Thanks for Coming (Out): Sexuality, Sports, and Spirituality by John Erickson
Like marking off items on a proverbial checklist, closeted LGBTQ individuals who exist within and outside of the world of professional sports, can recount the numerous things they struggle with in terms of their sexuality. From fearing of the actual coming out process, dressing in their car or at home to avoid the subtle glances and whispers of individuals in the locker room, to wondering what coming out would mean not only for their game but also for their social and, if they choose, spiritual lives, closeted and out LGBTQ individuals within the multi-billion dollar professional sports industry must grapple with that age old question: what does it mean to be gay and open about it?
I have to be honest, Jason Collins’ admission that he is a homosexual, albeit brave, upset me. While I understand that coming out is an completely unique experience to every individual who does it, for me Jason Collins’ story was also an example of the rampant sexist and heteropatriarachal world that privileges male bodies and sexualities over those of women. While I applaud Jason’s story and the timing, the first thing I asked to my colleagues was: where was the same hubbub over Sheryl Swoopes or Martina Navratilova?
As scholars, we have to be critical of the ways in which sexuality and identity politics are both utilized and taken advantage of in the public and private sector. As activists, specifically feminist and/or LGBTQ activists, we have to be diligent in maintaining a strict scrutiny of continual subjugation and objectification of women, regardless of the context.
Privilege plays a major factor in discussing sexuality and sports as well as in determining the ideology that separates the gender spectrum. Men can, as Collins has shown us, “toy with the idea [of coming out],” while women who are often considered to be masculine based on their performance and/or embodiment and suspected of being lesbian simply for playing sports as well as men.
Jason Collins will now, and forever more–and not only as a result of tokenization and identity colonization–be known as The Gay Athlete (go ahead, google the term, let me know what images come up first). One again, the voices of the women (and men) who have clearly come before him are silenced and pushed to the back of the proverbial historical line.
While Collins’ coming out is intricately tied to feminism, his spirituality and sexuality appear to be at war with each other, specifically in his understanding of the black community and more importantly the black church.
Growing up in a religious family active in church, Collins understood that there was another dimension to his coming out: “the stigma that being gay [in the black community] is even worse than it is in the general population.”
Not wanting to be labeled the old grumpy codger that I will most likely become down the line, I want to end this exploration of sexuality and sports by commending Jason Collins’ coming out and the conversation it is sparking not only within the professional sports world but also in both the black community and the black church.
Jason Collins wasn’t the first and he certainly won’t be the last, but he is a catalyst for change that is getting global attention. He is an open Christian, a proud gay Black man, and a role model for younger generations of LGBTQ individuals who will most certainly look up to him for years to come.
However, what he is not is the face of homosexuality within the world of professional sports. That role belongs to all members of LGBTQ community, male, female, and trans who have feared coming out and forced themselves to live a life filled with anxiety because they think they do not have a choice in the matter.
Thanks for coming (out) Jason Collins, now take a seat at the axiomatic table full of your brothers and sisters who have come before you and the ones who will most certainly come after.
John Erickson is a doctoral student in American Religious History at Claremont Graduate University. His research interests involve an interdisciplinary approach and are influenced by his time as the director of a women’s center and active member in the GLBTQ and women’s rights movements. His work is inspired by the intersectionality of feminism, queer identity, and religious political and cultural rhetoric. He is the author of the blog, From Wisconsin, with Love and can be followed on Twitter at@jerickson85.