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Thursday, May 2, 2013
Out athletes and dissent

By Johnette Howard

In the groundbreaking first-person story that he wrote in Sports Illustrated, Jason Collins anticipated that his passage through the NBA next season would include people who are opposed or uncomfortable with his decision to acknowledge he's gay. And he offered an admirably straightforward, grown-up solution: "I'll sit down with any player who's uneasy about my coming out."

But a funny thing happened after SI first published his piece online Monday. (And I'm not just referring to the felicitous news that the magazine's website got 3.7 million visitors to the story the first day, smashing the previous record of 3.6 million for -- get this -- the 2010 Swimsuit Issue, SI's annual ode to heterosexual lust.) Did you notice what happened to the few people within sports who dared to criticize or voice their discomfort about Collins' decision to reveal his sexual orientation? They're the ones who found themselves isolated, under attack and pressured to remain silent.

Dissent against gays is suddenly the new closet in sports.

This is high irony, all right. A gay guy who plays basketball trumping Elle Macpherson? Homophobia under fire in sports instead of gays?

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people don't yet enjoy full rights and legal protections in the majority of states. There is still a coaching closet that is powerful at all levels of sports, and it remains glacially slow to change. And yet, 43 years after the violent Stonewall riots that sparked the gay rights movement -- a benchmark Collins mentions in his story -- here's what dissent looks like: Straights are now asking for tolerance rather than be shoved into hiding because of their beliefs. And here's what it looks and sounds like:

Jason Collins
Jason Collins, who played for the Celtics earlier this season, said he's willing to talk to players who may be uncomfortable having a gay teammate.

It's a church uninviting former Packers safety LeRoy Butler as a speaker after he supports Collins. It's new Dolphins receiver Mike Wallace tweeting that he wonders why anyone is gay when there are so many pretty girls around -- and then backpedaling in another tweet, saying he wasn't implying right or wrong, just that "I don't understand." It's former Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward saying in a radio interview and quoted in Pro Football Talk making the oft-repeated objection that the NFL "isn't ready" for a gay man in the locker room -- then a reader, responding in the comments for that post, drolly parrying Ward's stereotype with another: "Says the guy who won 'Dancing with the Stars' …"

Being able to laugh about such serious business also shows how much things have changed. Even going there, to the land of sequins and mincing steps, is contested terrain.

Lazy presumptions about what constitutes masculinity or femininity are on the run. Definitions of toughness or strength and what constitutes courage or ethical behavior when it comes to being gay are all being challenged and revised at breathtaking speed. Today, one man's church may still say being gay is "a rebellion against God" while another, the Episcopal Church, has had openly gay bishops. Today, you will not necessarily get laughed out of the room if you ask who's tougher -- a man who covers kickoffs in the NFL or, as Sports on Earth columnist Chuck Culpepper noted the other day, "Men branded effeminate."

As Culpepper wrote: "[They] have withstood more needless, mindless crud through the years than most of the rest of us put together, weathering it through high school, college, taunts in their neighborhoods and frowns in their families. As conquerors of one of the great human fears -- that of what others think -- they're among the toughest sorts we've got."

Collins' willingness to be the first active gay male athlete in one of the four major North American sports gives a whole new definition to "manning up."

And in the wake of Monday's article, male athletes, as a class, have behaved remarkably unlike the knuckle-dragging, testosterone-blinded cavemen they're often derided as. One after another, they expressed support for Collins. And what they said was moving.

Howard Bragman, the vice chairman of and chairman of Fifteen Minutes Public Relations who orchestrated many athletes' (including retired NBA player John Amaechi's) coming out, told Yahoo! Sports, "I think society came to a place where homophobia feels like racism now."

All of this is not happening because dissent has been quashed. It's happening because dissent has been allowed to happen. And it's important, even vital, that it continues to. But within parameters. People in positions of power have an obligation to be especially mindful about what they do or say.

"If someone is hostile to LGBT issues, I guess I'd rather they stay silent rather than create a hostile environment for everybody else -- but my real preference is always to have a conversation where the goal is to find common ground, a place where respect for everyone's beliefs is the core value," says Pat Griffin, a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who is an expert on LGBT issues.

As Collins noted -- and folks like Ward perhaps fail to fully appreciate -- the conversations about out gay athletes, or the wider LGBT community in general, have changed dramatically, as have the dynamics between gays and straights.

Griffin can speak with great authority on that. For 32 years, she has run workshops on sexual orientation and gender identification issues for college coaches, athletes and administrators, and she just co-wrote a new resource guide for the NCAA.

She has both a longitudinal and up-to-the-minute take on the discussion and how it's changed -- or not. She has often gone to hot spots where controversies have broken out, including Penn State after then-women's basketball coach Rene Portland publicly said she would not recruit lesbians for her team. For decades, Griffin has gotten an unvarnished look at all sides of the argument and how people's thoughts migrate or their differences can be actively mediated.

Griffin says it's been in the last five years or so that she's strongly seen the dynamic where LGBT people come out and inhibitions shift to straights who suddenly feel compelled to hide their dissent and personal beliefs.

"When I first started … coaches and administrators, in particular, had to be convinced that LGBT issues had to be addressed. It was like pulling teeth just to get people to talk," Griffin says. "Many people who were closeted gays or lesbians felt highly threatened by it. Straights didn't want to talk about it, period. Quite often, straights still often say they feel they lack a vocabulary to talk about it.

"But I don't spend much time now convincing people the topic deserves attention. It's more strategizing about, 'What do I do if this happens? What do I do if someone comes out on my team? What do I do about anti-gay slurs or if two people are having a relationship on the team during the season?' We also spend a lot of time talking about religious objections to homosexuality and how do you address that, because, for example, there is a segment of Christians who feel persecuted themselves out there. And silenced. Some religious black Christians, in particular, feel in competition with LGBT issues. They feel LGBT issues are usurping their civil rights issues."

And how do those conversations go?

"The discussion is never an attempt to convert anyone in any way," Griffin says. "The first thing I do in every case is affirm each person has a right to their personal beliefs. Then I point out there's a distinction between personal beliefs and their professional responsibility to create a respectful and non-hostile environment where everyone can succeed."

Collins understands that too.

One of the hopes he expressed in his story was, "Openness may not completely disarm prejudice, but it's a good place to start."

Rather than shout down or mock the "a ha" moment that straights are now reporting about the lousiness of being forced to hide their views on sexuality -- gays could shoot back, "Now you know how we have felt forever!" -- the solution Collins offered his dissenters is better: "Education is the key."

Having just shed the confines of the closet himself, Collins is not advocating a similar construct for anybody.

Not even his own worst enemy.