Teen-age boys. You know the stereotype: rambunctious, loud, gangly, hands and feet too big for their bodies.  They push and shove with their friends; they throw their arms around one another’s necks to show their affection, even though to the non-initiated, it looks like they’re trying to kill each other or at least cause grievous bodily injury.

When I’m in the mall, or any other public space, the Emirati boys I see seem no different. They wrangle and gangle and try to be discreet when they look at girls.

And yet:

These are two boys in the mall on their way to the movie theater, hand-in-hand.  If I saw these boys holding hands at a mall in the States, I would assume they’re gay; I don’t assume that here.  Here I assume they are –really — just friends.

Public displays of casual affection between men seem fine but, paradoxically and problematically, public displays of homosexuality (or heterosexuality, for that matter) can get you arrested.

I remember a day in New York, about three years ago, when Caleb was almost six. He was walking down the street with his friend D., and they were holding hands.  Then they suddenly dropped hands, and Caleb said “we’re big boys, we’re not supposed to hold hands.” D. nodded at Caleb’s pronouncement (which sent me into one of those where the hell is he getting this stuff parenting reveries) and for about a half-block, they tried to be “grownup.” But then they forgot about that, grabbed each other’s hands and went running down the sidewalk.

There are all sorts of ways to define “man.” Not holding hands with your friends shouldn’t be one of them.