Jason Collins and the Culture That Makes Us

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Image by Scott Cunningham/NBAE / Getty Images

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When he came out it was like he threw the door wide open. It was an invitation to a world that has sat out, waiting as we often do, for a strong voice with a high balcony to shout from.

 

He is the-first-active-professional-athlete-in-one-of-the-four-major-sports to come out, and if you read that title like I did, you probably heard it muffling the moment. When I read it I instantly thought of an MLB broadcaster saying something like, “This pitcher is the greatest pitcher against left handed shortstops at only away games.” It’s long and unconvincing. An event, but not a breakthrough.

 

Which is unfortunate because this was monumental.

It shook the ground. It blew the speakers.

 

Being yourself is hard and that’s true for just about anyone. But as we grow older, we are constantly moving closer and closer toward who we really are. The inside pushes into the outside.

 

“You are a soul. You have a body” C.S. Lewis (supposedly) once said and I think that’s true, but I also think we struggle with the space between them. Like a seed trying to grow inside a jar. To nurture it, to give it life, we need to be honest with one another and willing to accept ourselves. Every time we do, every time we admit to whatever is in our closet, we grow a little more comfortable in our own skin. The inside presses into the out and, hopefully, spreads our colors against the glass. Let’s us live life a little more authentically.

 

But it’s hard because culture has a way of wedging itself in. Culture assigns what is normal and what is not which can make it difficult to share anything atypical at all. This leads the atypical into shadows of shame, practically encouraging them toward self-hatred and solitude and suddenly, there’s this shriveled up seed where there should be a whole beating heart person.

 

After Jason came out, I heard a lot of harping about double standards. About how lesbians had been out in sports for decades and one guy’s coming out shouldn’t outshine these pioneers of history. And I get that, I do.

 

But at the same time I can’t help but feel that the road forward was somewhat smoother for them. Because when they came out, they were already atypical. They were females in athletics which was considered the sacred court of the masculine. Which, of course, meant they must be masculine. They fit conveniently into the cultural assignment of what it meant to be a lesbian. It didn’t upset the order of things at all.

 

Jason does though. He violently violates cultural codes just because of who he is. The way he is an extraordinary athlete that can dunk over Kevin Garnett- culture never told us that gay men could do that! I’ve heard and seen and been asked about the pigeonhole personas of Glee and Modern Family and Will and Grace, and always, I respond that those descriptions, as fun as they are, don’t make much room for me. Because I’m like a mix of the “masculine” and the “feminine” (as culture defines them) and so is every person of every orientation and every gender.

 

We’ve become so comfortable painting with such broad strokes that we’ve lost sight of our own uniqueness. Of how we were created with fluidity, able to grow and change and stay the same. We are not cookie cutter products, but Original crafts. Souls with thousands of traits woven into the fabric, variations and similarities and abnormalities.

 

And in the end, Jason Collins coming out should not tell us that gay men are masculine too. It should make us reconsider how we regard the relationship between personality and gender and sexual identity. Like, if a relationship is inherently there at all.

 

So in a way, when Jason Collins came out, he let the whole wide world in. He made it okay to not fit the societal mold, to chart one’s course in whatever direction their heart takes them. He pulled forward in powerful witness, fulfilling the words of Marianne Williamson who wrote,

 

“We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

 

And that, when you think of it, is what coming out is all about.

 

RR

  • Jason Collins’ coming-out is gloriously pivotal for many reasons and the LGBT community certainly cannot connect with each other — at least not with being LGBT as the sole identifier. When I heard that Jason broke the news to the world, the first thing that popped into my head was, “Dear LORD, please help all of the anthropologists and sociologists who are freaking out right now.” He broke down a lot of seemingly factual evidence about our culture, but most importantly is that he did not mean to break those assumptions down; it simply happened because of who he was on a holistic level. This part of the story is what sticks out to me the most. If he made it his agenda to redefine culture through his sexual identity, he would have been weaved into the tapestry as “just another celebrity gay” thus severely damaging the possibility for bridge building.

    I’ve seen a lot of gays voice their malcontent with the amount of praise Jason is getting and I only sort of sympathize with them. True, it is always hard for us to see someone’s coming-out be so joyful and fulfilling when we know there are still many others out there who are literally being tortured as they try to navigate their way out of the closet. But like I said, there is more to Jason’s coming-out than LGBT issues. There’s race, gender, status, vocation, religion, age, biology, culture, so on and so on.

    Of these many issues one could consider, another that sticks out to me is how Jason’s coming-out is helpful to STRAIGHT MEN. Jason was already a stereotypical figure for stereotypical American masculinity: a skilled athlete on an NBA team. Prior to coming-out, he was — whether he liked it or not — appealing to the straight stereotype by being a part of the larger American major sports cultural context.

    But then he came out and made me people ask the question some emerging LGBTs get asked: “Are you sure you’re gay? I seriously never thought YOU could be gay.” Sure, we know this is killing gender stereotypes looks like, but it’s also evidence that there really aren’t any personality traits that are exclusively for gays or straights — because Jason had been getting along with his straight teammates all along. This, if “gender-boxified” straight men choose not to turn their head in fear, destroys any logic that says straight men can’t be sensitive, openly affectionate, humble, or .

    To sum up, indeed this is great for nullifying the effeminate gay stereotype, but I think more importantly is it could help free straight men from their indoctrinated and serial view of masculinity.