Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Gay athletes and the cult of masculinity

Jason Collins came out today. The reason that this is noteworthy is that he is the first active male athlete in a major American sports league to come out as gay. Despite the progress that has been made in the past years and all the qualifiers in the last sentence showing how few barriers there are left, he will undoubtedly catch a lot of crap for being a male homosexual athlete, whether from fans or on the court or in locker rooms. I wish him all the best and that he'll get the support he deserves from fans, friends, the league, and his teammates.
However, I want to take this moment to talk a bit about sexism, femininity, and masculinity. The reason why coming out as a man in the world of professional sports is so rare is of course that there are certain gendered expectations in society: the stereotype is still to an extent that there's something wrong with gay men, that they are not quite masculine enough. Straight-up homophobia is definitely part of the equation, but to quote a New York Times article from a couple of weeks ago about female star athlete Brittney Griner coming out:
“We talk a lot in the L.G.B.T. community about how sexism is a big part of what contributes to homophobia,” said Anna Aagenes, the executive director of GO! Athletes, a national network of L.G.B.T. athletes. “It’s disheartening when there are so many great role model female athletes out that we’re so focused on waiting for a male pro athlete to come out in one of the four major sports.”
Vice versa, lesbians have often been considered "wrong" as women, and since achieving in the sporting world is not intrinsically tied to our notions of femininity, it's one reason why it's easier to come out as a female athlete (not that that means it's easy, of course), apart from the sexism inherent in the fact that less people pay attention to women's athletics.
The idea of masculinity and male homosexuality is a rather large topic to tackle in a short blog post, but let's just say that whether in the form of masculinity-eschewing or hypermasculine behaviour, the stereotypes of gay men that are common have been at odds with those masculinities thought appopriate for the sporting world. One is threatening by saying that men can be feminine, or at least not follow traditional standards of masculinity, and the other projects a kind of threatening male sexuality directed at other men. Both are anathema to the toxic notions of masculinity that still rule the day, exemplified in many ways in sports culture, which say that men should be strong physically and emotionally, have the capacity for violence, independent, competitive, and not cry, not show human weakness, not be victims, and not be vulnerable. To make sure athletes conform, the worst insults imaginable are often used in sports against those behaving wrongly: girl, lady, and fag.

A hope I have is that the discussion about homosexuality in men's sports that will result from Jason Collins coming out will also focus a lot on these pernicious notions of masculinity and the odious sexism that go hand in hand with it, and that the culture surrounding sports can be very negative and reinforce gender norms that are incredibly harmful (even though athletics, all other things being equal, is a good thing), both on the court and in the supporter culture (where predominantly European examples of hooliganism are the most obvious, but it's certainly not limited to those). What I suspect and fear, however, is that this will not be the starting point of a much-needed discussion about toxic masculinity and sexism, but will rather be a step in colonizing gay culture with the self-same ideals of toxic masculinity and thus establish them even further in the norm.
As J. Bryan Lowder points out, Jason Collins' coming-out article is also a display of anxiously defending his normative masculinity:
At least one of the answers, of course, is the homophobic nature of his industry, and, unfortunately, that is a state of affairs he never criticizes directly beyond promising to set “hard picks” against individuals who trash-talk him. If anything, Collins takes pains to appease the players, coaches and fans who make up the sports-masculinity complex that will determine whether his career continues, and unwittingly, insults some of his new friends in the process. To start, Collins makes the classic maneuver of exempting himself from the dreaded gay “LABEL” (I’m never sure what that means) and then spends multiple paragraphs telling us how butch and eager to foul he is. At this point, I’m waiting for it, and Collins delivers: “I go against the gay stereotype, which is why I think a lot of players will be shocked: That guy is gay?”
 I'm appy Jason Collins is coming out; it's an important step far too long in the making, but the way he (and a lot of commentators) needs to stress that "I'm just like you, in fact, I'm more like you than you are!" makes me think that the door that's opening will be quite narrow. In other words, it will be ok to be gay, as long as you're performing the same old athletic hypermasculinity, and that's a smaller step than I would prefer to see, and I fear that the stronger message will be for gay men to act more according to masculine norms that we should all work to tear down.

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