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Aaron Hernandez saga shows complexity of sexuality and the impact of homophobia

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Boston Globe examines life and death of Aaron Hernandez, including his conflicted sexuality.

Aaron Hernandez on trial in 2013.
Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

The Boston Globe is the latest media organization to take a deep-dive into the life and death of former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, and this account shows the complexities of sexuality and the impact of homophobia in men’s sports.

The Globe series, done by the Spotlight team that won the Pulitzer Prize for examining sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, is in six parts and extensively reported. Using court documents, audio and texts from Hernandez and dozens of interviews, the series paints a picture of an athlete who seemingly had it all, yet had a violent and drug-fueled dark side that would result in his conviction for murder and end with Hernandez hanging himself in a Massachusetts jail cell on April 19, 2017.

Hernandez’s sexuality is a small but constant part of the series. What the series is careful NOT to do is label Hernandez’s sexual orientation, something that has become an obsession with others in the media eager to claim him as gay. It does quote others saying that Hernandez was gay or interested in men, but it’s something the former player never discussed publicly.

We will never know how Hernandez defined his sexual orientation since he is not around to tell us. At the time of his death, Hernandez was engaged to be married to a woman and was the father of a child. At the same time, the Globe recounts several examples of Hernandez obsession with his sexuality and attraction to men. Their use of “conflicted sexuality” is a good phrase to describe Hernandez.

The Globe details one same-sex relationship Hernandez had in high school with his friend and quarterback Dennis SanSoucie.

For the first time publicly, SanSoucie also talked about a now-and-then sexual relationship he had with Aaron, which began in middle school and continued through high school.

“Me and him were very much into trying to hide what we were doing. We didn’t want people to know,” Dennis SanSoucie said in an interview.

SanSoucie said he and Hernandez worked hard to keep their relationship a secret. In their traditional community of Bristol [Conn.] where Dennis was bound for the military and Aaron for big-time football, it was not something they wanted people to know about. ...

SanSoucie said he has finally come out in his late 20s to family and friends, after Hernandez’s suicide, despite the difficulty in doing so. He believes that Aaron would be proud of him — for that and his publicly acknowledging their past relationship.

“I really truly feel in my heart I got the thumbs-up from him,” he said.

Having a same-sex relationship while young does not make anybody gay or bi, since young people often experiment and are allowed to define themselves. SanSoucie is openly gay, but he does not label Hernandez.

In Part 5, there is also a claim by George Leontire, one of Hernandez’s attorneys, who says Hernandez told his mother he was in gay while in prison following his conviction and tied that to his being molested as a child.

“He had been molested fairly intensely as a very young kid,” Leontire said. Hernandez seemed to think the sexual abuse had made him gay, Leontire recalled. He saw it as a way to “control his self-hatred, because it wasn’t his fault.”

Leontire has said this before and it’s impossible to verify with Hernandez dead and his mother refusing to talk to the Globe. The Globe quotes a former inmate, later released after being wrongly convicted, who said “he never believed Hernandez was gay, and that it would have been dangerous for him in prison.”

The Globe also learned through prosecutors “that Hernandez had told another woman he called frequently from [prison] that he was attracted to men. Hernandez had told her it made him ‘angry all the time,’ according to [prosecutor Patrick] Haggan.”

Detailed descriptions of Hernandez’s early life are brutal, with his brother describing regular beatings and verbal abuse from their father. Homophobia was also a constant presence.

Dennis Hernandez had long had concerns that Aaron, as a boy, had a feminine way about him — the way he stood or used his hands, his brother said. He also remembered one of Aaron’s early ambitions that sent their father over the edge.

“I remember he wanted to be a cheerleader. My cousins were cheerleaders and amazing,” [brother] Jonathan said. “And I remember coming home and like my dad put an end to that really quick. And it was not OK. My dad made it clear that … he had his definition of a man.”

The home environment, in general, was deeply homophobic.

‘Faggot’ was used all the time in our house,” Jonathan said. “All the time. Standing. Talking. Acting. Looking. It was the furthest thing my father wanted you to even look like in our household. This was not acceptable to him.”

This ingrained homophobia stayed with Hernandez, according to former teammates at the University of Florida and the Patriots.

Take [Florida] teammate Mike Pouncey, who spent so much time with Hernandez in college that he once reminisced they “never left each other’s side.” Pouncey later played a key role in a bullying scandal on the Miami Dolphins in which Pouncey and others subjected a teammate to such withering homophobic taunts that the victim, a 300-pound lineman, ultimately left the NFL.

When Pouncey later spoke to Hernandez in jail, the phone conversations were punctuated with the same sort of obscene talk, according to recordings of the calls listened to by Globe reporters. In many instances, the vitriol emanated from Hernandez, a way perhaps to conceal his real self from scrutiny. The same pattern appeared in Hernandez’s text messages, in which he would tell male friends that he loved them, then add a blunt caveat, “no homo.”

Even Patriots teammates were aware of Hernandez’s s fixation on sexuality.

Hernandez’s combustible temper became readily evident. In his first days in training camp, he threatened to “f— up’’ six-year veteran Wes Welker, after Welker teased him about needing help in the film room, according to individuals familiar with the incident. Receiver Brandon Lloyd, offering his most detailed account of Hernandez’s troubling behavior, said Welker warned him.

“He is looking at me wide-eyed,’’ Lloyd recalled. “And he says, ‘I just want to warn you that [Hernandez] is going to talk about being bathed by his mother. He’s going to have his genitalia out in front of you while you’re sitting on your stool. He’s going to talk about gay sex. Just do your best to ignore it. Even walk away.’ ’’

Hernandez did not change in prison.

For a young man grappling with his sexual identity, he was prone to going on homophobic rants.

“There’s this [expletive] faggot that walks around too, puts butter on his lips for lipstick. It’s ridiculous,’’ he said in one call. “Walks around so flamboyant, like ‘Oh my God,’ crazy … ”

Hernandez said he wanted to punch the guy.

Hernandez was a troubled person almost from the start and it’s obvious that he wrestled with his sexuality until the day he died. He might have been a closeted gay man, or bisexual, or someone who defined himself as straight yet had a same-sex relationship in his past or someone who would have had down-low affairs with men had he lived.

What he was not was a man who lived his life as openly gay, nor did he ever define himself that way. Kudos to the Globe for not affixing the “gay” label on someone who did not embrace or acknowledge it while alive.

In a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” forum after the series ran, Beth Healy, one of the Spotlight reporters, addressed a reader who said, “The fact that Hernandez was gay seems like a large news story to me.”

I don’t think we downplayed his being gay. We broke a lot of news in this series about him growing up in a homophobic household, about a high school friend he had a relationship with, as well as his coming out later in life to his mother and brother. The NFL has a culture, still, of being a tough place to be out. Michael Sam was the only openly gay NFL player so far, and he only played in preseason games, never in the regular season. Professional sports have a long way to go to accept gay athletes

I have some issues with the Globe’s report and what Healy said on Reddit.

The story says “Hernandez struggled with his sexual orientation and that he had had relationships with young women and young men.” They cite only one example of a same-sex relationship, with his high school quarterback, so I am not sure why they used “men.”

Healy said on Reddit that Hernandez came out “later in life to his mother and brother.” The brother never is quoted in the series as saying this, though he did address the homophobia of their father. Hernandez’s mother refused to speak with the Globe; the quote about him telling her he was gay was a second-hand account coming from one of his lawyers.

Healy also said “I don’t think we downplayed his being gay.” That is said as if it’s a fact that he was gay, when that is her and the Reddit reader’s conjecture.

While the majority of the series focuses on things other than his sexuality — Part 6 is a chilling account of Hernandez’s brain CTE, which one autopsy expert said was “the worst case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy ever seen in someone so young” — the focus on Hernandez’s sexual orientation since he died has captured the public and media’s attention.

That’s understandable. There are no openly gay players in the NFL, yet everyone realizes they exist. Hernandez’s complex sexuality feeds a certain narrative people want to believe about gay pro athletes having to hide.

It’s clear to me that Hernandez had some attraction to men, yet we will never know if he identified as gay. That’s why Outsports is never going to label him as a gay athlete. Any chance of that ended when he killed himself, since it’s every person’s right to define their sexuality on their terms.

You can read all six parts of the Globe series and there is also a Podcast to download.