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The word you’re looking for is “bisexual.”
Following the suicide of former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, who took his own life in prison on April 19, news broke that Hernandez left three notes behind late Friday. One was allegedly addressed to his fiancée, Shayanna Jenkins-Hernandez, and another for their 4-year-old daughter. The final letter was reportedly left for his boyfriend, a fellow prisoner who was unnamed in Newsweek’s original report on the story. Allegations that the 27-year-old, who was convicted of life without parole in 2016, had a male partner behind bars caught fire on the internet, with many suggesting that Hernandez was secretly gay.
His lawyer insists these are baseless rumors. But outlets like the Sun, New York Daily News Metro, and Radar Online went wild about Hernandez’s “gay prison lover.” The ubiquitous phrase became a staple of headlines responding to news of the athlete’s death. On Twitter, social media users piled on by referring to Hernandez as a “homo,” “faggot,” “fairy,” and “maricon,” the latter a derogatory slur in Spanish commonly used against homosexual men.
There’s no evidence, as MSN suggested, that Hernandez ended his life in fear of “being outed as gay.” Although lingering prejudice against gay men does lead many people to stay in the closet, leading double lives to hide their deception, that’s not necessarily the case here. Hernandez could have been a gay man, but it’s more likely he was dealing with a different stigma—the lack of acceptance of bisexuality, particularly when it comes to bisexual men. Bisexuals compromise the largest sub-section of the LGBT community, but they are the most likely to remain in the closet, in fear of being ostracized from their friends and family.
The way Hernandez’s death is being treated in the media is a reminder that even in 2017, we still don’t know how to talk about bisexuality. Our refusal to acknowledge the complexity of human sexuality forces people back into the closet, and as these reports indicate, that erasure can have devastating consequences.
Speculation about Hernandez’s sexuality first spread onto the internet following a radio interview on April 17 with journalist Michele McPhee, who helped break the story. On the Kirk and Callahan radio program on Boston’s WEEI, McPhee joked, “You could say that Aaron Hernandez was a former tight end.”
“Tight end on and off the field as well?” asked Kirk Minihane, a host of the sports program. “And then he became a wide receiver,” said his co-host Gerry Callahan, piling on. McPhee concluded that Hernandez was “known to kick with both feet.”
Joking about the former All-American’s sexuality is fairly distasteful given what would happen next, but the framing here is important: Euphemistically referring to Hernandez as a “tight end” codes Hernandez as a closeted gay man, and that coded suggestion stuck. Google Trends data shows there were four times as many searches for “Aaron Hernandez gay” as there were “Aaron Hernandez bisexual” in the days after those rumors surfaced, and the man at the center of them took his own life.
It’s hard to dredge up any sympathy for a man convicted of murder. Other than self-defense, there’s no excusable reason to take another person’s life. What Hernandez did was reprehensible, but the alleged reason why he did it shouldn’t be ignored.
The Newsweek report, penned by McPhee, suggests that Hernandez’s fear of being outed was a motivating force behind the murder of Odin Lloyd. Hernandez was convicted of first-degree murder in 2015 for killing Lloyd, who had been dating Hernandez’s fiancée’s sister. Reports suggest that Lloyd discovered that the Patriots player had maintained an ongoing sexual relationship with another man, and threatened to expose Hernandez. It’s suggested that he killed Lloyd, a former semi-pro player, in 2013 to cover up his secret.
Hernandez’s alleged beau, who testified in front of a grand jury prior to the murder trial, was reportedly left a sizable sum before the athlete’s sudden death.
Although few bisexual people resort to a life of crime, let alone murder, this situation illustrates the unique, dramatic stigma faced by people who are attracted to more than one gender. Hernandez wasn’t a great human being, but that doesn’t mean the internal anguish he was wrestling wasn’t very real.
Studies show that bisexuals are more likely than gay men or lesbians to have a history of anxiety and depression due to pervasive stigma. A 2010 report in the American Journal of Public Health found that 60 percent of bisexual women had experienced mental trauma throughout their lives, a rate that’s twice as high as heterosexual women. “Bisexuals experience high rates of being ignored, discriminated against, demonized, or rendered invisible by both the heterosexual world and the lesbian and gay communities,” claimed a report from the San Francisco Human Rights Commission. “Often, the entire sexual orientation is branded as invalid, immoral, or irrelevant.”
Bisexuals are likely to hear comments that question their sexuality as impermanent, claiming that bisexuality is merely a “pit stop” on the road to identifying as totally straight or totally gay. Many may be urged to “pick a side,” referred to as being “indecisive,” “slutty,” or “greedy.” As the Centers for Disease Control reports, these harmful myths lead to increased substance abuse among bisexuals, as well as suicidal ideation and other negative mental health outcomes.
To be a bisexual man is a double bind: You have to deal with the invisibility and myriad challenges that come with identifying somewhere along the Kinsey Scale, as well as the routine homophobia lobbied at men who have sex with men. In Hernandez’s case, his associates accused him of being a “limp wrist” and a “smoocher,” the insinuation being that he was just a gay man in denial. If Hernandez attempted to remain in the closet until his death, he wasn’t alone: Statistics show that 72 percent of bisexuals aren’t out to their friends, family, and colleagues about their sexuality.
Hernandez is an extreme example of the same thing that happens to countless people every day: They are forced to live a lie by a society that lacks empathy and understanding about their identities. The closet is a dark, lonely place filled with shame and self-loathing. It’s a prison just as isolating as the one which Hernandez found himself in during the last months of his life.
Nico Lang is an essayist, movie critic, and reporter who specializes in the intersection of politics and LGBTQ issues. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Jezebel, Esquire, and BuzzFeed, among other notable publications.