When Jason Collins entered the Nets game on March 4, with 2:41 left on the clock, in a game whose outcome was no longer in doubt, he became the first openly gay player to play in a home game in any of the major professional sports. What's notable, of course, is that the event was a full-scale celebration. The fans who remained at Brooklyn's Barclay's Arena chanted his name for several minutes before he entered to a thunderous standing ovation, and was cheered every time he touched the ball.
Aside from a certain sense of pride for my home city -- first African-American player, first openly gay player -- the contrast couldn't be more stark. Collins's reception is a 180 degree turn from the vitriol and death threats Jackie Robinson received when he walked out on a different Brooklyn field 67 years earlier. Robinson's own teammates organized a petition against his joining the team, and players refused to be in the same locker room with him. (The movie "42" presented a relatively sanitized version.)
And when Michael Sam is drafted into the NFL in May, becoming the first openly gay professional football player, the media will invariably miss the really important story, focusing on the anticipated reaction of his new teammates -- and ignoring that all his Missouri teammates knew about Sam's sexuality for over a year -- and it didn't make even the tiniest bit of difference as they played alongside him.
But before we rush into what I like to call "premature self-congratulation" -- patting ourselves on the back at our own tolerance (much the way we declared, prematurely, that Obama's election had ushered in a new "post-racial" era in America) -- let's pause for a moment and put things in perspective.
Yes, it's true that in the U.S. and across the global north, the rights of LGBT people have begun to be recognized in ways that were scarcely imaginable a generation ago. And yet, this expansion stands in sharp contrast to the treatment of gays in Africa, for example, where homosexuality is prohibited, gay people subject to arrest, torture and even vigilante murder. After Uganda enacted a law criminalizing gay sex (punishable by a life sentence), the World Bank, Norway and Denmark withheld over $100 million in aid. The U.S. is still mulling over its response.
Here in the U.S. the spread of LGBT rights hasn't exactly spread as evenly as a can of Sherman-Williams paint. While constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage are falling like dominoes, there is still a significant amount of discrimination in the workplace.
What, though, is the basis of this discrimination? Are gay men, for example, discriminated against because they have sex wth other men, or because they are perceived as not being "real men" in the first place? That is, is sexuality discrimination really a form of gender discrimination? Is gender non-conformity more of an "offense" than same-sex sexual behavior? Is it a question of identity or behavior?
The answer is probably both. Homophobia is partly fueled by ignorance and fear of behaviors, yes, but it draws its oxygen from gender confusion ("who's the boy?") and often, among men, a sense that homosexuality is gender non-conformity. One can see the gendered nature of homophobia clearly in the experiences of trans people in the workplace. A study released last year by Kristin Schilt showed that trans men who do not disclose their transition are rewarded with the "masculinity dividend" -- treated as men, they benefit from higher wages and easier promotion. This contrasts both with trans women and those trans men who do disclose their transition, who face hostility, suspicion, confusion, and no small amount of discrimination. It seems that sexuality discrimination depends on one's not fitting in with the normative expectations of gender. Those perceived as men -- no matter who they are or with whom they have sex -- benefit from what is ultimately gender inequality and discrimination.
Two things are certain. One is that the advanced industrial countries have never been more sexually equal than we are today. Whether at work, at home, or in the ability to love who we love and marry who we choose and build families as we see fit -- all of us are increasingly equal. And second, despite this, we still have a long way to go in disentangling sex from gender from sexuality.