Monday, April 29, 2013

Jason Collins Comes Out (and Leans In)

NBA center Jason Collins came out in this week's issue of Sports Illustrated. People are celebrating him as the first man in a "major sport" to come out as gay. That is true only if we limit our examples to the US.

Justin Fashanu was the first athlete to come out as gay while still playing as a pro. The first black footballer to earn a million-pound contract came out to a UK tabloid (The Sun) in 1990. The scholar David DiBossa uses the word "apprehension" to describe the terrible and confusing legacy of Fashanu's story - its been relegated to the shadows for good reason. He was an exceptional player; his relationship to the tabloids was exploitative and toxic; his performance as an athlete was alternately promising and depressing; he found God; he was discriminated against; he was exiled from the game (by mutual spirals of injury and scandal); he lingered in the sport's seedy margins. He was accused of raping a minor (a 17-year old boy). He killed himself and was tried in the headlines.

There is no aspect of Fashanu's story that can be recovered as a positive example. His story is so difficult that few have dared to "go there" and really consider it, even as his name is routinely invoked in anti-homophobia campaigns. Thus DiBossa uses the word "apprehension" to name the chest-tightening anxiety one feels in the neighborhood of Fashanu's story. (To learn more about Fashanu see Jim Read's review of a recent biography in WSC, and Julie Jacques's essay for The New Statesman.)

Jason Collins's coming out story is a positive counter-narrative. It is not only important because it is a first for an American athlete (male, pro). It is also important as a counter-example to Fashanu's story.  Collins is the first athlete to come out and tackle its long shadow.

Collins's narrative could not be more different than Fashanu's - Collins's family is supportive and loving, his upbringing stable, his history proud. He has a gay uncle in a loving relationship - he grew up with gay role models and mentors. Furthermore, the story published in Sports Illustrated is his story. This is a first-person narrative. It opens:

I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay. 
I didn't set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport. But since I am, I'm happy to start the conversation. (SI: The Gay Athlete)

The story he tells is empowering, and the fact that he is telling the story - that he is controlling the narrative, that he is its author - is important. The relationship between any pro athlete and the media is vexed. SI is willing to be the platform for Collins's coming out; it is also part of a media culture that surveils him and every other pro athlete in its view; it is part of a public culture that surveils black men with particular violence. Collins signals this as a worry carried by the people around him.

My maternal grandmother was apprehensive about my plans to come out. She grew up in rural Louisiana and witnessed the horrors of segregation. During the civil rights movement she saw great bravery play out amid the ugliest aspects of humanity. She worries that I am opening myself up to prejudice and hatred. I explained to her that in a way, my coming out is preemptive. I shouldn't have to live under the threat of being outed. The announcement should be mine to make, not TMZ's. (SI: The Gay Athlete)

If his grandmother is apprehensive, it is because she is knowing. Collins explains that he has decided to lean into the problem - later in the interview, he suggests that this is in harmony with his style as a player. He's a "pro's pro" willing to charge, to foul - to play hard. That might reflect a fear of being read as "soft," he writes, and it might also reflect a desire to make room for the impossible.

It is worth remembering that Justin Fashanu came out in the midst of the AIDS crisis. In 1990, public discourse on homosexuality was defined by panic, phobia, fear and fascination - it was a generally awful moment even as it also gave us the activist organizations that helped redefine public culture in the US. Think back to 1991 and recall the confusion that shaped the response to Magic Johnson's coming out as HIV positive. How could Magic be HIV positive? Was he gay? What was going to happen to him? The assumption was that he'd retire - not only because (it was assumed) he was sick, but because people were afraid he'd infect others. It's hard to imagine the difficulty of integrating an HIV positive player into the televised sport spectacle in the early 1990s. And then there was the fear was that he'd die, because so many did. (See this GQ oral history of the moment.) A phobic language of infection and disease had been built into public discourse on homosexuality long before the AIDS crisis. That fact is one of the things that made the AIDS crisis so terrible: priests and presidents treated the virus as a judgement from the heavens. And that fact has everything to do with the complacency that some people have towards their own homophobia.

These are different times. Today, kids have in Magic Johnson an example we could never have imagined possible. He's alive, first of all. (When he got the diagnosis, he was imagined he probably had "a couple of years.") He's a popular public figure and a proud parent to a (particularly fabulous) gay son. (See this recent interview with Johnson on TMZ.)

23 years after Fashanu became a tabloid headline, 22 years after Magic Johnson blew the sports world's collective mind, Jason Collins writes that he wants to participate in a gay pride march as an out and proud black gay man. He can write, in Sports Illustrated no less, that he wants to get married and have kids - and people understand what he means. He doesn't sound like a martian. The desires he expresses are recognizable to a lot of people as normal. Opponents of gay marriage belong to a shrinking - and shrieking - minority. Gay marriage has become so visible a part of the normalization of homosexuality in the US that it's hard to remember how alien the idea has been.  And how long it's been that way.

In 1968, Yayoi Kusama staged a gay wedding in New York as a "Happening." The idea of two men getting hitched was magical and weird, and seemed a direct challenge to dominant ideology regarding the family. She officiated the ceremony as the "High Priestess of Polka Dots." She designed a dress that two men could wear at the same time. They swore their love not on a bible, but on a New York City telephone book. In 1968, gay men in a wedding dress expressed utopian impulses. They were unicorns with the power to change everything. They were the future.

For a long time, the gay male pro athlete has held a similar magical power over our imaginary. A black gay NBA player? What couldn't this man accomplish for a whole world? What can't he do? The answer to that question is everything.


  1. Less global addition: Stephen Davies, an English cricket player (has played occasionally for the national team) came out a little while ago. It seemed to make relatively little splash (though I didn't, for instance, check the British tabloids).

  2. Gareth Thomas (rugby) was a pretty big deal.

  3. It was - the story about his marriage was painful (thought of that reading Collins's mention of being engaged); his coach and teammates were very supportive and encouraging.

  4. I have to disagree with your view that Justin Fashanu's experience was entirely negative. By the time he came out he could not get a game in Britain because of the effect of a serious injury on his mobility. He actually revived his career after coming out. The first full-time professional club to offer him a contract was Torquay United. There he was made team captain and later assistant manager. He was undoubtedly popular with the club's fans. I can't possibly do justice to the complexities of Fashanu's life here but it seems to me he deserves to be remembered as someone who proved it was possible to be an openly gay professional athlete. It is unfortunate that his experience is misunderstood and used as a sort of warning. Jim Read, author Justin Fashanu: The Biography.

  5. Hi Jim Read! WOW thank you for commenting. Yes, it is absolutely true that in Fashanu's story we see something that's proven again and again: fans can be very supportive of gay athletes - few would reject a player just because of their sexuality. (Unfortunately those few can be very loud.) Gareth Thomas's story also proves that fans are not as homophobic as people make them out to be. I meant, in this post, the legacy of Fashanu's story - I hope that was clear to readers. That legacy is difficult - the story of his relationships with tabloids, the way his story was written by them, and then the terrible circumstances of his death that has made of him a negative example. No one brings his name up in an American context in relation to Collins's coming out - even as the fact that Collins's coming out is hugely important not only because he's gay, but because he's a black gay man - this affirms the difficulty of Fashanu's story on the level of example. (I find it very hard to believe that Collins himself isn't aware of Fashanu.) People in the US - esp in LGBT media - know Fashanu's story. Its outlines at least. And I'm seeing no mention of it here. At all. DiBossa has a chapter in his dissertation about the negative example - the way black gay men can come into visibility in this way, and what that means. Its effects - the apprehension one might show in approaching Fashanu's story.


Feedback? Let me know what you think. Just an FYI: all comments posted to this blog are recorded, whether I publish them or not. I do not publish generally hateful comments - whether they be directed at me or at players and teams or other readers. I appreciate reader feedback, especially from those whose contributions add nuance and complexity to the story.

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