The Most Important Gay Icon of All

Posted by Nona Willis Aronowitz



It doesn’t make the street-activist in me feel great, but one sentence from a celebrity is often worth a dozen town square protests. If you can get Justin Bieber to say or do something, anything, it reverberates all over the internet, and millions of ears—particularly tiny ears—perk up.

That’s why a current, major pro athlete needs to come out of the closet. And it will probably happen really soon.

A few years ago, this would have been unthinkable. Gay icons were reserved for pop stars, female actors, and groundbreaking politicians. The sports world has remained relatively untouched culturally for decades, and has gained a bad rap for both homophobia and misogyny. It has a history of sexist Superbowl commercials, sexual assault, public homophobia, you name it. Just in the last few months, both Kobe Bryant and Joakim Noah shouted the word “faggot” on the court—and on national television.

But the tide seems to be turning at a remarkable pace. I posted yesterday about the San Francisco Giants, who are the first major professional sports team to make an “It Gets Better” video. This is significant, but it’s just the latest in a string of little challenges to a very straight and super-macho sports culture—a culture that happens to wield a huge influence on both young kids and all ages of men and boys.

In the last year, and particularly in the last few months, we’ve seen a generous handful of people in the professional sports world identify as gay. In 2011 alone, 27 athletes, journalists, coaches, and executives have already come out. That list includes everyone from figure skater Johnny Weir, who kicked off the year, to president of the Phoenix Suns Rick Welts a few weeks ago. It also includes a bunch of brave high school athletes from all over the country, who undoubtedly risked some bullying from their classmates.

Besides that, there are some very public allies who have “come out." Charles Barkley, especially, has been a vocal supporter of gay rights on the field and off. He confirmed on the radio a couple weeks ago what is surely true: that there are plenty of gay athletes already that don’t feel comfortable coming out:

First of all, every player has played with gay guys. It bothers me when I hear these reporters and jocks get on TV and say: ‘Oh, no guy can come out in a team sport. These guys would go crazy.’ First of all, quit telling me what I think. I’d rather have a gay guy who can play than a straight guy who can’t play.

He also makes the connection between anti-gay attitudes and the discrimination that black people experience.  (Which is another important step to take: although the gay rights movement has long been linked to feminism, race and sexual orientation are rarely connected.)

Society discriminates against gay people…they always try to make it like jocks discriminate against gay people. I’ve been a big proponent of gay marriage for a long time, because as a black person, I can’t be in for any form of discrimination at all.

Some pro athletes have taken to TV and YouTube with a pro-gay rights message. Sean Avery recently released a PSA supporting gay New Yorkers’ right to marry:

Grant Hill looked kids straight in the eye and took a direct shot at “gay” as an insult, which has always been one of my pet peeves:

I’ve seen firsthand how PSAs like these work. My husband’s 24-year-old relative is a smart, liberal guy, yet when I first met him, he constantly said things like, “Those sneakers are so gay” or “That TV show is so gay.” We must have had half a dozen arguments about it; once, it escalated into a heated shouting match.

Meanwhile, he’s a big sports fan. Huge. His whole social life centers around it. Just a few weeks ago, I happened to be in the livingroom while he was watching a basketball game. The Grant Hill commercial came on. We exchanged knowing looks, and just like that, I realized something had clicked.

We’ll know for sure how much our culture has changed when an athlete in a major sport admits he’s gay and weathers the fallout. Not an athlete in something like figure skating or gymnastics, but in the “big four”: baseball, basketball, football or hockey. Not a retired athlete coming out in a memoir. Not a genderbending, but ultimately straight, star like Dennis Rodman. We need an active athlete in the spotlight, with a lot at stake. It probably won’t be an A-Rod or a Lebron James—more likely someone at the tail end of their career, as openly gay sports journalist LZ Granderson predicts—but it’ll be someone who understands what kind of impact this will have on mainstream culture.

There are tons of gay athletes and sports fans (just check out the huge crowds at Nellie's, a gay sports bar in DC) who need public support. But just as important, there are tons more fans who need to start thinking about the LGBT population as people they know, not as abstractions or abominations.

photo (cc) by Flickr user eqqman