Wednesday, July 22, 2009

What's In a Handshake?

I wrote this article to submit to the Bilerico Project as a guest blogger. They liked it and posted it a couple of weeks ago. I got some really great feedback from several of their readers, so I thought I'd post it on my own site.

My partner and I recently attended a housewarming/cookout at the home of my coworker Leanne and her boyfriend Jimmy. It was a laid back 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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