By: Lider Restrepo, Business and Development Associate
Two Atlanta Braves players, both of whom are Black men, were captured embracing in the dugout during a game in Atlanta on Sunday, July 29. In the post that went viral on Instagram last week, second baseman Ozzie Albies can be seen holding and rubbing the head of his teammate, Ronald Acuña, Jr., who, in a squatting position, seems to be comfortably positioned between Albies’ legs. It’s unclear what prompted the display—and it doesn’t really matter. But it’s clear from the comments posted below the clip that the intimacy shared between the two athletes did not go unnoticed.
The responses were predictable. One commenter posted, “This shit wild gay & im a Braves fan 🤦🏾♂️” adorned with a charming facepalm emoji and all. Another person commented on Twitter, “Ummm, this is a first. Acuña Jr have a headache or something?” Not all of the comments were homophobic, but the vitriolic responses to the video, and the apprehension to the idea that it is possible that two Black men can hug and not be “gay” is indicative of the myopic and fragile nature of masculinity and manhood in the U.S. Why do we police male companionship? Are our responses a consequence of heterosexual anxiety? What the hell are we afraid of?
The answers to the above questions have everything to do with the ways we’ve been taught, or forced, to think about sexuality and intimacy shared between gay men. In 2016, 16 states still had sodomy laws on the books. The efforts to repeal them proved very difficult despite a Supreme Court ruling in 2003 which rendered them unenforceable. These laws rarely described in detail what acts were illegal—described instead as “crimes against nature”—so one can only imagine the kinds of collective paranoia that have shaped men’s interactions over time, especially those who actually identify as gay or bi.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, sexual expressions between men were criminalized in many parts of the world. A growing shift in Western culture in the nineteenth century introduced a strict code of behavior, which placed a growing emphasis on traditional families and Christian morality. Some of these codes became laws, punishing people who violated them. Psychologists studied homosexuality, identifying it as a disorder with causes and symptoms.
Before, though homosexuality and same-sex intimacy were still stigmatized and legislated, people did not conceive sexuality in the same ways we do today. And they certainly didn’t associate affection between men as signs of homosexuality.
In Richard Godbeer’s book,The Overflowing of Friendship, he describes the openly affectionate and passionate relationship of two young friends in the eighteenth century, John Mifflin and Isaac Norris. They longed for each other when apart. They wrote letters to one another. And this was received by their families and acquaintances with utter normalcy.
It should be noted that Mifflin and Norris were white middle-class men. Some men in the U.S., regardless of their sexuality, were able to write longing and affectionate letters to one another, live together and share beds, and hug and hold each other without scrutiny. Black men, however, who were considered “things” before they were considered human, who have historically been imagined as overly hypersexual persons, are not afforded such tenderness in the public imagination and public sphere, which are spaces shaped by what bell hooks names “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”
It’s a huge deal that Albies and Acuña, Jr., two Black men, might help us transform our rigid thinking. What was very clearly a normal—perhaps even mundane—moment for them, is clearly not so normal for a lot of people today.
One commenter shared the video of Albies and Acuña, Jr. on Facebook and wrote, “2 Black men holding each other is not a threat. It is how we heal. It is how we expand notions of masculinity towards an understanding that touch and caring can also be ‘masculine’ traits.”
In Black and Latinx communities, where depression and loneliness are issues both pervasive and under researched, and economic barriers prevent people from accessing therapy or medicine, it’s very important that we are able to heal through other means. It’s also very important that people of color are able to affirm their gender expressions and sexuality openly without suffering alienation or physical harm in their communities. It’s equally important we allow Black boys and men the space to hug, touch, cry, feel, be held…to be.
Welcoming and celebrating the tender actions of Albies and Acuña, Jr. allows us to undo toxic masculinity which has simultaneously prevented men, regardless of their sexual identity, from being affectionate with one another and has also led to the deep and violent marginalization of LGBTQ people.