When my father was 7 he and his best friend Phil cut their index fingers open and placed them together to create a “blood pact” that they would always be brothers. To this day I still call Phil my uncle and cannot think of anyone that my father has showed more inalienable loyalty and care towards.
Men love men. I knew this at the age of 9, when my father shared with me his blood pact story. I knew this at 13, when I watched my friend Jalyn hug my friend Keith tightly after they had lost the championship basketball game. I knew men loved men in the locker room, at the frat house, in the boardrooms and all of the other sacred spaces I was prohibited from entering.
But they wouldn’t talk about it. “Love” was a forbidden word that they buried under all these other monikers. In my house, like the frat house, Phil was my father’s “brother.” In the boardroom they were “partners.” On the streets of New York that was his “son.” In the cell that was his “nigga,” and at the wedding that was his “best man.” But what Phil really was — or never was — was the love of my father’s life.
The sphere we’ve created to talk about male intimacy is one of obstructionism. The dialogue is dominated and limited by the “homos” — homosexuality and homoeroticism. The minute we see men loving men beyond the emotional threshold for which we’ve allowed — in a temporal realm extending beyond the five-second hug — it is immediately a charge of sexuality. But our aversion to talking about love between men is more than homophobic; it’s about a fear of love itself.
If I love you, then what do I owe you? Perhaps, as Bill Withers suggested, I must allow myself to be used by you. Maybe I will have to answer to you in a way that is deeply honest. Perhaps, as James Baldwin posited, that honesty will involve a queer and peculiar pain that I am not only averse to but also very fearful of. Now imagine this task — love, fear and honesty — superimposed onto this institution called “manhood.” Is love still possible?
Today’s cultural discourse suggests not. Twitter scholars, having just purchased their first Gender and Social Theory Volume I textbook, contend that manhood is so profoundly violent and “miso-gyn-istic” that there is no deeply intimate space for men to love and be loved.
And in some ways they are right. Even ritualistic love between men within cultural exhibition is somewhat violent. When a father has “the talk” with his son, it’s usually less about romance and more about dominance and finesse. When Tony Montana told his right-hand man Manny Ribera “Watch my back, I’ll watch your front,” it was about protection. When Paris mourned his brother Hector, hero of Troy, in the Iliad it was about glory.
But it cannot be that simple. Perhaps the most tragic and sacred thing about love between men is that it can only be recognized in its absence. Love letters that only exist in eulogies. Love songs only sung as rap memoriam. When I was in the tenth grade I saw my classmate Jamani bury his best friend Raymen, whom he had lost to gun violence. When asked how he felt about it, all he could say was, “That was my brother, man. That was my brother.”
I recognized then what I had always known: men love men. But in this culture, men must love men silently. You won’t see it written down in love letters. You won’t hear it in a ballad or find it hung up in MOMA. If you do not pay close attention, you might miss it all together.
But if you look closely you may find it — a quiet but legitimate picture of men loving men, of men splitting themselves open to bleed for one another, with one another, over one another. If this is not true love, it is the truest love they have. And love, all love, can evolve. Perhaps splitting open for one another is the first step men must take before they can fall apart for another, grow into one another, grow for one another. I surely hope it is.