Tongues Untied: Pro Athletes, Sexuality and Media Hype

From Kenneth Faried's moving video in support of his lesbian mothers to reports of Shaquille O'Neal, Chris Webber and Kenny Smith mocking Charles Barkley's "effeminate" behavior, athletes have been the focus of a lot of talk centered on LGBT inclusion and homophobia lately.
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Darnell: Wade, I could not wait to get your thoughts on some of the recent headlines dominating sports news outlets. From the current publicity on the Denver Nuggets' Kenneth "The Manimal" Faried's moving video in support of his lesbian mothers to the Manti Te'o media fiasco and the most recent report of Shaquille O'Neal, Chris Webber and Kenny "The Jet" Smith mocking Charles Barkley's "effeminate" behavior on Inside the NBA, athletes have been the focus of a lot of talk centered on LGBT inclusion and homophobia lately. What are your thoughts, given all that is going on?

Wade: Well, first, I'm shocked and happy that I've influenced you to start keeping up with sports. But I was truly inspired and touched by the Kenneth Faired video. I was almost brought to tears watching his demonstration of love and compassion for his mothers. The Manti Te'o situation is very convoluted, however. I just hope he makes it through this ordeal and focuses on doing what he loves, namely playing football. The video of one of my favorite shows, Inside the NBA, which saw Shaq, Kenny Smith and C. Web mocking Charles' perceived "effeminate" behavior was sad because it reminded me of the times I spent in hypermasculine spaces and chose to mock the perceived feminine behavior of others. The commentators on Inside the NBA have to understand how their actions can influence others to mimic the same behavior and create environments that are unsafe. Unfortunately, the media doesn't spotlight and promote stories like Kenneth Faried. Instead, some choose to focus on the presumed homosexual identity of Manti' Te'o, which is not anyone's business. The goal should be to create a society free of stigma and inclusive of all orientations and identities, not to further stigmatize people.

Darnell: I totally agree. In fact, I think the media tends to place an immense amount of attention on homophobia present within sports or the need for professional athletes to come out, and too little attention on those professional athletes who are actually standing for inclusion -- especially black athletes. Take the most recent case with Shaquille O'Neal and the others who mocked Barkley. Some gay media outlets were quick to call them out on charges of homophobia, yet some of the same media outlets tend to fail to adequately address other issues of injustice (like racism within gay spaces, for example). We shouldn't maintain skewed hierarchies of oppression where issues like racism, transphobia, sexism, class elitism and ableism are placed somewhere below homophobia on the ladder of oppression. That is a problem, but I digress.

Wade: Indeed. I'm sure the commentators on Inside the NBA meant no harm with their antics, though their actions could easily hurt others. I do think, however, that we can give as much attention to those athletes who are doing positive work in the world rather than always giving attention to the negative. At the end of the day, we all have to be thoughtful and responsible for our words and actions, because we never know who might be watching or listening. That is why I was so moved by the Kenneth Faried video. It is an example of an athlete taking responsibility and doing something positive. You were the person who put me on the Faried video. What did you think about it?

Darnell: I loved the video. It was wonderful to witness Faried honor his two mothers publicly. Beyond the push by some to use his family's story as a form of propaganda and a means to get black folk to support civil unions (at least that is how I read it), the video demonstrates the diversity that we already know exists within black communities. I appreciate the fact that he is a professional athlete who has decided to publicly affirm LGBT couples. So, yes, I am elated that a black professional athlete has been highlighted for the work of justice. But he is not alone. You recently told me about how much you admire and respect Brendon Ayanbadejo from the Baltimore Ravens, for example. Can you say a bit about his work and why you've named him a hero?

Wade: Brendon is my friend. He is brave and courageous beyond words, and I am not sure if people understand the tremendous impact that he's making within his own team. He's having difficult conversations and expanding the hearts and minds of people who may have steered clear of these topics before. He's also a black/biracial man who, just by his presence, is challenging the stigma that the black community is more homophobic than others. As someone who is not a sports fan, how does seeing athletes who are so outspoken about issues of sexuality and gender expression affect you?

Darnell: Well, I have really grown to appreciate all the energy that some athletes commit to the cause of inclusion, thanks to you. I have admitted this before, but I used to hold a very limited view of athletes. In my mind athletes were nothing more than jocks. I failed to see athletes as complex human beings, many of whom are doing great things in the world. I also thought that sports teams were some of the most homophobic and sexist groups in the world (and maybe some are). I have been challenged to think differently and have been inspired by female and male athletes alike, especially those who are LGBT advocates regardless of the fear of losing contracts or popularity.

I also know, however, that there are some who aren't on the front covers of magazines, who may not take public stances, but who are just as loving and open as those are. I do think there is way too much pressure placed on individual athletes, by some LGBT advocates, to "come out." My friendship with you has really helped me see that the focus should not be placed on individuals to "come out," but on the need to ensure that athletes, if they decide to disclose, feel safe doing so. You often mention that athletes are part of a larger community; therefore, it seems that the focus should be placed on franchises and leagues to ensure that it is safe for athletes to invite others into their lives. You've been there. Why do you think that there is such a strong desire for that one professional male athlete to come out?

Wade: Our society idolizes and reveres professional athletes. We've been taught to think that one must be extremely masculine to survive in sports, and that there's no way that a gay man can survive there. And within female sports, folks tend to think that if a female athlete is great, then she must be a lesbian, which, again, is related to the faulty idea that sports is a masculine activity and good women athletes must therefore be masculine and lesbian. I believe that those within LGBT advocacy groups are relatively genuine about wanting a gay male athlete to "come out" to inspire young LGBT and straight athletes alike, but there is an undertone of selfish curiosity regarding the personal spaces of male athletes' lives that is present, as well. How do you think a gay athlete's "coming out" will affect you, a novice sports fan? And what are your expectations, if any?

Darnell: I don't have any expectations. I think that you are right regarding our fantasies, however. Professional athletics are thought by some to be the true test of manhood, a space for "real," masculine men. I would be dishonest if I didn't admit that there is something intriguing, something hot, about the idea of a professional male athlete who is attracted to other men. Check any gay porn site for proof of how this fantasy plays out. That fantasy, however, is deeply shaped by the ways sports are gendered (e.g., "Real tough and strong men play sports"). And in many people's minds "gay" is not a synonym for "tough and strong men." So, this push to locate the first gay professional athlete seems to be a response for this desire to demonstrate that gay men play sports, too, but why do we need that validation?

Wade: I can't say that I fully agree with your statement regarding the need for validation, the need to demonstrate that we can play sports just as well and that we are just as tough, but I do believe many want to be visible as athletes and want to remove the belief that we can't play expertly or that our attraction to people of the same sex limits our ability.

Darnell: I should be more specific and say that I think that this push by advocates to have a gay athlete "come out" falls in line with the need for, say, the first out rapper or first out anything. It is almost as if there is a need for us to say, "See, we are just as good as you." And why do we need to constantly prove that we are just as good at sports or music or politics? Why do we need to prove that we really aren't less than our straight counterparts? The fact of the matter is that LGBT people exist in a range of spaces and occupations regardless of whether we are "out" or not. And even the disclosures of some fail to move others. For example, why hasn't there been more media hype regarding Orlando Cruz's disclosure?

Wade: That's a great question, and a little saddening. If the sports LGBT movement is looking for someone to champion, Orlando Cruz is it. He is a professional Latino boxer who is just as revered as an NBA, NFL, NHL or MLB player. We need to understand that just because boxing isn't deemed to have the same massive appeal as it did during the days of Mike Tyson, the impact that Orlando Cruz can have within all communities, especially the Latino community, is extremely important. The lack of media and LGBT-community-wide attention on Orlando Cruz speaks to the shortsightedness of the LGBT movement and makes me feel as if the Latino community isn't as important, as well. He should be on the cover of every LGBT publication, because if he can save one kid or change the heart of another, then his coming out is just as valid as that of anyone else. Some have argued that his lack of fluency in English is a barrier, but that can be easily overcome.

Darnell: I agree wholeheartedly. The supposed language barrier issue is a weak explanation. All that media outlets have to do is use a translator. The media is just not interested. I will leave it to others to contemplate the possible reasons why. But if nothing else, there is a robust conversation that is happening within the sports world that is useful and can only help. Folks like you and Orlando and Kenneth Faried and so many others are to be thanked for that.

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