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Gay Men, Straight World

2011 May 26

The first piece I wrote for this blog was about sexuality and TV personalities.  Specifically, I argued that Anderson Cooper would lose his job if he came out of the closet.  I believed then – as I do now – that the internalized homophobia of straight American men would threaten Cooper’s viewership.  This is not to say that all straight men in this country are homophobes, but rather that perhaps they are not ready to get their news from an openly gay man.  (I think it has a lot to do with anal sex, but you can read about that in the original piece.)  We still live in a world dominated by straight men, and though more women are tapping at the glass ceiling, it still exists.  Gay men, however, have been conspicuously absent in certain corners, among them TV news and professional sports.

Now, as if on cue, Kobe Bryant has been fined $100,000 for calling  a referee a “faggot,” Rick Welts, President of the Phoenix Suns, announced that he is gay, and CNN anchor Don Lemon has come out in a new memoir, Transparent.  (Two days before the NY Times ran an article about Welt’s coming out, another piece mentioned a PSA featuring two of his players, Grant Hill and Jared Dudley, speaking out against homophobic slurs in sports.)  In addition, Will Sheridan, a former basketball star at Villanova began speaking publicly about coming out to his teammates, NY Rangers star Sean Avery and Baltimore Raven Brendon Ayanbadejo announced their support for marriage equality, and Ben Cohen and Hudson Taylor- an English rugby star and All-American wrestler, respectively, have each made combating homophobia in sports their mission.

Rachel Maddow recently took some flak after an interview with The Guardian in which she said, “I’m sure other people in the business have considered reasons why they’re doing what they’re doing, but I do think that if you’re gay you have a responsibility to come out.”  To a certain extent, she is right.  Coming out is not just about telling someone you are gay; it is about accepting that part of yourself with all of its confusion, complications, and joy.  For some people this comes at an excruciatingly high cost.  For someone like Don Lemon, it could cost him his viewership, his ratings, and thus, his job.  For a professional athlete- there is not one openly gay male professional American athlete currently on a major league roster- it could cost dignity, the respect of teammates, and the comfort and safety of staying closeted.

But this is exactly the problem.  No one should fear the consequences of coming out.  It is the old straight-boys’-club mentality that is ubiquitous in locker rooms from middle school to professional sports that create such a hostile environment for gay male athletes.  Athletic prowess is traditionally a pillar of masculinity. Jocks rule high schools across the country, and professional athletes, who are rewarded for that prowess and masculinity with multi-million-dollar contracts, no doubt cling to their position at the top of the man-ladder.  But there are undoubtedly homosexuals in their locker rooms.  Men who keep girlfriends so no one becomes suspicious.  Men who share a home with a partner, but would never bring him to the holiday party.  Men who struggle to reconcile their public lives with their private ones.  Men who are afraid to come out for fear of bullying, discrimination, abuse, or worse.
Straight men need to step up, especially in sports.  Hudson Taylor recently launched Athlete Ally “as a resource to encourage athletes, coaches, parents, fans and other members of the sports community to respect all individuals involved in sports, regardless of perceived or actual sexual-orientation or gender identity or expression.”  His is a bold step in the right direction, but it is not enough.  So far, 3,736 people (players, coaches, parents, referees, etc) have signed the following pledge on Taylor’s site:

“I pledge to lead my athletic community to respect and welcome all persons, regardless of their perceived or actual sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. Beginning right now, I will do my part to promote the best of athletics by making all players feel respected on and off the field.”

If this site had been launched by Tom Brady, or Alex Rodriguez, or even Kobe Bryant, surely the number of people who have signed the site’s pledge would be exponentially higher.  Hudson Taylor is not a professional athlete with a huge contract and endorsement deals, but he is doing more for up-and-coming athletes, gay and straight, than most of his professional counterparts.  Ben Cohen certainly has pull in his native Great Britain, but his StandUp Foundation, which works to combat anti-gay bullying in sports, will likely make only a small splash in the US.

There are gay men in professional sports.  We know this because a brave few have come out after retirement: former MLBl players Glenn Burke and Billy Bean, former NBA player John Amaechi, and former NFL players Dave Kopay, Roy Simmons, and Esera Tuaolo.  But so far, no active male professional athlete has come out.  It’s 2011, and the sports establishment should be ashamed of itself for creating an environment so hostile to gay men.  O. Mac Chinsomboon, Director of the Gay and Lesbian Athletics Foundation, states:

“Our goals are twofold: One, create a community of gay athletes who can communicate with each other regularly. Two, help cultivate an environment in sports in which athletes are accepted and respected without regard to their sexual orientation. In the process, we help to create positive role models for the society at large.”

These goals are not unreasonable, nor are they unattainable, but they require the support of more straight athletes, especially those high profile ones who have big endorsement deals and bigger fan bases.  Until the locker-room culture shifts towards acceptance, gay male athletes will not find a safe and respectful environment, and they will not come out.  And that is truly a shame.

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