Guest Blogger

What's In a Handshake?

Filed By Guest Blogger | July 11, 2009 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Politics
Tags: homophobic behavior, manners, steve publicover

[Editors' Thumbnail image for steve 082007.jpgNote:] Steve Publicover is a middle-aged gay man living with his partner of nine years in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Southwestern Virginia, with three cats, four ducks and a pond. Steve worked for eleven years in the non-profit field of consumer credit education and advocacy and has written newsletters, educational materials and numerous articles for a variety of publications. You can find him at Rev. Steve's Cyber-Pulpit.]

My partner and I recently attended a housewarming/cookout at the home of my coworker Leanne and her boyfriend Jimmy. It was a laidback gathering of family, friends and new neighbors and also the first time I'd been to Leanne's place in the five years we've known each other. We had a lot of fun sitting around eating some great food and telling funny stories.

The day after the party, I sent an e-mail to Leanne thanking her for the invitation, complimenting her new home and recounting what a great time we'd had. She replied saying how glad she was that we could make it and commented on how impressed Jimmy had been that I had shaken his dad's hand when I met him.

What did he expect, an Obama-style fist bump? Jimmy had greeted me with the customary straight guy "right-hand-clasp, lean-in, right-shoulder-touch, left-handed, half- hug." A move that says, "I like you, but not in that way." Since his dad was old enough to also be my dad, the gesture didn't seem appropriate. Besides, as a homo, I don't really do it right.

I didn't know what Jimmy had told his conservative, Southern Baptist folks about me, but I figured it was clear that my hubby and I had shown up as a couple. I usually greet my gay friends with a full-on hug and a kiss, but since my gaydar wasn't going off at the party, I went with a classic.

At first I wondered why it was worthy of notice, but it got me thinking about how something as simple as a handshake can be so much more than a polite social gesture.

The handshake as a form of greeting goes way back to the earliest days of Humanity. When the leaders of two tribes met, not knowing each other's language, they would put down their weapons and extend an empty hand as a way of saying, "I'm not your enemy."

In my early twenties, it was my mother who taught me the importance of shaking someone's hand as a sign of respect when going on job interviews and in other business or social settings. As a woman in the workforce during the 70's, she had learned how to get by in the white, hetero, male-dominated business world. Dad wasn't around, so it was up to her to impart these pearls of wisdom to me.

Years later, when I moved from DC to Southwestern Virginia, I felt like a like the queer version of the Lewis and Clark Expedition entering a gay no-man's land. I decided that I would let people get to know me as a person before revealing my man-on-man preference. I made it a point to shake hands whenever I met someone new. When I eventually came out to my new friends, they may have been surprised or a little shocked, but they didn't reject me.

One Happy Hour, several years ago, I was having a beer at my favorite neighborhood watering hole, "The Squeeze Inn", a long, narrow, hole-in-the-wall place with barn wood paneling and caricatures of long-dead former patrons on the walls. From the far end of the bar, came a low, drunken grumble with those all too familiar words, "Fuckin' Faggot!"

Before I could react, my redneck buddy, Burk, a 6'2", 300 lb. mountain of a man, complete with work boots and John Deere cap, was in the drunk's face, growling, "Can't we all just get along?"

Okay, so it wasn't the most eloquent thing to say, but it got the point across. That drunken homophobe was in "my" bar and my friends had my back. Even the drunk's friend, seated next to him, said, "Shut up, he's okay!"

Later, another of my mountain-man beer buddies told me, "I don't usually like yer kind, but yer a'right, Hoss." He also said that if anybody ever gave me any trouble, I should give him a call, adding, "They'll never find the body, Hoss." I should point out that he calls everyone "Hoss".

Based on their respective backgrounds, none of the guys I've mentioned have any reason to want to be my friend. The same can be said of all of those people out there who are actively working against us in our fight for full rights and equality.

We've known for a long time now that when straight people get to know us on a personal level, their homophobia fades. When I extend my hand as a gesture of friendship and respect, I earn a measure of it in return. Sometimes the best way to build a bridge between opposing forces is with a simple, age-old gesture that says, "I'm not your enemy."


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Very pleasant article and a good perspective to take. I never thought of the handshake as straight in identity. When I was a kid in the South everyone used a handshake gay/straight/bi/trans. My uncle and his partner were clearly together and they both used it which meeting someone. There was a transman rancher when I was a little boy that used it and was treated by all the other ranchers like a cis male. My day explained that one to me.
I guess that I have always used it but since I grew up in an area where hugging was common even between males as a greeting to family members and close friends I never really associated hugging as a gay/bi greeting though I guess that more of my queer friends do tend to hug.

I really enjoyed this post. As a gay woman, I sometimes wonder idly if my habit of looking people directly in the eye and shaking hands is a "tell." A lot of straight women don't do this, but I too was taught that it's a way to show one's good faith. And you can learn a lot from people's reactions.

I learned that a woman must offer her hand first or a man will not offer his own. My handshake is short but firm, with eye contact. Apparently it's not all that common, because I will invariably get a very positive response. (And I'm straight.)

A. J. Lopp | July 11, 2009 3:02 PM
"I don't usually like yer kind, but yer a'right, Hoss."

We hear remarks like this from time to time --- but what is really going on here? What is it that's really being said? And foremost, what is the most effective response, realizing that the speaker is confessing a prejudice?

It could be, "I don't like queers, but you have compensating virtues and I'll make an exception."

Or maybe, "I don't like sissies, but you're butch enough for me to get along with."

Or, "I know you're queer, but you don't poke it in my face unless required, so it's easy for me to pretend most of the time you're just another straight guy."

Or, "I know you're queer, but I don't want to disrupt the community by making an ugly issue about it."

Or maybe, "I know you're queer, but your grandpa and my grandpa were best friends, and I don't want to upset an extended family tradition."

Or, "I know you do things that will cause your soul to go to Hell, but it's your soul and it's not my business."

Or, "I know you're queer, but you obviously fit in well with the folks around here [the local tribe] and are a contributing community member."

It's an interesting statement ... and can be difficult to interpret sociologically. I expect the social forces at work can be quite complex, and seemingly involve some type of compartmentalization.

i very much enjoyed this article and the sentiment behind it but i also have a problem with a statement like that. it's like christians saying to me they love me but not my sins. where is the love in them telling me i will burn in hell forever? or even that i'm christian? yes, it is a step forward and i would hope towards a closer human connection to this person but this same person is very likely voting against any of my protections and rights. it's nice to be protected on one front but if i'm just an exception to their true beliefs or feelings then i am wary and will have trust issues.

i've also got:
"i know you're asian . . . but you're different"
uh, because i'm american or . . ? (and vice versa)
WTF?

Dear AJ,

I my experience, it's all of the above. Since my inarticulate friend was also prone to bar fights at the drop of a hat, I chose to simply accept the comment and say "thanks, I'll keep that in mind."

Thanks for your comments.

Rev. Steve

the handshake is most universal in western civilizations and as you point out has become a form of a greeting even after the initial meeting, before you have become friends and use other greetings.

i've always been conscious of the strength of someone's grip; it can tell a lot if you watch people's behaviour. a firm handshake usually tells me, "I am really happy to meet you."

a slight handshake, other than to a woman, can sometimes mean just the opposite, though not as often as the gripper. of course, a lot the machismos would say it's fey, i've never really felt that. i've looked at it as someone who has no intention of being offensive.

but i have always found that someone who grips and squeezes over-tightly, more than a firm grip, is someone i eventually discover over-compensates for a lot of things. almost like they are aware of their weaknesses and don't want anyone to know.

i had the man who took my job after i left my school grab and hold so tight the first time i met him that it would have been painful to many. it was obvious he wanted to intimidate me, when just my mere presence intimidated him. i have seen him a few times since, and he totally ignores me.

so, the handshake can be a very useful thing.

when you pointed out the origin of the practice being used by rival/unfamiliar tribes as a way of insuring that it was to be a peaceful non-threatening meeting, it brought to mind a practice that is held by some of the native tribes in the Amazon region.

when rivals or unknowns meet, the men, as a way of showing they are not going to be threatening, grab and cup each other's, well, crotch. they hold on for the entire conversation as a way of insuring that no violence will happen.

it certainly is an interesting way to greet someone, from some standpoints, and you really can be sure the other guy is not going to hurt you when you've, what's the saying, got him by the b***s.

A. J. Lopp | July 11, 2009 6:39 PM

How interesting!

I do hope none of those Amazon tribesmen try to use that greeting technique with a cop from Lansing.

Rick Sours | July 12, 2009 9:39 AM

I really enjoyed reading your article.

RE: "We've known for a long time now that when straight people get to know us on a personal level, their homophobia fades. When I extend my hand as a gesture of friendship and respect, I earn a measure of it in return. Sometimes the best way to build a bridge between opposing forces is with a simple, age-old gesture that says, "I'm not your enemy."

Does the above say it all.

Thanks for this very interesting article about
your life in Southwestern Virginia.


as for the comment that "i don't usually like yer kind..." - back in my 20s, before i ever dreamt that i could be gay, i was most definitely "straight." i recall a friend of mine from childhood coming out to me and i also recall telling him that it didn't bother me. it didn't bother me for a couple of reasons - i had known him for virtually my whole life at that time; i wasn't gay and i knew he wouldn't hit on me (which would have been uncomfortable for both of us anyway). his sexuality wasn't threatening to me in the least.

i guess what i'm driving at is that i can understand that redneck's sentiments, at least in part. how we've been brought up plays a large role in how we treat people - whether it is a handshake or telling someone who has a different take on life that it's okay with us.

Very easy to relate to..great message, great character development. I really enjoyed it.