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Tongues Untied: 'Man Hugs' and Manhood With Sylvia Harvey

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Men seem to hug on the basketball courts or show affection on the football field, but why are some men afraid to embrace on a busy street corner? Sylvia Harvey, journalist and producer of the mini-doc Out of Bounds, which is a short work that "explores the strange double-standard that allows black men to express intimacy on the basketball court, but keeps a tight lid on those feelings and actions off the court," joined us in this Tongues Untied conversation as we tackled the topics of male-to-male affection and black masculinity.

Sylvia: Let's go backwards in order to move forward. What was your experience with male-to-male affection growing up and how has it impacted your behavior today?

Wade: Growing up, both of my fathers (my step-father, mainly) were semi-affectionate. We hugged and told each other we loved one another, but I can remember my stepfather pushing my mother to stop babying me, to let me grow up, and be a man.

Sylvia: Darnell, do you remember receiving hugs, kisses, or other forms of affection from your father?

Darnell: My biological father was absent during most of my childhood, but I do have a few memories of intimate moments that we shared. There was something beautiful about my father, a man who seemed so physically powerful, being affectionate with me, his son. I have one poignant memory of him teaching me how to wash myself in the bathtub. It was a perfect father-son moment. His nurturance in that instance was really impactful. But it was also difficult for me to be close to him after witnessing him act violently with my mother. My father was able to practice affection with me, but not always with my mom. Like some, he seemed to have thought that black manhood equals physical prowess.

Sylvia: Wade you mentioned your step dad telling your mom to stop babying you, did you feel any pressure to live up to this idea of the "strong black man," what was that like?

Wade: I don't know how many times I was told that I must grow up and be a "strong black man." There seems to be an underlying idea that if mothers give their sons too much love and affection they will grow up to be gay, which has to be hard for black mothers especially when many believe their sons are possible targets for racism, victimization by police, et cetera and they want to keep them close to save their lives. Many also seem to think that black men need to be tough in order to survive what the world has in store for them. People tend to imagine the gay black man as feminine and women-like. So, if mothers are too close to their sons, folk fear that he'll grow up to be gay.

Sylvia: What does masculinity look like to you and how does your understanding differ from mainstream society's concept of it?

Darnell: Masculinity and femininity, gender expression in general, are scripts (like the scripts, full of various roles, which are written for plays or movies) that are created by people and institutions (i.e. families, religious communities, governments, sport teams, etc.). We create the scripts. And like performers in a play, we act out the roles in the scripts that have been written for us.

Wade: I'm actually not a fan of the word "masculinity." It's a concept that society creates that reinforces the belief that there are assigned, natural behaviors that men should enact. This idea prevents males (and females) from being who we really want to be and causes us to mimic others -- to be something, someone we are not.

Sylvia: I agree it's socially constructed. And, yes, it can be quite damaging as males strive for an ideal that may not align with who they are, what they believe, and how they choose to express themselves. Do black men have a particular masculine "script" they're pressured to follow?

Wade: Yes, black men have a specific standard of masculinity to perform in order to be respected in many circles. It is a standard set by others and never the individual. In fact, some of us may feel as if we lack the agency, the will, to define what masculinity means for us as individuals. The rules are determined largely by our families, communities, and media. We mimic others because we desire to be accepted by our families and communities.

Sylvia: What brand of masculinity do professional male athletes project?

Wade: Men in sports are actually the models of manhood and masculinity that others are expected to copy. They are viewed as archetypes--the epitome of masculinity and maleness.

Sylvia: But, what is that archetype and where does heterosexuality factor in?

Darnell: I think that most people make that assumption that professional male and female athletes are not only straight, but are also masculine-acting. Sports are activities where maleness and masculinity are privileged.

Wade: Perceived heterosexuality is the only way men can have intimate contact -- kissing, embracing, or whatever else are only acceptable behaviors if the men are thought to be "straight." Athletes in specific sports, not all sports, are deemed straight. Football, baseball, basketball, hockey, and a few other sports are places where athletes are less likely to be perceived as gay because the belief is that if you can make it to the professional divisions than you must be straight.

Darnell: Wade, you are part of a "gay football league." The fact that somehow there is a need to place the identifier "gay" in front of hypermasculine and presumed heterosexual "football" says something about the power of heterosexuality as a force in sports like football. It is the norm. It is always assumed to be the rule of thumb.

Sylvia: Wade, as a former professional athlete have you always tried to be your true self?

Wade: Only recently have I started to be true to myself because for so long I didn't think I would be accepted if I was my "gay" self.

Sylvia: How do you two express male-to-male affection, do you ever get caught up in performing masculinity?

Wade: We embrace. We tell each other that we love one another. But more importantly, we don't get trapped into any perceived performance. I feel free to say and do whatever at any moment when I'm with Darnell or any of my friends for that matter.

Darnell: I actually had judgments of Wade when we first met. I imagined that he would show up acting like an "athlete," which in my mind was a code word for jock and jock was another code word for macho and macho another code for masculine which often means straight. That was my logic, which is quite illogical. He was much different than I imagined, though. The person that I thought would be so stern and rigid and unemotional taught me how to be more caring, open, and nurturing. He has helped me to be a better human.

Wade: He met me at the right point in my life. Years earlier I would have been pretty close to what he imagined because I would have still been performing those masculine roles that I thought I needed to act out in order to be respected. I always thought being a man meant demanding respect. The old me always cared about what others thought of my actions, but I've learned to not let others define me anymore -- and that came as a result of me learning to love myself.

Darnell: I used to feel pressure to "man-up" (i.e., to act "straight," tough, unemotional, etc.) when interacting with certain men. And, to be honest, I still fight that impulse. I am often worried that my affection will be misread as attraction--as if, gay men actually think that every guy that we interact with is actually attractive. That just isn't true.

Wade: Male affection isn't modeled for us as much as it should be; therefore, what we don't give affection because we don't know how. I was on the bus yesterday watching a son lay on the lap of his father and I thought that could only happen to a young child because at some point his father will possibly make him feel uncomfortable about doing it when he gets older and he will never do it again for fear of rejection

Sylvia: Is change regarding male-to-male affection outside of sports and other "safe" places going to occur during this generation? Are you two questioning society's scripts because something has wakened you?

Wade: I imagine some people would say that "men are wired to be masculine," but who defines the terms of masculinity? I do. The way I define it now, which is vastly different from the way I did previously, is because I am no longer allowing others to write my "masculine" script. I am learning to love and think for myself, period.

Sylvia: It would be great for all men to author their own masculine script, but many seem content with the current standard.

Darnell: Cheryl Clarke, an amazingly brilliant black lesbian feminist poet/scholar/activist, wrote a powerful and necessary essay titled, "Lesbianism: An Act of Resistance" that argued that a woman loving another woman is an act of confrontation against heterosexism (which is a system of beliefs supporting and bias in favor of heterosexuality and relationships) and patriarchy. She argued that two women loving one another works against heterosexual privilege and male authority. And, she was right. The fact that I love other men in a homophobic and "straight" thinking society, which has decided that anything other than a man/woman relationship dynamic -- a dynamic that often locks folk into rigid woman/feminine/bottom/passive and man/masculine/top/dominant partner roles -- is an act of resistance.

Sylvia: Resistance and knowledge prompts change.

Darnell: I want to uphold my sexual "difference" as a unique lens through which I see the world. It has allowed me to discern the rules that have tried to limit and define me. And that is not to say that LGBTQ people don't buy into the hype and buy into the same heterosexist ideas. We often replicate them (go check out any dating website and count the number of gay/bi men who don't want to date a feminine man, for example). Yet, there is freedom in deviating from norms that are meant to destroy as opposed to heal us.

Wade: I'm just trying to be "me" and it has been amazing to get to this point. That is why I work hard to resist the limiting expectations of others.

Be sure to also check out other conversations in our Tongues Untied series located here and here.