello/goodbye hug). Every touch and embrace doesn’t need to be sexual, a little more physical affection between us would feels good and can definitely strengthen the bonds between us.