February 1, 2013

Why I Feel Bad For Manti T'eo's Hoaxer, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo

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What is the issue?

Unrequited love is a bitch. And unrequited gay love doubly so.

Some might say that it’s an easier rejection — they’re not rejecting you because you’re not great or desirable, they’re just not into their same gender, sorry! It’s nothing you can control. I say it’s even worse to be queer and fall for someone who can NEVER EVER return your feelings. Not even if they one day realize you’re wonderful, simply because of the luck of the draw that you have certain genitalia. It’s nothing you can control so therefore it’s the worst.

If you’ve ever been super into someone who couldn’t care less about you, it hurts like a mother no matter your sexual orientation or gender. But if you’ve ever been a gay person chasing after a straight person, the shame and stigma and pain is amplified.

This is why I found myself feeling bad for Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, the guy behind the Manti T’eo hoax, during his awkward interview with Dr. Phil.

Like many speculated, Tuiasosopo is gay, though he says he is “in recovery” for it (whatever that means). He orchestrated this hoax in which he pretended to be a woman named Lennay Kekua and got T’eo to fall in love with him because he had feelings for the Notre Dame linebacker. When things got too intense, Tuiasosopo killed Kekua off with leukemia on the same day T’eo lost his grandmother — setting T’eo up for a heartbreaking narrative that followed him all of Notre Dame’s undefeated season and to a Sports Illustrated cover story and a Heisman nomination.

When news broke that Kekua was fake, many thought T’eo had to be in on it (otherwise he would have been everyone’s new favorite vocabulary word: catfished). When it came to light that Kekua was played by Tuiasosopo, people speculated that the devout Mormon T’eo was hiding his homosexual relationship with the other man using a woman’s face.

Tuiasosopo insists that he acted alone, and that T’eo had no idea Kekua was a fake. He says Kekua became a part of him and that he fell deeply in love with T’eo. He did not intend the hoax to be a cruel joke, and received no money for perpetrating it. He just wanted T’eo to return his romantic feelings, and if Tuiasosopo were himself, T’eo never could. (T’eo told Katie Couric he is not gay. However, his religion strictly forbids it and he’s a college football player with a bright career. Even if he were gay, Te’o would definitely feel the need to hide it for the foreseeable future.)

Tuiasosopo is just 22 years old. He sees a psychiatrist. He got way in over his head as T’eo became more and more famous. He was in love with someone who would (or could) never love him back, and he was incredibly selfish. None of this is new behavior. Love makes you do cah-razy things. Tuiasosopo told Dr. Phil:

It hurt me. It hit me like a brick wall. I was like, `Whoa, I’ve given so much into this.’ And I realized right then in that moment, that I poured so much into Lennay, that I myself was getting nothing, and look what I was left with.

None of this makes what Tuiasosopo did right, obviously. It’s still a pretty horrible and sociopathic thing to do to someone, especially someone you claim to love. He toyed with not just T’eo, but T’eo’s family and the life of the girl whose face he used for Lennay. What he was Class A Messed Up.

What’s most telling to me about Tuiasosopo’s interview with Dr. Phil is how he says he’s “recovering” from homosexuality, the way an addict would recover from drugs. I can’t help but wonder how much of this shame-filled, secret split personality could have been avoided if Tuiasosopo’s and T’eo’s shared religion had a more tolerant stance on the LGBTQ community. The most honest sentence Tuiasosopo says in the interview is when he tells Dr. Phil: “I’m so lost.”

I don’t know Tuiasosopo’s entire history and perhaps I’m projecting — I spent most of eighth grade crushing on and trying to be friends with this beautiful girl who would never love me back while also attending a religious school and it was pure torture. I just know it sucks to be in love with someone you believe could never be with you. It sucks to be surrounded by a religion that condemns you for existing. It sucks to feel like you want to be anyone but yourself. Sure, I’ve never designed an elaborate, public, and painful hoax to get closer to someone I wanted, but I’ve definitely done my share of desperate, crazy things.

I don’t know. I don’t think Tuiasosopo is a villain. It’s a complicated situation with many, many layers. Not the least of which is the idea that homosexuality is something to “recover from.” If that’s the message you were getting everyday, of course you’d want to become a different person. Someone, maybe, worthy of love. TC Mark

Gaby Dunn

Gaby Dunn is a writer, comedian, journalist and Jesse Eisenberg enthusiast living in Los Angeles. Email her at: …

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