Apparently, all it takes to get a phone call from the President is to be a million-earning NBA athlete who comes out as a gay man in a mainstream media outlet...
Don't get me wrong. I am super happy for Jason Collins, the professional basketball player who announced he was gay in an article published by Sports Illustrated. I'm glad he felt comfortable enough to open up to the world about who he is, who he wants to be, who he wants to love. I'm glad he decided to shed light on the reality that there are indeed queer people out there who we might never expect to be queer. I'm glad he was firm in sharing his identity as a gay man of faith...
But did the President of the United States really have to call him to "congratulate him on his courage"?
It's hard to figure out why the most powerful man in the free world decided that Collins deserved such a patriotic response to such a common occurrence. What makes Collins' situation so much more special than that of the countless teens all across the nation who come out that it warrants a phone call from the President, especially one made so public?
Did you get a phone call from our fearless leader when you came out? I didn't. Most of my friends didn't.
So what makes Jason Collins' situation so unique? There are a few factors that seem to be popping up:
Collins is black, and statistically and historically, the African-American response to homosexuality is much harsher, as evinced by Chris Broussard's remarks
Collins is a current player coming out while still active, separating him from previous athletes who came out after retiring
Collins is with the NBA, making his situation unique because of the team nature of the sport, separating him from numerous other professional athletes who have also come out in recent months but happen to participate in solo sports or sports that receive less mainstream media attention
The fact is this is not a cut and dry situation. Even in the article itself, John Wertheim remarks "Collins becomes the first active male athlete in a major U.S. team sport to come out of the closet." Even Wertheim fails to remark on Collins' race, which I believe further impacts the significance of his coming out. But all this begs the question: why haven't other athletes garnered as much attention from coming out?
What makes Collins' story so special?
An article on Feministing remarks on the number of female athletes who have come out as recent as this year and as long ago as 1981. It also remarks that one reason a female athlete's coming out might receive less attention is because such athletes are already "gender non-conforming." Male athletes, however, continue to adhere to culturally preconceived notions of masculinity. A male athlete's coming out as gay turns the spotlight on how people perceive gender norms in relation to sexual orientation, a topic with which many people find discomfort.
Travis Waldron argues, "A man who excels at professional sports and has relationships with women has his work, his body, and his sexuality in alignment with norms of traditional masculinity. He’s seen as physically strong, heterosexual, and athletically gifted. A man who is physically strong and athletically gifted but is sexually attracted to men challenges the notion that there’s a relationship between traditional masculinity and heterosexuality. Being gay, it turns out, doesn’t make a man physically weak and passive." He also remarks on the lack of surprise and shock when female athletes like Brittney Griner come out—"she looks like a man." When a man we know to be tough, strong, and driven comes out, our notions of masculinity are challenged. When a woman with the same traits comes out, we're not shocked at all.
Garance Franke-Ruta says "Women who play professional sports are grown-up versions of what we still to this day call "tomboys," a linguistic relic of our cognitive inability to see outdoorsy, competitive, rough-and-tumble behavior as inherently and naturally female, as well as male." What it is about professional athletics that forces us to draw such clear lines between the genders? Furthermore, what it is about professional sports that causes Americans to idolize athletes so much?
What about the rest of us?
According to the Human Rights Campaign (let's not get into my beef with that organization), 42% of LGBT youth profess living in communities that are not accepting of their sexuality or gender expression. Also, queer youth are twice as likely to experience verbal or physical assault from their peers. Unlike the 22% of non-LGBT youth who say their biggest problems have to do with grades, exams, and classes, 26% of LGBT youth say their hardest life challenges are bullying, feeling accepted by their families and friends, and being afraid of coming out and being open and honest about their orientation or gender identity. Notice anything here.
Where's the phone call for the young boy who constantly tormented by their male counterparts? Where's the tweet from the First Lady showing support for the girl who's the epitome of a tomboy by excelling at volleyball, basketball, soccer, or even boxing or martial arts? Where's the face-to-face conversation with the trans youth who is attacked on their first day at school of wearing an outfit that truly expresses who they are?
Thanks Mr. President for not calling me when I came out, when my classmates called me a fag, queer, pussy, etc. Thanks Mrs. First Lady for not shooting me or my friends a tweet or even an email when we were honest about who we are. Thanks Mr. Mayor for not giving my friend a key to the city for the contributions they made to ending heterosexism and homophobia in their high school or college. Thanks Mr. Speaker for not acknowledging the number of parents who fight tooth and nail to have their kids treated humanely by both peer and professor, refusing to succumb to systematic pressure to conform.