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.

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