Proud of Ourselves

Jason Collins' historic announcement has been received with happy shrugs and praise, which is good. But it's not the end of anything, not nearly.
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It seems only the most impotent, clownish hot-air types are debating whether or not Jason Collins’s announcement that he’s a gay man is brave or heroic or some other word that can be applied to both soldiers and openly gay people—thankfully, not mutually exclusive entities anymore—without trivializing the accomplishments of either. What Collins did last Monday was brave and eloquent and good-humored and all the things one could possibly hope for from the first out gay male athlete to play in a major sport. What I’ve enjoyed most from listening to podcasts and reading interviews is that Collins—a player I’d never considered much, or, I think, even heard speak before—is delightfully dorky and has the sort of good-dude guffaw that makes me want to buy him a beer. I already like the guy irrespective of his courage; I want to hear him tell more stories about NBA yeomanry. I imagine I’ll get a chance, whenever his inevitable book arrives.

But it’s important to emphasize why we’re characterizing Collins’s admission as brave. For all the societal back-patting about how much more tolerant we are—it’s not inaccurate, but the congratulatory tone feels off—this sort of thing hadn’t happened until now because closeted athletes were concerned about not being accepted by their teammates, the media, sports fans, and/or mainstream culture. Regardless of the validity of these concerns—perhaps someone could have come out sooner, though how much sooner, really?—it is also 2013, and a gay NBA player finally feels comfortable telling everyone who he is. That’s progress of the most glacial sort, if progress just the same. We have not made all that big a deal about Collins’s announcement, though we have made a big deal of our nonchalant response. We don’t want to seem too jazzed about this tolerance thing ‘cause it’s old hat now, right? Nothing new to us, we’ve always been ready.

And to be clear: Collins’s sexuality has gone over way better in mainstream America than it would have thirty or even ten years ago, which speaks to how we’ve grown since the all-too-prevalent “ick!” attitudes of the Reagan Era, or even since Tim Hardaway—who has since come around on homosexuality, and good for him—said he flat-out hated gay people in 2007. We’re in the midst of or have already experienced a cultural sea-change in terms of attitudes toward the LGBT community. But cultural sea-changes aren’t wholesale, and we’re not where we want to be yet just because your dad thinks that Jim Parsons is a funny fellow, or because Collins hasn’t been ridiculed like he might have been in 1985.

***

What has happened is that in my little corner of the cultural universe—liberal city-dwellers, lots of people under 35; it may sound familiar to you—I haven’t heard a peep of dissent. The only reason I know about the previously mentioned impotent, clownish hot-air types is because my little corner of the universe has lately reverberated with mockery for them and the things they’ve said. If it weren’t for ironic retweets, I would be blissfully unaware of people who would or could say “I don’t like faggots.”

But I think our gleeful lambasting of homophobes is drowning out dissent that is present if not readily visible, a clump of gum stuck beneath a diner’s table, ready to spoil the appetite of anyone unlucky enough to put a hand in the wrong place. That’s not even taking into account Chris Broussard’s word-parsing brand of I-think-gay-people-are-an-abomination-but-that-doesn’t-mean-I-can’t-have-gay-friends bigotry. We can celebrate Collins and still acknowledge a broader reality that’s not altogether rosy. At the very least, we might as well acknowledge that we as a culture have not triumphantly crossed any kind of finish line, here.

Instead, this all recalls that brief period after Barack Obama’s 2008 election, when some otherwise smart people got a whit too excited and started throwing around “post-racial” for about ten minutes. (Rather, the term should have died after ten minutes, or at least immediately after the wine wore off.) This is a nice moment, for Collins and the rest of us, but we’re not post-sexuality any more than we’re post-racial, and not really any closer to it, either.

Only 53 percent of the nation believes gay marriage should be legal, and someone said to me, in a discussion of “the whole gay NBA dude thing” that it’s easier to be gay in this country than Christian. This someone is wrong, of course, but that this was a point he deemed worth making is meaningful, even beyond its proof that a lot of people are still some ways from acceptance. At the very least, they’re still inextricably wrapped up in what it means to them, and how the coverage of it impacts their own personal culture wars. See them go to the mattresses in defense of poor, lazy, fired Howard Kurtz and marvel at how simultaneously small and weirdly, grandiosely epic people are willing to make this, all to avoid engaging it straight up.

***

We’ll probably never get to an ideal place, because we’re humans and because that’s how ideals work. More than a sliver of the cultural pie chart will be forever committed to being dicks, for whatever angry, useless reason they choose. We will probably always have racists, sexists, and people who think being gay is strange and awful, when in fact: look in the mirror, asshole. The causes of feminism, anti-racism, and anti-homophobia are committed to eradicating this sort of wrongheadedness, but the more realistic goal is to marginalize it: to actually normalize all types of tolerance to the extent we fantasize about at post-whatever moments like this, and to allow the jerks to show themselves down to the bottom of the screamy gopher holes in which they belong.

What we can do, certainly, is be happy about how Jason Collins’s announcement has been received and be happy that he feels like he can be honest with the world about his personal life. But we can also keep in mind that we’re not nearly where we want to be yet. We might yet get there: the same poll that showed the country is just about coming around on gay marriage also revealed that 73 percent of Americans under thirty think it’s fine for people like Collins to marry whoever they want. It could be as simple as needing a few more grumpy old people to die—or to listen to their kids when the conversation comes up—to get gay people the rights they deserve.

But the most important thing to keep in mind is that milestones are not endpoints. As the once revolutionary idea that gay people are humans like any other becomes more mainstream, intolerance will seep underground. Gay-bashing will become coded, less obviously malignant; see also: “black people,” the eskimo snow of Fox News. Once the hatred becomes less loud and proud, it will be important that we don’t pack up and start high-fiving one another. We’ve not arrived, at least not anywhere we’d want to be for an extended period of time.

I live in Chicago, where the institutional racism is miasmic and sweltering. I guess people utter the racial slurs a lot less than they did some sixty years ago, but the yeesh is everywhere, bold letters on a JumboTron flashing “Job Not Done, You Guys.” The LGBT cause will follow a path similar to other progressive movements: big pushes to correct obvious injustices, then thousands of little building-to-building skirmishes as the barriers obstructing tolerance and equality become harder to pinpoint and more stubborn, and the culture war once fought in trenches goes guerilla.

The heartening aspect of Collins’s coming out and its aftermath is that it confirms that a lot of us have acknowledged that we’ve been fucking up in the way we’ve treated gay people over the last, oh, course of human history, and that we should take measures to rectify that. It’s like we were walking around wearing the contents of a jar of marinara on our shirts for a couple millennia, and then finally bothered to throw it in the wash. But just because you’ve given something soap and a once-over doesn’t mean it’s clean, or even that the stain comes out. Just because we’re pleased doesn’t mean we should be satisfied.


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