Girls and Gays: The Uniquely Queer Golden Girls

A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece about the themes of mortality and despair in The Golden Girls. Because the show is so fun to analyze, I decided not to move on just yet. Here I talk about the LGBT material on the show, why it stands out, and why gay fans have been loyal since the show’s premiere.  

As a gay teen watching The Golden Girls, I was surprised at how many gay story lines and characters populated the show. I was watching in the late 90s, when gay visibility on TV was minimal compared to today. The gay content on The Golden Girls wasn’t limited to a typical “very special episode” (although the show had those, too), rather there was a true effort to integrate gay content into the fabric of the show. Dorothy’s college friend and Blanche’s only brother both came out during the series, and the latter returned for another coming-out of sorts later on. Even one-off gay characters who might seem offensive today were usually in on the joke. More often than not, they made jokes at the expense of our leads. I’m thinking of the effeminate, formidable caterer in “Sophia’s Wedding, Part 1,” who memorably dubs Dorothy “Stretch” and even gets in a dig about anti-gay crusader Anita Bryant.

The classic season 2 episode “Isn’t It Romantic?” is a great place to start. Dorothy’s old friend Jean visits the girls after the death of her partner, Pat. The girls, all except Dorothy, assume that Pat was a man. The audience, though, finds out quickly that Jean is a lesbian, in a great, undramatic conversation between Dorothy and Sophia. Blanche and Rose are left in the dark. But as Jean and Rose hit it off, Jean discovers that she’s developing feelings for Rose, and decides to cut her visit short. The showpiece of the episode is the bedroom scene in which Dorothy reveals to her mother, then Blanche, that Jean is in love with Rose. It’s refreshing and clever in every way. Jean is never the butt of the joke. Instead, we’re made to laugh at Blanche’s ignorance (confusing lesbian with Lebanese) and narcissism (her disbelief that Jean could prefer another woman over Blanche). The way McClanahan inflects the word “lesbian” three times, each utterance revealing another nuance, is a sitcom performance for the ages.

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Blanche gets the spotlight again in season 4’s “Scared Straight,” when her baby brother Clayton reveals that he is gay. Clayton comes to Miami intending to come out, but panics and claims instead that he slept with Rose. Predictably, this sparks a mini-war, in which Blanche calls Rose a “cradle snatchin’, empty headed, two-faced dummy.” (Did I mention that Blanche is a gay icon?) Later, all is revealed, and Blanche manages to subdue her self-involvement long enough to accept, or at least begin to tolerate, her brother’s sexuality. The joke was always on one of the girls, to highlight their own hypocrisy: to show that Blanche was not as sophisticated or worldly as she thought, or that even leftist Dorothy was uncomfortable with being called a lesbian. The show never took cheap shots at its gay characters, and in this way, gay audiences could feel in on the joke. Importantly, it also set an example for how other TV shows could address gay story lines without demeaning gay people.

In these episodes, some of the most memorable lines are given to Sophia, whom viewers might expect to be the least progressive about sexuality. Not so. Sophia has this perfectly reasonable response to the reveal of Jean’s sexuality: “Jean is a nice person. She happens to like girls instead of guys. Some people like cats instead of dogs. Frankly, I’d rather live with a lesbian than a cat.” The show always treated Sophia’s big mouth as a powder keg; the girls often cowered in fear at what Sophia might say next. But by bucking expectations here, Sophia gives the audience permission to be progressive. Sophia — the 80-something Italian Catholic immigrant, the one you’d expect to be homophobic — is utterly unperturbed by gay people. It’s a clever joke, of course, the subverting of audience expectation, but make no mistake: it’s also a political statement. It’s the politics of “it’s not a big deal” and “I wouldn’t love you any less.” It’s not revolutionary. But in 1986, gay panic was everywhere. The Christian right stoked the fire with the fear of disease, conflating the contagion of HIV with the threat of homosexuality to children and families. The federal government did its best to ignore the scourge of AIDS, and did little to stop the spread of misinformation and pseudoscience to a scared community. It was a dark and dangerous time for gay Americans. So, that little affirmation of love on a network sitcom — that treatment of coming-out as the terrifying and complex experience it is — may not have been revolutionary, but it certainly was important.

Aside from the explicitly gay stories, The Golden Girls has a queer ethos of sorts. I mentioned in my last piece that the girls represent a “chosen family,” something deeply important to gay culture. LGBT people often choose to seek out new familial bonds if their biological families are hostile or unwelcoming. I’ve always seen “Isn’t It Romantic?” as making a subtle joke about four grown women living together and none of them actually being gay. The community- and family-building of The Golden Girls is not exclusively a gay concept, but probably explains some of the show’s appeal to gay audiences.

The series’ liberal treatment of sex also speaks to LGBT audiences made to feel ashamed of their sexual choices. The sexual revolution had clearly arrived on Richmond St, Miami. The girls were Greatest Generation-ers living in a baby boomer world. Rose and Dorothy were true to their era, revealing early on that their husbands had been their only sexual partners for most of their lives. Blanche, on the other hand, had known, in her words, many, many men. We see the three women pursuing love and sex with openness and honesty, insecurity and vigor. The frank discussions the girls have about orgasms, sexual partners, and condoms, condoms, condoms are familiar and welcomed by gay audiences. I’ve always appreciated the diversity of experience among the women. Rose struggles with deciding whether to sleep with a man for the first time since her husband died. Dorothy knowingly sleeps with a married man. Sophia spends the night with a man and leaves after he won’t return her “I love you.” Each character reserves the right to change her mind about sex, to abstain, or to pursue pleasure without shame. You’d be forgiven if you think The Golden Girls was about old ladies having sex left and right. In reality, though, the show treated women’s love lives with emotional complexity.

We should keep in mind that these are post-menopausal women who still want love and sex. It’s remarkable how infrequently we see that, even now. I think there’s a connection here with gay folks; both gays and elderly women learn to be ashamed or ignore their sexual feelings, and our society in general frowns upon their sexual behavior as odd or abnormal (or just as bad: gross). We expect women of a certain age to close up shop. (To say nothing of 80-year-old men marrying and impregnating younger women.) Gay movements of the 70s and 80s celebrated sex and pleasure to counteract the sexual shame beaten into their heads, sometimes literally, since childhood. So, to see women in their dotage, basically our grandmothers, looking for love and sex, is something of a cathartic experience. It’s a sexuality that dare not speak its name. Who understands that better than LGBT people?

A note here about the endless ‘slut’ jokes aimed at Blanche over the years: it’s jarring now, yes. Third-wave feminism has helped to politicize sex positivity and to fight back against slut-shaming. But slut-shaming and “take back the night” movements are relatively new, and totally foreign to the Golden Girls. The show is not perfect in its depiction of sexuality, as it wrings lots of humor from Blanche the libertine. But I would argue that the other girls don’t disapprove of Blanche’s sexuality per se. They too pursue sex, and each has multiple partners throughout the series. They make no attempts to shame Blanche into changing her behavior.  (I mentioned in the previous piece that the only attempt to slut-shame Blanche in a truly hurtful way was shut down very, very quickly.) Still, I won’t deny that the attitudes seems a bit old-fashioned to a 2015 audience. I’m not sure if the girls were openly feminist, but they sure did a lot to create new paths for women on TV.

I didn’t know it when I was young, but the actresses themselves had quite the gay pedigree. Estelle Getty got her big break in the gay-themed play Torch Song Trilogy, and was one of the first celebrity AIDS activists. Bea Arthur was already known as the feminist icon Maude Findlay; in her real life, she was an AIDS and animal rights activist who bequeathed $300,000 to the Ali Forney Center, which provides housing for gay youth. Betty White was close friends with Rock Hudson, even sending him advance copies of the show shortly before his death. And Rue McClanahan . . . do I even have to explain? Rue had five husbands, Southern charm, and played Blanche with a total lack of self-consciousness. Blanche would have been almost too camp if the actress hadn’t been so intelligent. These women were Hollywood limousine liberals — in the dismissive words of 90s conservatives — but their characters had remarkable reach in Middle America. You don’t become a top 5 show catering only to the ‘coastal elites’.

The Golden Girls is such a warm, inviting experience that sometimes I get the feeling that it was made just for me. I feel that its universe appeals to me in a unique way. Of course, that’s not true, as it’s an international hit with legions of fans, gay, straight, and other. But that feeling is part of the genius of The Golden Girls: it manages to speak to gay fans in a way that most entertainment simply does not. Its warmth, its bawdiness, and its queerness envelope you, and before you know it, you’re family too.

 

(Image from thegoldengirlsreviewedby.com)

 

Death and Despair in Sitcom World: Why The Golden Girls Is Singularly Great

This is the first in a series of essays on the TV series I have loved, series that, at their best, tap into the universal but also seem to speak only to me. I hope to mix some cultural analysis with my own sentimental feelings. 

The Golden Girls is like home to me. I’ve been meaning to write about this show for years, but I always hesitate because the words don’t come freely. It’s been so much a part of my life — and so much has already been written — that it’s tough to know where to start. A recent A.V. Club essay on the series sparked my interest and revealed new ways to think about the show.

Many of us born in the 1980s (and later) discovered The Golden Girls as teenagers watching late-night reruns. The girls, as they called themselves, were around the same age as my grandparents. My initial reaction was shock at how bawdy and hilarious these old ladies were. Although I loved spending time with my grandparents (and still do), they certainly didn’t talk or act like Sophia and Blanche. As I got older, my understanding of the show’s humor morphed into appreciation and even awe. (Partly because now, in this culture driven by teen boys and cross-promotion, how could this show even make it to air? A modern Golden Girls is the stuff of internet fantasy.)

The Golden Girls is Golden Girlspraised for its sharp writing, the strong performances of its four leads, and its unprecedented portrayal of senior citizens on American TV. Although the series fell into some familiar sitcom tropes, the four leads created fully realized characters. Bea Arthur’s Dorothy remains one of the most shaded and three-dimensional sitcom characters I’ve ever seen. It was the perfect marriage of content and form, writing and acting: the scripts were clever enough to wring great, often stunning performances from its actors, and the actors contributed depth and subtlety to a genre riddled with cliche. But fans and critics often forget just how unconventional The Golden Girls was.

So much about it bucked tradition: older women with careers, pursuing casual sex and romance; the characters engaged with morally and politically charged issues like AIDS, gay rights, feminism, and ageism (with varying success, of course); and the women represented a chosen family, which endeared them to gay fans. The show’s expansive concept of family resonates deeply with gay fans to this day; young LGBT people, for decades, have built their own families out of necessity, as we are often cast out from our homes, misunderstood, or alienated by our own families. The show was an outlier in 80s sitcom world, which had mostly abandoned the social consciousness of Norman Lear’s 1970s shows in favor of “Morning in America” conventionality. (The creator of The Golden Girls, Susan Harris, wrote the controversial abortion episode of Maude in 1972.)

But what sticks out to me is what the A.V. Club’s Sonia Saraiya observed: this is a show about death. The spectre of death haunts the episodes so thoroughly that it’s impossible not to notice. The girls, in their late 50s and early 60s when the show began, have all been widowed or betrayed by their husbands and left behind by their families. In each other, they seek solace from loneliness. Despair, tempered by humor, pervades the series’ seven seasons. So many episodes focus on a family member or friend’s illness or death, and each of the girls has serious health scares of her own. Their dead husbands and parents haunt the show and its viewers’ collective memories.

The season 6 episode “Ebbtide’s Revenge,” in which Sophia’s son Phil dies, is particularly difficult. It features what I think is Estelle Getty’s best performance of the series. Sophia at first navigates her grief stone-faced, squabbling with Phil’s widow, Angela, over decades-long resentments. After the funeral, Sophia and Angela (the great Brenda Vaccaro) reveal the source of their conflict: Sophia’s shame over Phil’s cross-dressing and her supposed role in it, and that she allowed it to destroy their relationship. The show used cross-dressing as a joke for years, but here the writers mine it for pathos. Getty’s performance devastates, as she takes us through the complexities of her character’s grief: the loss of a child, the guilt of family estrangement, the mourning of lost time, and the loneliness and fear that often accompany aging. This is not typical sitcom material, but The Golden Girls makes full use of its premise and its performers to hit hard when it counts.

In “72 Hours,” Rose deals with the possibility that she was infected with HIV by a blood transfusion. Rose then has to endure a weekend worrying that she might have contracted a disease that will kill her. This episode has a ripped-from-the-headlines quality, and we should remember that many people were infected and died from AIDS in the 1980s and early 90s because of a reckless blood industry and the lack of a scientific consensus. The show uses Rose’s virtuousness to great effect. If a viewer thought, even for a moment, that the promiscuous Blanche was more likely to contract HIV, the writers set them straight. When Rose attempts to slut-shame her roommate, Rue McClanahan gets to speak this powerful message: “AIDS is not a bad person’s disease, Rose. It is not God punishing people for their sins!” America was still in the grips of Reagan-Bush conservatism, and the AIDS crisis was mired in apathy and fear-mongering in the press and government. Activists were not only fighting for medical treatment, but were also trying to counter the homophobic notion that AIDS patients were getting what they deserved. That The Golden Girls — a series geared toward older people — took such a progressive stance is particularly daring.

Golden Girls kicking coffin

Of course, the series also uses death as the inspiration for a great many jokes. Take the classic “It’s a Miserable Life,” in which Rose ‘kills’ the despised neighbor Freida Claxton. Who can forget that kindly old lady kicking Mrs. Claxton’s coffin? There’s “Til Death Do We Volley,” which sees Dorothy’s old frenemy fake her own death on a tennis court. The pranks between the two then escalate to yet more sinister levels. And consider the deaths of off-screen characters deemed fortuitous by our girls (usually Rose) because it removed the competition from some bowling tournament or charity award.

So while The Golden Girls remains known for the dirty jokes that flew past network censors, perhaps its most daring contribution is its obsession with aging, loneliness, and eventually, death. The broadcasting model aims for mass appeal, and The Golden Girls succeeded, finishing in the top 10 most-watched shows for six of its seven seasons. But it also, unexpectedly, tapped into something nearly universal: the knowledge that time moves swiftly, that death is all around, and that old age can be deeply isolating. These women have chosen to face their final years together, because they love each other, and because it’s better than being alone.

Photo credits: Amazon.com, Goldengirls.wikia.com

Greetings from Rochester, New York

The following was originally published on my friend’s great, recently retired blog, Big London Little London.

Autumn usually provokes a wave of nostalgia in me. The crisp weather and smell of fallen leaves always remind me of my Western New York hometown. Every year, my family did typical white people activities like apple picking, carving pumpkins, and baking pumpkin seeds. Fall will always remind me of my birthday, of our family getting along, and of my home, which I’ve moved away from but still remember longingly.

Rochester, New York is a mid-sized Rust Belt city (pop. 215,000; metro 1 million) with a rare north-flowing river and a port on Lake Ontario. What we lack in largesse we make up for in ingenuity and gruff charm. We are the birthplace of roll film, Xerox, and the white hot dog (don’t ask). Throughout its varied history, Rochester has been a key outpost in textile manufacture, classical music, and the Underground Railroad. Rochester has also developed an inexplicable accent, which broad linguistic studies never seem to get quite right. It’s a combination of nasal vowels and hard consonants that’s not Buffalonian and not quite “Great Lakes,” but uniquely working-class Rochesterian. Henceforth, you shall know the name of our fair city as “Raaaah-chster,” emphasis on the first syllable.

Rochester – despite any alarmist stories you may have heard – can be a pretty great place to live and work. Of course, I’m partial to my hometown. But for being such a small city, Rochester is rife with historical, cultural, and culinary goodies. It’s home to a few major research universities, most notably the University of Rochester and Rochester Institute of Technology. We have diverse gay bars and clubs. Art house movie theatres and independent coffee houses have survived the onslaught of the multiplex and Starbucks. Rochester is also lucky to have a nationally renowned symphony orchestra and one of the top music conservatories in the world, the Eastman School of Music. Perhaps what I miss most is the thriving greasy spoon scene, with charming Greek-owned diners sprinkled all over the city and suburbs, offering omelettes and spanakopita at all hours. But the crowning jewel of Rochester’s international reputation is Wegmans, the locally-owned supermarket chain. (You may know it from the recent Alec Baldwin commercials.) I am not exaggerating when I say that Wegmans is the best grocery shopping experience I’ve ever had. And yes, I have been to the Loblaw’s at Maple Leaf Gardens. At Wegmans, shit is relatively cheap and the people are awesome. Come to think of it, almost everything in Rochester is cheap! Homes, liquor, going out, shopping, it’s fabulous!

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The things that make Rochester wonderful are more impressive when considered in their social and economic context. Rochester, like Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland, was devastated by the collapse of manufacturing in the 1980s and ’90s. Rochester’s economy was once based largely on the success of Eastman Kodak, which at one time employed over 60,000 Rochesterians. But starting in the 1980s, the region’s top employer eliminated or relocated roughly 50,000 Rochester jobs. In such a small metro area, that is damn near catastrophic. The city endured the concomitant exodus of the middle-class and white, and has emerged a deeply segregated, impoverished American city. About half of the city’s residents are black or Latino, and a full one-third of the urban population – and 46 percent of children – live in poverty. I would even argue that this statistic is artificially low, since the minimum income that defines poverty is shockingly low. Sadly, the city averages about 47 homicides per year. This is, incidentally, the exact number of homicides in Toronto in 2011, a city TEN TIMES the size of Rochester. Guns, drugs, poverty, and ineffective public institutions conspire to make life in Rochester difficult for many.

Clearly, Rochester can be a rough place to live. It is a tragedy that many of Rochester’s young black men will not live to see their thirties, that drug organizations control some of the city’s neighborhoods, and that many cultural activities and social programs are inaccessible to the city’s poor. But Rochester is surviving. The region’s thriving medical, academic, and high tech sectors — which include Xerox, Bausch and Lomb, and the U of R and its teaching hospital complex — allowed Rochester to pull through the economic collapse better than other similar cities. With some luck and some intervention from the federal government, my hardscrabble hometown will retain its charm.

The Girls of Summer

While we’re on the subject of sport, please enjoy a guest post from my sister, a professional working in the field of college athletics. A long-time athlete and observer of sports, she brings valuable perspective to questions of gender and sexuality in American sport.

I am a product of the “Girls of Summer.” The memory of the 1999 Women’s World Cup Final has left a lasting imprint in my mind, from the oft forgotten blocked penalty kick by Brianna Scurry, to the infamous shirtless celebration of Brandi Chastain and the hero that was Mia Hamm. My life has always been, and continues to be, consumed by sport; it is the one thing that has the ability to fill me with me complete joy, but also the power to overwhelm and frustrate. Mia Hamm and company had throttled themselves to the forefront of American sporting culture by the late 1990s, unlocking opportunities for young girls like me. Yet fifteen years later, the progress that female athletes have made is questionable.

Brandi Chastain.

Brandi Chastain. (Photo credit: Atkins/AP)

Years ago, I idolized the beauty, grace, and poise that Hamm possessed. She was a marketer’s dream. Hamm was the “girl next door”: she was well spoken, talented, and importantly, had a pretty face. Still, a part of me was always instinctively drawn to goalkeeper Brianna Scurry. Her intensity was unlike anything I had seen. She made no apologies for her fierceness on the field or her failure to smile. At the time, I couldn’t understand why posters of Scurry were so hard to find, while my friends’ walls were littered with pictures of Hamm, Chastain, and Julie Foudy. After my many years spent as a player, coach and now administrator in athletics, the answer has become increasingly clear, but no easier to accept. The answer lies in the reasons my Little Tykes soccer team had to be named the “Queen Bees” rather than the “Killer Bees,” and why I found myself defending my own sexuality before I even truly understood it.

Brianna Scurry.

Brianna Scurry. (Photo credit: Julie Jacobson/AP)

Women who possess the traditional norms of feminine beauty and behavior are thrust to the forefront of their sports. Since the emergence of Title IX, women have had an increasingly greater presence in athletics, whether at the grassroots level or in the professional realm. It is no longer uncommon to see women’s games on ESPN or other major networks, and some female athletes have become national (even global) sensations. But coupled with this presence is a trend in how the media and sporting culture choose to market and represent women’s sports.

This observation is not meant to undermine the accomplishments of these women; Alex Morgan, Maria Sharapova, and Danica Patrick have all earned their rightful place at the top of their craft, yet their popularity is largely strengthened due to their physical appearance. This is not to say there are not exceptions. Abby Wambach has replaced Hamm as this generation’s face of women’s soccer. While she may not have the sex appeal of Morgan, her humility, unmatched abilities, and respect for those who paved the way have made her an undeniable force in the women’s sporting world. Serena Williams, who is arguably one of the best players in her sport’s history, is also an exception to this trend. However, as an African American female who is not afraid to push the envelope, her athletic skill and accomplishments are often undermined simply because she does not fit the “obedient” female mold.

This dichotomy between the “acceptable” feminine athlete and the “unacceptable” masculine athlete has caused an internal dilemma in the way I view women’s sports. Women have always struggled to legitimize their role in athletics, a male-dominated field where strength and power are paramount. This struggle is increased for those women who must find a comfortable balance between their athleticism and skill against the dainty frame, flawless skin, and pretty face which reign as the female beauty standard in modern culture.

In the short run, the publicity and national attention have provided unmatched opportunities for women, but I question the long term implications and potentially devastating effects on the culture of youth sports and young athletes. Women like Alex Morgan or Lolo Jones – and even the emergence of the Lingerie Football League – have drawn attention to the abilities of female athletes that had once been ignored. The Lingerie Football League has capitalized on this media culture, granting an opportunity for women to compete in a sport they have traditionally been ostracized from. Yet this league sends a conflicting message to young female athletes who perceive that their future in sport is based on the ability to sexualize their talents to appease the male gaze. Still, this national attention is what encourages the women’s professional soccer leagues to keep pushing, to not accept defeat. Yet again, it is also what causes young girls who may be “too tall” or have shoulders that are “too broad” to question their place in the sporting world and whether they can attain the same media attention as Hamm once did. This culture is what causes an intrusive speculation of girls’ sexuality, often at an age when they have yet to learn it themselves. It forces many young females to tirelessly defend their heterosexuality, as homosexuality is the perceived standard amongst women who may have “too many” tattoos or blemishes, muscles “too defined,” or even a haircut that is “too butch” – all of which are traits attributed to masculinity and even applauded in their male counterparts. While female athletes struggle less with coming out in comparison to males, they must fight harder to push their skill and abilities to the forefront of their persona. True growth in sport can never be attained until women are household names due to their talent, rather than appearance, relationship status, or sexual preference.

Where are all the gay men in tennis?

In the wake of the Jason Collins story, there has been a lot of chatter about the original trailblazer, Martina Navratilova. This is partly because Collins himself named her as a role model. SI senior writer Jon Wertheim (by far my favorite tennis writer in the world!) posted an excellent piece on Navratilova’s coming out story and the impact she’s had on both professional sport and American culture in general. I won’t summarize it all here, but every time I learn more about Navratilova’s story, I am struck by how remarkable she was and is. She came out publicly in 1981, already one of the world’s top female athletes. A 24-year-old Czechoslovakian defector, Navratilova was about a week away from asking U.S. Immigration to grant her citizenship. She was already a controversial figure, constantly pitted against her friend and rival, Chris Evert, in a hackneyed Cold War dichotomy of Western-vs-Communist/America’s Sweetheart-vs-butch-jock. After Navratilova came out, she lost millions in endorsements and endured ridicule from fans, reporters, and media commentators. In this hostile climate, Navratilova completed three of the most dominant seasons in tennis history, including a span of 6 straight Grand Slam titles (a record). She and Evert put together the most prolific rivalry in tennis (which Navratilova leads 43-37), and they remain close friends. Once reviled, Navratilova is now accepted as one of the all-time greats, with 18 major singles titles (including NINE at Wimbledon!) and 31 major doubles titles.

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Martina in 1983. (Photo credit: Martin Iooss, Jr., Sports Illustrated)

For more on Navratilova’s career, read Johnette Howard’s excellent book The Rivals.

Women’s tennis may not have always been welcoming to lgbt athletes, but there have been numerous openly gay players since Navratilova broke through, including Amelie Mauresmo (former world no. 1), Samantha Stosur (2011 U.S. Open champ), and Lisa Raymond (an all-time great in doubles). So I ask what many fans are asking now: where are all the gay male players?

Men’s tennis is not the most macho of sports, like football or hockey. That doesn’t mean, however, that rules of masculinity don’t apply to tennis. Tennis players, like all men, are expected to perform gender in certain, established ways, from the way they throw a tantrum to the way they dress. But several prominent players have recently shown support for gay rights, or at least for gay people in general. Most notably, this week Andy Roddick and Mardy Fish joined Athlete Ally, an organization founded to encourage the acceptance of lgbt people in the sporting world. Another American, Sam Querrey, told the press that “there’s got to be someone who plays tennis who is gay”; doubles legend Mike Bryan recently said “I don’t think anyone would have any issues.” Even Rafael Nadal reacted very sweetly when a male fan rushed the court and planted a kiss on his cheek (“for me it wasn’t a problem … they guy was really nice!” Oh, Rafa.).

So, are there just no gay men playing tennis at the international level? Meh, I find that hard to believe. And if there are, would other tennis players “have any issues” with it? Of course a few would. But I think for the most part, other players would either be supportive or come around eventually. Let’s face it, straight men and gay men have been sharing locker rooms since the invention of locker rooms. Men see each other naked all the time with little fanfare.

I wonder, then, why is it easier for us to accept openly gay athletes when they are female? Why was Brittney Griner’s coming out so uneventful? Why do we assume that many female athletes are lesbians unless proven otherwise? I think much of this has to do with the twin dynamic of misogyny and hypermasculinity in sport. Heteronormativity demands that women and men act according to defined, strictly enforced gender roles; but why, at least in pro sports, does an effeminate man provoke so much more hostility than a butch woman? I believe the answer lies in our cultural obsession with masculinity and the continued supremacy of men in almost every walk of life. Straight men, who still dominate hegemonic discourse, are burdened with asserting and reinforcing masculinity, including the ways a ‘real’ man must dress, walk, speak, and express emotion. As long as the ethos of masculinity dominates our sport culture, subversive types of gender and sexuality (like men who have sex with men) will have a hard time flourishing. More on this later.

Jason Collins and the New Gay Athlete

Jason Collins’ coming out is monumental, cathartic, long anticipated, even anticlimactic. Before I criticize, let me emphasize that coming out is a tremendous act of courage, love, and trust. The coming out process is arduous. (And seems never-ending to many of us who have gone through it.) For Collins to do it in such a public way, in a hypermasculine sporting culture, is awe-inspiring. While I will never belittle Collins’ brave admission, his method of coming out — which I believe will soon seem quaint and dated — was calculated. The Sports Illustrated cover article was a bit color-by-numbers, complete with the religion of team unity, sport machismo, and the supposed transgression of “gay stereotypes”.  I think we should admire Collins’ decision to speak publicly, while also understanding the cultural environment which both celebrates this admission and saddles it with homophobic, gender-normative baggage.

This particular coming out story played out in a sport publication, so I get that athletics are of primary interest to its readership. Collins’ narration, though, is completely de-sexed. Has he ever been in a relationship with a man? A woman? I’m not asking if he’s a top or bottom; I’m just asking for the vague details that most straight people would divulge without a thought. The entire narrative exists with hardly a hint that gay men love and have sex with other men. I can’t help but wonder if the preservation of privacy was his idea, his editors’, or both. A public figure can expect a measure of privacy. But coming out is a public and political act, and has been ever since our culture developed the concept of homosexuality. Coming out means divulging often uncomfortable secrets about oneself, because in doing so, we might be able to cleanse ourselves of shame and educate others. Again, I’m not asking for the world, merely a scant mention of Collins having any romantic or sexual interest in another man.

The other issue that gives me pause is the concept of Jason Collins as a subversion of “gay stereotypes”. (You only need to watch George Stephanopoulos’ smug self-satisfaction in his interview with Collins, as if he’s stumbled upon something truly profound.)  I can only assume said stereotype is that of the mincing queen with limp wrists and a lisp. For most reasonable people, this stereotype left the mainstream about 30 years ago.

The gay community is just as diverse as society at large; this includes diversity of gender expression. Gay men should be free to act as “feminine” or “masculine” as they feel is natural to them. But when we privilege certain types of gender expression over others, we oppress people in our own community. Now, to be very clear, I am not saying that Collins is doing that. We simply need to be careful how we talk about the gay male athlete. The SI story mentions repeatedly how the 7-foot Collins plays tenacious defense, that he bravely takes charges from bigger players, that he puts the good of the team above all else. There’s nothing inherently damaging about any of this. But to gay people who deal with gender policing even within our own communities, we read between the lines: He’s just one of the boys. He’s not going to peek at you in the showers. His gayness isn’t threatening like other, more feminine gay men. 

That Collins is being compared to Jackie Robinson is not accidental. Robinson was chosen to be the face of desegregation because he would be nonthreatening. He was articulate and well-mannered. His image was cultivated specifically to appeal to a mass (white) audience. This tension between conformity versus confrontation has always been present in race-based activism in America. Thus, in order to fully participate in white America, certain ways of being are elevated over others (educated, non-colloquial speech; “good hair”; liberal politics). Similarly, as gay folks are welcomed into the mainstream, hierarchies within our own communities become more pronounced. Those people who benefit from privilege within mainstream society usually benefit from the same privilege in the gay community. For those of us who want to live in a more equitable world, this is unacceptable.