Odell Beckham Jr. vs. Toxic Black Masculinity

Odell Beckham Jr. accepts the award for Best Play onstage during The 2015 ESPYS.

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

A version of this post originally appeared on the author’s blog, So Let’s Talk About.

I hope Odell Beckham Jr. never comes out. Actually, I hope the New York Giants wide receiver isn’t even gay. I hope he ends up with the flyest chick on the block, and they give joint interviews where she says she enjoys a man who’s fun and lives his life and doesn’t feel the need to scowl 24/7, hunched over like a Neanderthal trying to protect his manhood.

In case you missed it, there’s an outing campaign in progress against Beckham, because over the weekend someone posted a video to Instagram of him dancing with a friend. (Well, the same people calling his video “suspect” already said he was gay due to similar videos, but now I guess he’s even gayer.) This sort of witch hunt is the reason why black men and athletes still don’t like coming out of the closet, and black masculinity continues to make life more difficult for all of us, regardless of our sexuality.

The response to this video is the difference between black masculinity and white masculinity in a nutshell. White men are allowed a greater range of expression before they are automatically considered gay. The boys in Marvel movies are always flirting and nobody cares. Matt McGorry can say his male co-star has a pretty mouth and nobody cares. Channing Tatum “vogued” and nobody cares.

Channing Tatum voguing. 

Courtesy of So Let’s Talk About.

But a black football player dances a little with a male friend and it’s proof-positive. In my own experience, a lot of my gay white friends are damn near distraught when someone calls them a “faggot.” I’m not good at consoling them since I hear it at least once a month—as a black man, if a white guy and I are going out in the same exact outfit, strangers will read him as “artistic” while I’m just “gay.”

And that’s why I don’t want Beckham to be gay. If he does, in fact, bat for our team and takes it upon himself to come out at some point, good on him. We need more gay visibility in professional sports, especially hypermasculine ones like football. But more important, we need more black men who aren’t afraid to live outside of the box of black masculinity built for us by society and reinforced by our own community.

If Beckham came out, he’d be met with “well, duh, look at him dancing around and acting like a faggot, we already knew that.” Beckham as a straight man—if the public ever truly accepts him as a heterosexual—is the type of black man we never get to see. For every Prince wearing heels and ass-less pants while unabashedly pursuing some of the most beautiful women on the planet, there are 10 black fathers telling their sons they can’t take ballet because it’s for “sissies,” or black women passing up black men deemed “too soft” for listening to Beyoncé, or black fans calling a celebrity “suspect” for wearing pants that are too tight. We’ve always had to be a little bit stronger, a little bit tougher, and a little more resilient than our white counterparts, and it has made us hypervigilant against any sign of weakness. Since we live in a society where being gay is the ultimate expression of being weak, anything associated with gay men must be avoided at all costs. No dancing, no fashion, no art. Don’t put whipped cream on your drink, because that’s gay. Don’t dye your hair, because that’s gay. Don’t put your arm around your friend, because y’all are gay. Don’t have fun in general, because that’s definitely gay.

Masculinity is a double-edged sword for a lot of men, even if they’ve never given thought to the subject—especially black men who have the desire to break away from the stereotypes. On the one hand, it would be great to expand the boundaries of what it means to be a man in this society. Why can’t we dance? Why can’t we smile in pictures? Why can’t we wear what we want? Why can’t we have feelings or be vulnerable or be sensitive toward others? On the other hand, no one wants to break the mold because no one wants to be forced to give up their masculinity. No one wants their sexuality questioned, which by default makes you less of a man in the eyes of many onlookers. How do you expand the definition of black masculinity while still satisfying the desire to be seen as masculine in a society that tends toward misogyny and hating any of the negative traits commonly ascribed to femininity?

A first step is following Beckham’s lead: Live your life. You do what you want, and to hell with everyone else. You dye your hair if you want. You wear tight pants if you want. You dance with your friend if you want. And then you go play football if you want.

Perhaps more important, gay black men have to leave unconventional straight guys alone. It’s not just the homophobes on message boards calling for Beckham to come out—it’s us, too. Every time we comment on something he does with a quip like, “I see you, Sis!” we’re reinforcing those boxes. We’re saying that someone must be gay because he’s not adhering to the standards of black masculinity we’ve ascribed to heterosexual men. We’re setting back our own cause and our own push for acceptance by contributing to an us vs. them mentality, in which we’re over here interested in These Things and straight black men are over there interested in Those Other Things. If you’re over here in our interests, then you must be one of us, because why would you ever voluntarily jeopardize your place in Black Manhood if you weren’t an undercover queen?

Why can’t we just let our black men be as carefree as white men? We already have so much to deal with in this society, largely stemming from the perpetuation of aggressive black masculinity, which continuously makes us seem a threat to white society. Let our boys have fun and smile. The entire world is set up with hurdles to make them fail. Why add to the stress with rules and regulations for how they should express themselves to be accepted as men in the community? Leave Odell Beckham Jr. alone. If he’s gay, y’all aren’t doing a good job convincing him to ever come out. And if he’s not, we need more men like him—don’t force him into a box somebody else made. Let him dance.