I love hugs.
The power of a good hug was something I began to realise in my late teens and early 20’s, when my sexuality consumed me and I found myself in a new church where I discovered what real friendship actually looked like.
In various talks I’ve heard in churches over the years, hugs are something that come up and are addressed in such a way as to suggest a certain contention about their appropriateness, almost always in reference to a friendship shared between a gay man and a straight man. The matter is raised as a concern can be manifest in the straight man that engaging in a hug could be anything from potentially unhelpful for the gay man, all the way to the horrendous response of “Whoa! Dude, I’m not gay!”
With such fears in mind, a gay man in the church often feels compelled to allay such fears by proclaiming that “A hug is just a hug.” Whilst I fully understand the motivation behind such a proclamation, it’s something that I cannot help but feel that at some level, is manifestly untrue.
If we are to refer to the potential sexual/physical arousal (real or imagined) that may be a potential consequence of a hug then yes, despite the potential for that to be a possibility, the fact will likely be that this is not the intention, nor the desire and would best be thought of as a very painful reaction that the gay man desperately wishes was not present. However, such circumstances aside where the adverb of “just” is legitimate, to reduce hugs to a level of superficiality that’s barely above a handshake is a massive disservice to what hugs represent and mean.
In terms of common physical expressions of affection, anything beyond a hug almost always has a sexual component and is often shared between people whom have such a dimension to their relationship. Hugs have an enormity of meaning and tenderness inherent in them that I think is missed by many. People don’t return home from overseas and greet friends and family with a handshake. Instead the arrival (or departure) of a loved one is a moment of often intense emotion that is on display in any airport you care to mention, heralded by two primary expressions: tears and hugs.
A hug can be used to welcome a friend home, to greet a relative, or to provide a safe space for emotional expression ranging from elated to devastated. A hug expresses an emotional bond and intimacy that words cannot hope to compare with and crucially, thankfully, is not the exclusive domain of marriage. A hug is an intimacy that is universally shared and is unencumbered with inherent romance or sexuality. It speaks volumes about the human desire for physical contact, right from conception. Talking to someone on the phone or even over a video call is nice, but as anyone with experience in maintaining a long-distance relationship of any kind will tell you, it’s just not the same.
Hugs bring a certain existential reality to the relationship in which they’re shared. You can feel the other person’s touch, their warmth, as though their emotional affection has become physically animated and can be felt physically by the body, as well as emotionally by the heart. When Will was in Shaun’s office in Good Will Hunting and the years of abuse finally came pouring out in a flood of tears, Shaun didn’t shake Will’s hand and say “Congratulations. This is great progress.” No – he hugged him and held him because words weren’t enough.
Good hugs seem to be a bit more of a problem for men. Whilst some may say that they’re just not into them, that’s not something I entirely buy. I cannot help but think that “not being into them” is at some level grounded in a level of insecurity about one’s sexuality. It’s not that the guy just doesn’t like hugs – more that he’s afraid his mates will think he’s gay and so whatever enjoyment and enrichment might be found in a hug with another man is sabotaged in the name of vacuous and superficial commandments put forward by a society that doesn’t really understand men very well at all.
When you hug a friend or relative, no matter how casual or deliberate it may be, there’s a beautiful exchange that’s taking place that is often deeply rewarding and comforting and I’d encourage you to pause in that moment and be reminded of what’s being silently said.
A hug is not just a hug.