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Men Kissing Men in Argentina

It’s a sight, I tell you, to witness a pair of grim-faced police officers, decked out in bullet-proof vests and pistols embrace and rub faces as they rotate duty. Can you imagine Dirty Harry doing the same?

I’m not gay, but I kiss men.

Not on the lips, I haven’t crossed that border. In Argentina – as in many Latin countries, the cheek-to-cheek greeting (though in some parts, like Italy, cheek-to-cheek-to-cheek) is as standard as the handshake in English speaking ones. My nonchalance at this most intimate custom, though, definitely didn’t come easy. For the first few months after my arrival to Argentina I’d awkwardly interject my arm just as a male friend (most intelligently I didn’t shy away from the opportunity to get up and close with any Argentina) would lean over, ready to commit the act that, I thought, was reserved only for girlfriends and, on occasion, family. I had little desire to experience the exhilaration of someone else’s day-old stubble grating across that of my own. In fact, I often not-so-jokingly informed my local guy friends that they had better be careful if they make it up to the States, unless, of course they’re looking for a fight.

While at first glance Argentina’s beautiful capital, Buenos Aires, easily appears confident and glam, the act isn’t hard to see through – in reality the city is an eccentric place, deeply insecure of its own elusive identity. However banal, the clichés aren’t far off; porteños, as people of Buenos Aires are known, are notorious for flaunting their “European-ness,” and distancing themselves, socially and psychologically from the rest of Latin America. While most infamous throughout Latin America for this type of exceptionalism, porteños are by no means the only Argentines proudly touting the origins of their descendants; just a few months ago in Cordoba, Argentina’s 2nd city, a friend of mind deadpanned matter-of-factly to me, and with absolutely no trace of rancor, that we “were in Europe.” While an exceedingly brief lesson in geography would’ve set her straight, I desisted, resigned to the fact that this mentality must be ingrained at youth, and all efforts on my behalf would have been for naught. While other Latin American countries may practice the “man kiss” as well, I would theorize that by virtue of the custom’s most European of origins, the Argentines practice it with a particular gusto.

It’s a sight, I tell you, to witness a pair of grim-faced police officers, decked out in bullet-proof vests and pistols embrace and rub faces as they rotate duty. Can you imagine Dirty Harry doing the same? Or, better yet, how about two burly auto mechanics, their oil-stained shirts and their scraped-up jeans all exuding nothing but raw masculinity seemingly negate all present testosterone with a peck on the cheek? Cops, manual laborers…yes, the whole scene can seem to take on a bizarre, Village-people type quality.

At any rate, a little over half a year into my new life in Argentina , I greet friends male and female just as any Argentine does – with a kiss. On the cheek. Either I’ve given up my awkward pose out of laziness or I really am assimilating down here (I’d really like to think it’s the latter). What I’ve found most peculiar though is that all of my American friends who are living down here and I now greet each other with a kiss as if we’ve been doing it for years. Apparently we’ve all been converted at some point or another, although my bet is that this little phenomenon of etiquette won’t carry back across the Mexican border – nor will its mention.

This all begs the question: how come the Argentines and Italians – both stereotypically branded as machisimo incarnate – can just as easily lay one on a casual male friend with as little abandon as proclaiming their undying love to a passing beauty, while self-styled progressives, yuppies, hipsters and urban sophisticates in the U.S. recoil in horror at the thought of such an act as if it were total and absolute vulgarity?

While homophobia may come to mind, I don’t think that’s it. Perhaps the non-Latin male just doesn’t like to kiss. Perhaps we’re much more germaphobe than homophobe. Or maybe we just have chapped lips. Really, is kissing on the cheek as emasculating as knitting on a Friday night, like the members of a new men’s-only club in New York have started doing? Probably not. To be honest, I haven’t a clue why it is that we’re so averse to this greeting, but I do know that, as opposed to tango and sirloin steak, this is one cultural motif that won’t be exported en masse to the countries of the North.

Adam Rosen