Whether it’s true or not, none of it is responsible and all of it is bad for LGBT people.
Two days after the former New England Patriots tight end hanged himself with his bedsheets, Newsweek cited unnamed “law enforcement officials directly involved in the case” to report that Hernandez’s 2013 killing of semi-professional Massachusetts linebacker Odin Lloyd may have been motivated by the fact that Lloyd “had information the football star did not want out: that he was bisexual.”
The Daily Mail rushed to the seemingly sensational story that same day with reports claiming that Hernandez “left behind a handwritten suicide note for his gay jailhouse LOVER.” The British tabloid then managed to turn a cell change request Hernandez had reportedly made in prison into the salacious headline “Lonely Aaron Hernandez asked to share his cell with prison lover.”That’s all to be expected from The Daily Mail. But it’s a big leap from unnamed sources and tabloid reports to proclaim that “details” were “surfac[ing] on Aaron Hernandez’s secret bisexual life,” as the New York Daily News did last Friday.
The truth of the matter is that bisexual identity—especially male bisexual identity—is still seen as a scandalous source of clicks and views. And in the absence of fact, the narrative of the villainous bisexual man is too tempting to resist, especially if it can be combined with a story about a closeted football star who has a fiancée and a daughter.
Writing for the LGBT athletics publication Outsports, Cyd Zeigler and Jim Buzinski were first to publicly condemn the widespread circulation of the rumors in no uncertain terms: “Zero evidence. Zero proof. Zero context. Those are three reasons the vast majority of reputable news organizations haven’t touched this story and why we at Outsports will not report on it as a news story.”
Ziegler and Buzinski also pointed out that the media’s habit of labeling Hernandez as “gay” or “bisexual”—and to speak of his alleged “gay lover”—flattened the potential nuance of male sexual identity and prison sexuality: “We each get to define what and who we are sexually, even convicted murderers.”
Here is what we actually know about the reasons behind Aaron Hernandez’s suicide at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center: Not much. On April 14, he was acquitted of murder charges in a 2012 drive-by killing of two men. He was not on suicide watch when he killed himself. There were initial unconfirmed media reports that he left three suicide notes behind and a judge then ordered that “any suicide or other notes” be released. A spokesman for the Worcester County District Attorney’s Office has since officially confirmed to ABC News that suicide notes were given to Hernandez’s family.
But claims that one of those notes was a letter to a 22-year-old “gay jailhouse lover” at Souza-Baranowski named Kyle Kennedy are still unsubstantiated.
Hernandez’s lawyer Jose Baez said in a statement, “Rumors of letters to a gay lover, in or out of prison, are false. These are malicious leaks used to tarnish someone who is dead. I urge anyone continuing to spread these malicious untruths to cease immediately.” Baez claimed, as WBZ reported, that none of the suicide notes were addressed to Kennedy.
On Wednesday, however, Kennedy’s attorney Larry Army, Jr. said there was indeed a letter left behind for Kennedy but did not personally address the rumors that his client and Hernandez were sexually involved. He focused instead on a $47,000 luxury watch that Kennedy claimed Hernandez had decided to gift to him.
“My client has also relayed to me that he and Aaron Hernandez were close friends and spent a great deal of time together in prison,” Army, Jr. said at a press conference. “My client has informed me that at some point in time in the near future, he personally will discuss the nature and the extent of the relationship between he and Aaron Hernandez.”
Hernandez is indeed a convicted murderer. And he may indeed have been bisexual for all we know. A 2013 Pew survey found that only 28 percent of bisexual people were out to “all or most of the most important people” in their life.
Out of all LGBT adults, Pew found, only eight percent said there was “a lot of acceptance” for bisexual men. That perception is accurate: a large 2016 study from Indiana University found that negative attitudes toward bisexual men were “significantly greater” (i.e. “worse”) than attitudes about bisexual women and that, overall, attitudes toward bisexual people have shifted from “negative” to “neutral” in recent years.
Indeed, bisexual men are especially vulnerable to the myth that they are secretly gay—a myth whose cultural force we can trace in tabloid reporting about Hernandez’s alleged “gay secret.” Even in the gossip rags, the possibility of male bisexuality is erased.
So if the rumors are true, as Nico Lang observed in a column for The Daily Dot, the former NFL player might be “an extreme example” of a bisexual man “forced to live a lie by a society that lacks empathy and understanding about their identities.” That would not at all excuse murdering another human being but it would be valuable social context to apply soberly to Hernandez’s violence if Newsweek’s sources can be backed up with evidence. But even thinking through Hernandez’s story that far is going out on a limb.
As it stands, speculating breathlessly about the former NFL player’s sexual orientation sends a dangerous message to LGBT people, especially youth: Your identity is an exciting scandal.
“The quick rush to perpetuate rumors around an individual’s sexual orientation or identity can have lasting consequences on LGBT youth who are struggling to live their true and authentic selves,” Taylor Carr, director of communications for the LGBT athletics organization Athlete Ally told The Daily Beast. “We should be focusing on affirming stories around sexual identity, not blanketing the airwaves with rumors that can make the decision to come out even more challenging and unwelcoming for the LGBT community.”
Indeed, the tragic irony behind the alacrity with which the Internet Gossip Machine leapt onto the rumors about Hernandez—the “rush to proclaim [him] ‘gay’ or bisexual,’” as Outsports put it—is that it will only further fuel stigmas around male homosexuality and bisexuality. It’s hard to believe that a different kind of alleged murder motive in the Odin Lloyd case would have spread like wildfire, or that gossip outlets would have relayed the rumors so eagerly if Hernandez weren’t a popular football player with an apparently heterosexual partner and a child.
It is possible that more information will come to light that proves the reports about Hernandez’s private life. If it does, the internet hasn’t exactly inspired confidence so far that the information will be handled with care.
All the more reason why we should stop adding fuel to the fire.