Last week, the Sports Illustrated cover story featured NBA player Jason Collins, who revealed he is gay. His words on the front cover sum up the significance of his disclosure: “I didn’t set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport. But since I am, I’m happy to start the conversation.”
The immense outpouring of support has been heartwarming and inspirational. Kobe Bryant and Minnesota Vikings player Chris Kluwe publicly shared their support, as did former President Bill Clinton, Spike Lee, President Barack Obama and countless other politicians, athletes and celebrities.
Collins’ choice to come out is being hailed as very significant for the sports world, which some have called the “last closet in America.” Many charge that the world of athletics is homophobic because of its pervasive emphasis on, and persistent requirement of, hyper-masculinity. As Lauren Rankin wrote in a Policy Mic article regarding the firing of Rutgers University coach Mike Rice, “The language employed by coaches, athletes and spectators alike demands that our male athletes remain the manliest of men at all times.”
Look no further than the student section at a sports game to find proof for her assertion. In the first five minutes of a basketball game, we’re yelling for our team to “Kill, rape, pillage, burn, eat babies.” The sports world, like many other arenas, is an environment in which charges of femininity are the ultimate, most effective way to denigrate someone else’s character. Glorifying and seemingly requiring a rigid, resolute display of stereotypical masculinity, the sports world is indeed historically plagued with homophobia, as well as sexism and violence.
The gay rights movement within men’s sports has already found strong allies in Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo of the Baltimore Ravens, straight men who have shattered the myth that engaging in a “hyper-masculine” sport is mutually exclusive with supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. Now, with Collins, the movement to crush homophobia in sports has what Richard Rosendall, president of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington, D.C., calls, “a walking refutation of anti-gay stereotypes.” As Rosendall says, “Collins could not be better suited to his new role if you auditioned a thousand people for it. ... He is poised, confident, strong, masculine, at ease with himself and he’s known for being a tough player.”
The Sports Illustrated cover was undeniably a watershed moment for the world of sports. Standing up for his sexuality in a notoriously closeted arena makes Collins a role model for many, including LGBT people of color and athletes. Still, I can’t help but feel that the real victory will come when people will not have to calculatedly, ceremoniously and nervously step forward about who they are. In 2013, we still have to describe this action as bold and courageous. I hope someday soon the sexual orientation of an athlete — and any public figure, for that matter — will not be an issue.
One could argue that the general apathy with which the public regarded No. 1 WNBA draft pick Brittney Griner’s mention that she is a lesbian a few weeks ago is a sign of a more open, accepting society. While Collins’ admission was posed as a “great reveal,” Griner mentioned her sexuality with general nonchalance. The public response to her statement was subdued, despite her prominence as not only the No. 1 draft pick but also the second all-time scorer and top shot-blocker in women’s NCAA history. The reaction was nothing close to the experience of Collins, about whom headlines are continuing to erupt. But to account for the vastly different experiences for Collins and Griner, whose public announcements of their sexuality came just a few weeks apart, more seems to be at play.
This difference highlights a troubling, stubborn trend, in which the sports world is plagued by the stereotype that “every female athlete is a lesbian,” said Patrick Burke, a founder of You Can Play, an advocacy group for LGBT athletes. He said that while there has been great success in getting straight male players to stand up for gay rights, finding straight female athletes to do the same has been much more difficult “because they’ve spent their entire careers fighting the perception that they’re a lesbian.”
This stereotype, just like that which asserts there are no gay athletes in the hyper-masculine world of men’s athletics, is very damaging. Not only does it harm female athletes, but it diminishes the significance of unequivocal advancements for gay rights effected by athletes like Griner. The fact that Griner feels comfortable enough with her sexuality that she was able to mention it in an off-the-cuff, matter-of-fact way to a world audience is substantial, as well as praiseworthy. But she didn’t get a phone call from the president.
As we recognize Collins for his notable move for gay rights, we must also remember the vast, impressive contributions others made before him, like the long list of professional female athletes in both team and individual sports who played or have been playing as openly gay. That female athletes’ public disclosures of their sexuality do not “matter” to the same degree as men’s speaks to patriarchal structures and the problematic qualities it breeds within the professional sports world, like the necessity of hyper-masculinity and the assumption that women operating in this traditionally male sphere must be lesbians. In recognizing Collins’ pivotal moment for sports, we should also consider how the sweeping reaction of the public — and erroneous labeling of him as the “first openly gay professional athlete” — marginalizes others’ experiences.