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Will Fletcher

Hugging your male friends is fine, even if you haven’t just won an Olympic gold medal

Thursday August 11, 2016

Last night Jack Laugher and Chris Mears became the UK’s first Olympic gold medallists in diving, when they won the men’s synchronized 3m springboard. I’m a big fan of Jack and Chris - because of their diving prowess, clearly - so like much of the country I was delighted for them.

But this morning I’m angry. Not because of anything they’ve done, but because of one article that criticises them for sharing a celebratory hug, instead of a ‘manly pat on the back’. That two men - regardless of their sexuality - can’t share a celebratory hug is a another sad reminder of the homophobia that still endures in our society, and follows soon after the horrendous reaction of some of the press to the recent ruling on the HIV prevention drug PrEP.

But even more than this, I’m angry about the message that articles like this send to all young men.

It’s clear that there is a crisis in men’s mental health. For men under 35, suicide is the biggest cause of death, and 78% of all suicides are by men. Three times more men than women are in treatment for alcohol and drug abuse. Yet men are far less likely to be diagnosed with a common mental illness than women (12.5% vs 19.7%), which is commonly believed to be due to fewer men seeking help.

This is sad, but unsurprising, in a society that constantly tells young men to ‘man up’. We’re told that it’s not ‘manly’ to cry, to speak about your emotions, or even to hug your diving partner to celebrate winning an Olympic gold medal.

By perpetuating these messages, we implicitly tell young men that their ‘manhood’ depends on them adhering to rigid gender roles. This triggers homophobia, biphobia and transphobia directed at those who don’t conform to these. And we teach them not to seek support, because they’re ‘weak’ if they do.

Damaging and limiting notions of gender are literally killing young men in this country. This is a tragedy, and it’s well overdue time that we take it seriously.

Educating young people about the nuanced bias that exists in the media they consume is crucial to tackling discrimination for good. And a key part of all our work in schools is sharing the positive message that you can be who you want to be without being constrained by your gender or sexuality.

So I want to say loudly and proudly that hugging your male friends is fine, even if you haven’t just won an Olympic gold medal.

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