Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Locker Room and the Closet

Rumors continue that one or more pro sports athletes may soon come out of the closet.  And unlike those who have come out upon retirement (such as Robbie Rogers at left), this player (or players) will continue their pro careers. The rumors have prompted some to talking about a "gay Jackie Robinson" particularly with the release of a new movies about Robinson's shattering of the color barrier.   But as Frank Bruni notes in a New York Times column, the comparison is not truly appropriate in many ways, not the least of which is that Robinson could not hide his skin color whereas most gays, despite the destructive effects of the closet, can hide their sexual orientation - a fact that is one of the reasons the Christofascists who seek to impose their hate and fear based religious beliefs on all Americans continue to dishonestly claim that sexual orientation is a choice.  Much of Bruni's column looks at Robinson's unique achievement.  But it also looks at the game changing effect openly gay pro athletes would have.  Here are excerpts:

I’ve been hearing the name Jackie Robinson a lot lately, and not just because a movie about him, “42,” hit multiplexes on Friday and had a bigger opening-weekend gross than any baseball movie ever.
I’ve been hearing it in the context of an intensifying drumbeat: that the “gay Jackie Robinson” is just weeks or months away. 

We should retire the phrase now. It’s a flawed comparison.  As a few other observers have noted, it doesn’t do justice to Robinson’s experience and to the many differences between the challenges he confronted and those facing the first man or men to acknowledge being gay while still active in one of America’s four major professional sports (baseball, football, basketball and hockey).

The movie also makes clear that Robinson got his precedent-setting assignment not just because of his talent but because of his character. Branch Rickey, the team president who hired him, wanted and picked someone who might not buckle, as most men surely would, under such pressure and such a mantle. 

The first openly gay player in a major sport could instead be an accidental and unwilling hero, hauled into history by a random photo, a talkative boyfriend, some other unintended exposure or the fear of it. That sort of messy scenario was suggested by Cyd Zeigler and Howard Bragman in a post on the sports Web site SB Nation. Its headline: “Hoping Our ‘Gay Jackie Robinson’ Isn’t the ‘George Michael of Sports.’ ” 

Robinson was openly black, if you will, before he played in the big leagues, and what he ended in baseball was apartheid.  The trailblazer still to come will most likely have his place in the big leagues before he’s openly gay, and the frontier he’ll inhabit is not one of access — there have been and are gay players in the four major sports — but of candor. What he’ll end, or erode, is a culture of duplicity and denial. And if he hasn’t in fact been forced out of the closet, there will a particular kind of decision and volition in his emergence.

The first openly gay player in football, baseball, basketball or hockey will be tested, no question. With an extra measure of fame will come naysaying and nastiness. 

And he’ll potentially have a huge impact, toppling certain stubborn stereotypes by “smashing through the closet door in the most masculine of our pastimes,” as Brian Ellner, a prominent gay rights advocate, said to me. 

That burden and promise are noteworthy enough that whoever takes them on needn’t be framed in terms of anybody else.  

But there’s one Robinson analogy I’ll indulge. In a few emotional scenes, “42” emphasizes his special meaning to black children, who see in him a future they weren’t sure they had. The first linebacker or center fielder to say “I’m gay” will be a similar agent of hope, assuring more than a few scared boys that glory and honesty are both possible, even in our country’s sacred cathedrals of sport. 

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