Jason Collins came out yesterday as the first active, openly gay athlete in the four major American professional sports. I’ve been watching the reaction from the periphery. At one time Collins’ homosexuality would have made me uncomfortable, but I now I find myself cringing at some of the reactions. For anyone who is thinking, “This is 2013, what’s the big deal,” all you have to do is check out the comments section of any of these articles on Collins and you’ll find plenty of people voicing an opinion that doesn’t feel worthy of the 21st century. Not only that, the tangents come quickly, and before we know it, Collins being gay has something to do with President Obama. So, it’s pretty evident that while the majority of the reaction to the announcement has been positive, this is still a big deal, and it took a tremendous amount of courage from Collins to make his sexuality public.
What’s encouraging is that Collins felt comfortable enough to discuss his homosexuality while still being an active player. It’s true that Collins has spent his NBA career as a role player, and there is no guarantee he’ll be on a roster next season, but that’s hardly the point. The point is that we’ve brought homosexuality into the locker room. It’s perhaps the place most synonymous with the American idea of masculinity, and because of that, it’s perhaps the last place where a gay athlete would feel comfortable being out as a homosexual.
As I said, I spent my younger years with some lamentable ideas in my mind. My homophobia was the passive, casual kind that probably does some of the most damage. I wasn’t actively bullying, or spewing hateful diatribes on a regular basis, but if I encountered someone who I perceived to be gay, or homosexuality was brought up in any way other than an off the cuff remark, you would have been able to see my discomfort. So, where did these feelings come from?
I wasn’t from a religious family. My feelings about homosexuality had nothing to do with faith. I can’t really palm off my thoughts as being a product of my upbringing, either. I remember my sister being wholly unimpressed with some of my thoughts or jokes on the subject when we were growing up and we were raised the same way by the same parents. So, if I’m trying to trace these feelings, I might end up settling on my immersion in the sports culture. Playing team sports from an early age, being part of several locker rooms in my formative years–these things certainly helped mold my mind.
I can thank team sports for many things–friendships, and character building, and the list goes on, but I think a lot of people’s fears and misunderstandings about homosexuality take root in these locker rooms. Again, we’re talking about the pinnacle of American male-ness–the professional athlete. Every kid in these locker rooms wants to step into those shoes some day. That’s the goal and in an attempt to carry that out, the kids emulate the professionals. They copy them on the field, but also adopt the mentality.
For so long, the belief was that a gay teammate wouldn’t function within the locker room. It’d be a sign of weakness. It’d ruin the dynamic. And if that was true of the professional locker room, it was true of the middle school one as well. The small step to make was that being gay was a hindrance to becoming a professional athlete. So, the natural stance for a thirteen year old to take is the polar opposite. If being gay is a detriment, then I’m going to be as far away from that as possible. And, unfortunately, that manifests itself in homophobia.
I carried these thoughts with me through my decidedly non-professional sporting career, and it took me growing up and thinking more independently to realize how foolish and close-minded my opinions were. It’s a shame that we can form opinions when we are so young, so impressionable, and so immature, because by the time you grow up, and open your eyes a little bit you realize that you’ve developed a lot of habits that are hard to break.
I probably have a long way to go. I still say things I shouldn’t say, and I still tolerate the type of passive homophobia that I possessed myself. When I hear a college kid saying something I might have said a decade ago, I just stay quiet, and hope they will eventually see the light like I did. Maybe I should speak up and try to do my part to break the cycle.
That’s what Jason Collins can hopefully help accomplish with his announcement. The only way homosexuality will ever be a non-issue in locker rooms is if it’s a non-issue in professional locker rooms. If we can break the association of masculinity and heterosexuality at the highest level, perhaps it has a chance to trickle down to these kids who were like me, just trying to fit into the mold of doing what I thought I was supposed to do.