Among the different forms of love language, touch is a difficult one to ask for. By this, I mean the sort of physical intimacy that's normal of a healthy friendship: a warm welcome embrace; hugging someone goodbye for more than five seconds, to show you'll really miss them; offering a neck rub after a sore workout; giving a pat on the shoulder for encouragement; the occasional roughhousing; leaning against someone's shoulder while sitting down (or their leg, if they're on the couch and you're sitting on the ground); resting your head on their lap while reclining.
As believers, we should, of all people, be unafraid of such open displays of affection. Our Lord himself sets the precedent (though to call it a biblical "precedent" is weird--this should arise naturally between close friends, and isn't the sort of thing that requires an example to be set first). The gospel of John captures a special moment of tenderness between friends when Jesus allows John to lean his head up against his chest (John 13:25).
Unfortunately, our culture today is touch-phobic, and shuns same-sex physical intimacy. Guys don't walk down the street with their arms around each other, for fear of appearing "gay" or "homo". Exceptions are rare, but noteworthy. Just the other week, I saw two friends walking by the poolside, when one of the guys put his arm around his friend's shoulder, and the two casually went their way (mind you, it was his friend, not lover--anyone attuned to cues in body language can tell the difference). In my head, I wanted to stand up in front of everyone and commend them: the one guy for initiating such a public display of affection without any hesitation; the other for receiving it just as easily. Of course, I exercised restraint, and saved myself the embarrassingly inappropriate episode of appearing a lunatic. Secretly though, I wished I had more friendships of my own where that kind of freedom of touch could be exercised, without fear of sending wrong signals or of being misunderstood.
Apparently, American society wasn't always like this, as this series of vintage photographs shows. (How I wish it never changed!) As an Asian American, in particular, I feel somewhat conflicted over the issue of touch. It's still easier to find my touch needs met in the company of my Chinese and Korean friends. Asians are good at that sort of thing. You'll be lounging around studying or drinking boba (<= stereotypical Asian activities--and stereotypical for good reason), when someone comes up from behind and gives you a shoulder rub. Nobody bats an eye. That sums up much of my experience in college when I attended an Asian American church. I can safely say that it was never an issue--getting my own touch needs met--when I was part of that group. During large group hangouts at Asian church or fellowship functions, there was always somebody to go up to and randomly hug or mess around with. Asian guys love physical affection, and aren't afraid to show it.
Ironically, white people, though frequently open to showing their own children physical affection, aren't as good at giving touch when it comes to their peers. Physical intimacy is usually reserved for one's spouse. Your wife is the only proper recipient of your touch. To attempt physical closeness with one of your guy friends is deemed too risky. I suspect this has more to do with the perception of risk than one's actual assessment of risk. What real risk is there if you have two completely straight guys? Though I'll admit: the matter's a bit more complicated for those of us gay celibates who desire physical intimacy with straight friends. (Read more below.)
You can see how this problem gets exacerbated if you're a gay celibate, who craves physical intimacy with other guys, but lives in a culture where guys are afraid how this might look or come off. You want the very thing others fear giving. Worse, they might be even more hesitant to be physically intimate with you, lest it lead to temptation on your part--all out of good intentions not to "stumble" their brother. Which in turn makes you even less inclined to ask for it, out of fear of being rejected. As a result you feel even more lonely and desperate for physical connection.
I've run into the problem where some of my friends aren't all that physically affectionate. For them, touch doesn't come naturally--not because they prefer not to touch or be touched, but simply because it's just not very important to them. They themselves won't go out of their way to give a hug or pat on the shoulder. But neither will they mind if I initiate every now and then. And I do, whenever I get the chance to--the casual photo pose where my arm is slung around their shoulder (and theirs around mine), the swimming excursions before which I ask if they would apply suntan lotion to my back (even though I could reach, if I really tried), the movie nights where I simply want us to be able to sit side by side and not be afraid of brushing knees.
Sometimes, I want more though. More not just from anyone, but from that one particular friend. Coming from anyone else, it's nice. But from him? A single gesture from him can do wonders. Being unafraid to exhibit one's physical affection toward another shows camaraderie; solidarity; trust. His arm slung around my shoulder can say what might otherwise be too forced or contrived to put in words: "Guy, I like hanging out with you and I enjoy your company." Touch can be the most eloquent of affirmations. Yet when it goes missing, so does that affirmation. Sometimes I really would like to be shown some physical affection by that one friend, if only as a reminder that I'm valued; that my company is enjoyable. But I'm afraid to ask for it. I'm afraid of making him uncomfortable. I don't want to come off as demanding; or worse, appear needy or creepy.
Hence the fear of asking. You don't want to violate that person's comfort zone or intrude upon their personal space or sense of comfort. Yet you secretly wish they would hug you: just once. Voice that desire out loud, and you fear you might push them away.
How do you then figure out whether someone is okay with giving and receiving touch?
One strategy is simply to ask. I saw a good example of this in college.
I was a freshman at the time. We were all hanging out in a senior's room, I'll call him Andrew. He was older, but good friends with us. Andrew started giving one of us a head rub, when he stopped and said, "Oh, I should have asked first. You like getting your head rubbed? Some people don't like it." Our other friend simply shrugged; he didn't seem to mind, but didn't look like he was really enjoying it either. Andrew turned to me, and asked "What about you?" He started massaging the back of my neck. I must have immediately grinned, because he continued, chuckling at how I was obviously enjoying it, then cracking a joke about how our other friend wasn't grateful (don't ask--it's an older Asian brother thing).
If you're unsure how comfortable your friend is with a certain form of physical affection, I find this a good general rule of thumb: when in doubt, just ask. There are, believe it or not, non-awkward ways of doing this. You can test the waters without fear of rejection. Confidence is key. If you're comfortable enough in your own skin, it won't be awkward.
Granted, some things should be based on personal preference. I personally enjoy head rubs. Others don't like them. "I'm not a dog," a friend once told me when I tried to pat his head. I respected his wishes not to be shown that type of physical affection, but added, "Sorry, that's just how I show affection"--showing that I didn't mean to belittle him in any way or invade his personal space, while respecting his boundaries.
Straight guys: please do your gay neighbor a favor, and don't be scared to show him a little physical affection. He won't take advantage of you. Give him the benefit of the doubt, and trust him in that. Even if there is the slight element of attraction (a disquieting thought, perhaps, and not as impossible as you might believe--or rather, refuse to believe), he values your friendship over anything else, and would never let that ruin the great thing you have. For celibate gay males, crossing the line with their straight buddies is the last thing they want to do. Their friendships are too precious to discard by foolishly chasing after impossible fantasies. I speak from experience when I say that gay celibates who truly love their friends know the difference between bromance and romance; philia and eros (and their respective manifestations of storge); friendship and feelings; care and caresses. Give them the freedom to exercise their own conscience and discretion. Don't jump to conclusions or harbor suspicions. It might be impossible to completely ignore the reality of their homosexual attractions, despite your honest intentions of wanting to treat them like you would any other normal friend, but don't let that stand in the way of what you can offer: which is your tangible love. You may never fully understand their need to be affirmed, reaffirmed, and affirmed again through such simple acts of affection. But give it anyway; it won't cost you much. Denying it is harsh. Don't refuse your affection out of fear. Love your neighbor as you would want to be loved. Your gay friend will undoubtedly be pleased. The only one more pleased than him will probably be the Lord himself, for your having shown kindness to "the least of these".