The big story in sports this week is not that Jason Collins became the first currently-active professional male athlete in a major team sport to come out as gay. The big story is actually that it's not really such a big story.
First, look at all the qualifiers in that description. "Currently-active" and "professional" -- there are many athletes, professional and otherwise, who have come out after their playing days were over. "Male" -- there have been several women who came out during their playing days, including Martina Navratilova, Amelie Mauresmo, and Megan Rapinoe. And what about Britney Griner, about to start her career in the WNBA and likely to be among the best female centers ever?
And the reaction has been a single-note chorus of support. Current and former players have been lining up to offer their support (and express their slightly self-protective surprise -- "Wow, I had no idea, and my locker was next to his, and we showered together, never had a clue...). He's going to be the hottest photo op in the red carpet of sportsdom. Even the president applauded Collins's courage. And Doc Rivers, the Celtics coach for whom Collins played, hyperbolically compared him to Jackie Robinson. (Sorry, Doc. I don't foresee his teammates signing a petition refusing to play alongside him.)
On the other side -- pretty much nothing. A resounding silence. No Chicken Littles running around fretting that heterosexual marriage will instantly collapse, that the integrity of sports is forever breached, or that straight men will henceforth be unable to watch an NBA game ever again without "wondering." Even Rush Limbaugh, rarely at a loss for words, glossed over the story and refused to publicly condemn Collins for his gayness, opting instead for a smirking swipe at diversity in general:
I love how we're getting farther and farther away from looking at people on all this silly surface stuff. I like the fact that we're just looking at people for who they are. I love the fact that an NBA player is known for how well he plays the game and his sexual orientation doesn't matter. I love it. Oh, well. It sounded good.
What if they gave a coming out party and everyone showed up?
The truth is that homophobia, as an attitude about gay people, has pretty much fallen off a cliff -- especially among young people. More than three-fifths of Americans -- male and female -- agree that homosexuality is "morally acceptable" -- a massive spike since just 2006. Well over half of all American support same-sex marriage.
But wait. Let's not rush too quickly into an orgy of premature self-congratulation. Yes, it's okay to come out -- if you're a celebrity. Did anyone even blink when Anderson Cooper came out? And, no, it's not okay to condemn homosexuality in public, even on Fox News. But in the hearts of Americans, homophobia remains quite alive. It just may be about more than just gay people.
Homophobia remains a foundational principle of heterosexual masculinity. "That's so gay," is still the epithet of choice in every middle school, high school and college campus in the country. It's the basic mechanism of "gender policing" among straight boys and young men, the subjects of my book, Guyland, which looked into the inner lives of young men, ages 16 to 26.
Over and over I heard the same sentiment. The fear of being misperceived as gay still inspires young straight guys to take all sorts of risks, do all sorts of dumb stuff, hurt themselves and bully others. Young guys still tie themselves up in knots in order to prove to their peers that they're real men, and not gay.
That we associate homosexuality with not being a real man -- being effeminate -- means that homophobia is still "useful" to coaches who want to motivate their players the way that Mike Rice, the disgraced former Rutgers basketball coach, slug around anti-gay epithets, or the way Bobby Knight famously put sanitary napkins in his players' lockers to "motivate" them.
The story, then, is a story about gender, about masculinity, as much as it is about sexuality. It's about the association of male homosexuality with effeminacy, with not being a real man.
We live in a moment of great transition. The fear of being misperceived as gay remains fully in force among straight guys -- even while being correctly perceived as gay seems to have begun its decline into the dustbin of archaic forms of discrimination. Being gay is losing its magical power to define a person, while being perceived as gay still terrifies young guys into gender conformity.
To be sure, young gay boys are hounded, bullied, and tormented by other guys -- as are boys who may not be gay, but who are perceived as gender non-conforming. Homophobia is not dead. It's dying a slow death -- and among the first funerals is for the condemnation of celebrities -- athletes, TV and movie stars, rock and rap singers. It's unarguable that Jason Collins's courage will make it easier, if only slightly, for other to come out, even if they aren't 7 feet tall.
We've made significant progress on the acceptance of homosexuality in America, though we still have a ways to go. Jason Collins's act took courage, and it will still raise eyebrows privately, if not publicly. But we've barely begun to disentangle homophobia from our understanding of masculinity -- a task that is more about "us" than it is acceptance of "them."