Jason Collins and how it actually might not get better


Jason Collins’ coming out, published in Sports Illustrated last week, is being hailed as historic and earth-shaking

The 34-year-old NBA player, and now free agent, has received support from no less than two Presidents, Clinton and Obama, and Human Rights Campaign’s Executive Director Chad Griffin declared that Collins had “forever changed the face of sports” and that “[n]o longer will prejudice and fear force gay athletes to remain silent about a fundamental part of their lives.”

Both parts of Griffin’s statement are hyperbolic and inaccurate. Griffin, like many other commentators on Collins, ignored the fact that several athletes in fact have come  out, including Martina Navratilova, who has been out since 1981.

Greg Louganis has been out as gay and HIV-positive since 1995. Major-league baseball player Glenn Burke was out as far back as 1976.

According to Allen Barra, Burke officially came out in 1982, and even made it on the The Today Show with Bryant Gumble. But his revelation was greeted with silence.

I’m not the biggest sports fan – I always have to google “NBA” to check whether the “B” stands for basketball or baseball.  

So I only followed Collins’ disclosure haphazardly at first, unsurprised at both the fawning support and the instant homophobia. 

But it was the hoopla around Howard Kurtz and which finally piqued my interest. Kurtz, apparently a slipshod reader, slammed Collins on The Daily Beast for not having revealed his prior engagement to a woman. He made matters worse by not apologizing right away, and fellow journalists took the opportunity to excoriate him – batting him like a pinata between them – for what they said was not just one mistake, but a history of such. Kurtz is no longer with The Daily Beast.

I was struck, first, by the ferocity and swiftness of the attack and the time spent on the quality of Kurtz’s journalism – much more intense than, say, reactions to Judith Miller, whose false reports on WMDs for the New York Times were part of the reason why the US invaded Iraq.

I remain struck by the fact that no one – has raised the most obvious point that came to mind for me: It doesn’t matter if Collins had been engaged to a woman or not. 

The quibbling between the reporters was essentially about the perfection of Colins’ gayness: asserting that he had in fact revealed his prior engagement meant that he was no longer engaged, could never be engaged, and was henceforth an acceptable gay man.

“¨And I wondered: What if Collins came out as a gay man still engaged to a woman? What, in other words, if Collins were queer? What if Collins came out as someone who liked public sex in parks? Or as a righteously outrageous faggoty queer? As a gay man who liked to dress in women’s clothing? Or, as others remind us, as a queer person like Bradley Manning, so vehemently against the United States’ war-mongering that they would risk everything to come out as a whistleblower?

Collins’ statement hits every perfect gay note,charting an upwardly progressive coming out narrative fit for Hallmark and Hollywood: the secret knowledge held in for years, the cataclysmic event that propelled him to rethink his closeted life, a loving and supportive gay uncle in a long-term relationship as role model, and then his determination to “be genuine and authentic and truthful.”  “¨”¨

But what does authenticity and truthfulness mean in the context of a coming out whose terms are so ritualized, so tailor-made to fit everyone’s dream of the perfect growth narrative that Collins is already netting spokesperson roles? 

Danielle Young, in noting that Collins will be hosting an upcoming LGBT Democractic National Committtee fundraiser with Michelle Obama, no less, notes approvingly, “I love this unconventional look at homosexuality.  

In 2013, the topic is still a taboo one, but at least there’s men like Jason who change the face of homosexuality. While I enjoy drag queens and many gay men who adopt very hyper-feminine quirks (hip-switching, weave-patting, “yassssss girl”-ing), it delights me to know there’s a whole other culture of gay men who don’t fall into the stereotypes.” 

“¨”¨It’s certainly not Collins’ fault that he fulfils every mother’s dream of the gay guy her daughter might bring home as a plaything, but in the rush to praise and cement the many ways in which he is so very perfectly gay, we risk remaining silent about what it takes for a gay man to be accepted as such. 

And we might also wonder about the many unspoken strictures that still seem to compel Collins to emphasize his unwaveringly perfect gayness, as when he points out that, upon coming out, he “still had the same sense of humor, I still had the same mannerisms and my friends still had my back” [emphasis mine]. 

In other words, he’s careful about not being too faggy.

I’ve been critical of what appears to be a “coming out fetish.”

The new “it gets better” mantra gets turned on its face when people like Collins come out this way.

It’s not getting better, but in fact more constricted as gay identity becomes more of a commodity. In the past, we simply weren’t ready to consume:

Barra suggests that Burke’s coming out didn’t attract the attention it should have because “it was the press that wasn’t ready for a gay male athlete.” 

But the press responds to cultural desires, and it’s more accurate to point out that culture was not ready for an out gay man.  And it’s dangerous to assume that the only kind of coming out that matters is the sort that can be hailed and celebrated and become a pathway to lucrative endorsements. What’s being celebrated today is less the idea that every queer person can be out in their distinctive ways, but that a key player in team sports is perfectly gay. 

It’s rumored that Nike is on the hunt for a gay athlete.

Who knows? That may well turn out to be Collins, and it would allow us to fetishize disclosure and comforting narratives about coming out and “gay rights” at the expense of remembering the harsh realities of what sports also stands for today: brutal sweatshop labour cloaked with an aura of individual prowess and, now, perhaps, the freedom of an individual to come out, come out, wherever he or she is –but only as perfectly gay –and in ways that allows us all to breathe a sigh of relief – because they haven’t really disrupted the way we think about the world or queers’ place in it.


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