A couple weeks ago, Mark Carson, a 32-year-old gay man dressed in a tank top, cut-off shorts, and boots, was walking with his friend in the West Village when they were approached by Elliot Morales. "Look at you faggots," Morales allegedly said. "You look like gay wrestlers." Morales followed the men down the street shouting anti-gay slurs before fatally shooting Carson at point-blank range just blocks from the Stonewall Inn. Carson's murder comes at a time when anti-gay crimes in New York City are on the rise, according to the NYPD. There have been 29 reported this year, up from 14 in the same period last year, even as hate crimes overall have declined during that time by almost 30 percent.
This recent uptick in anti-gay violence also comes during the same month that three more states passed laws legalizing same-sex marriage and just weeks after NBA veteran Jason Collins revealed that he is gay—and was largely greeted with open arms by the sports world. Last week, soccer player Robbie Rogers, who had said he would leave the game when he came out back in February because he didn't "want to deal with the circus," had a change of heart. When he took the pitch in a Los Angeles Galaxy match on Sunday night, he beat Collins to the punch to become the first openly gay athlete to play in a major U.S. men's professional sport.
This moment of staggering contradictions seems like a good time to take stock of how far we have—and haven't—come in dismantling homophobia. And the hopes we pin on these pioneering athletes may offer some key lessons.
Shortly after Collins came out, Brendon Ayanbadejo, former Ravens linebacker and advocate for marriage equality, explained the importance of his announcement on Meet the Press. Of course, given the sheer number of Americans who tune in to watch professional sports, athletes have an unprecedented platform to offer positive representations of LGBT people to large swaths of the population. But Ayanbadejo got to the heart of why the importance of a figure like Jason Collins extends beyond the celebrity factor: "People think gayness has something to do with femininity when really we just need to erase that stereotype from our minds," he said. "LGBT people come in all different types and shapes and forms."
As many commentators noted, this helps explain why college basketball phenom Brittney Griner's casual "coming out" just weeks before Collins' was greeted with so little fan-fare. The belief that sports—and perhaps team sports particularly—are a masculine endeavor lingers even 40 years after Title IX ushered millions of American women into the game. And since for women, we think gayness "has something to do with" masculinity, we hold the opposing set of assumptions about female athletes: "In sports right now, there are two different stereotypes—that there are no gay male athletes, and every female athlete is a lesbian," Patrick Burke of the gay sports advocacy group You Can Play explained to the New York Times. The news that Griner, who wore a white tux on her 6-foot-8 frame at the WNBA draft, is gay didn't fundamentally challenge our notion that sexuality has something to do with gender—and it just confirmed the stereotypes we had about women who excel in sports. As Garance Franke-Ruta put it, "Female professional athletes are already gender non-conforming. Male ones are still worshiped as exemplars of traditional masculinity."
Within this context, the hope is that a high-profile gay male athlete—or, more realistically, a few of them—could finally smash the stereotype that "gay" equals "unmasculine" once and for all. And, in fact, to some, Collins and Rogers don't have enough macho mojo to do the trick. Writing at The American Prospect, Joel Anderson argued that Collins' underwhelming performance on the court has taken away from the potential power of his announcement. The New York Times's John Branch noted that Major League Soccer is probably only the nation's fifth-most popular league—and, at least in the American sports landscape, soccer players hardly have an uber-masculine image. (In fact, according to the Onion, soccer became the "world's first openly gay sport" in 2010.) The real game-changer, Anderson wrote, would be if a player in the NFL, that bastion of "a certain kind of masculinity if not outright machismo," came out. "Football players are supposed to be our manliest men," he explained. "Their acceptance of a gay man into that world could go a long way toward unpacking some of the most insidious stereotypes about gay people."
There's no doubt those are stereotypes that need unpacking. Sociologists have long noted that homophobia is a fundamental ingredient of masculinity in modern American culture. In his seminal 1994 article "Masculinity as Homophobia," sociologist Michael Kimmel, author of Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, argued that "homophobia is a central organizing principle of our cultural definition of manhood." Since homosexuality is associated with femininity, feminizing and anti-gay comments are the primary mechanism for enforcing the boundaries of masculinity. If a guy steps ever so slightly outside of gender norms, his peers will bring him back into line by calling his heterosexuality into question (which implicitly challenges his gender). The pressure to prove and re-prove hetereosexuality is part of what it means to "be a man"—and it pushes men to embrace both homophobia and hypermasculinity. "Homophobia, the fear of being perceived as gay, as not a real man, keeps men exaggerating all the traditional rules of masculinity, including sexual predation with women," Kimmel wrote. "Homophobia and sexism go hand-in-hand."
Homophobia, then, is not simply social disapproval and discrimination against gay people, but an entire cultural structure that disqualifying all but the "most virulent repudiators of femininity" from "real manhood"—in the process upholding gender inequality and maintaining a hierarchy of men based on sexuality, race, class, ability, and so on.
It's entirely understandable, then, why Collins took pains to highlight his masculinity in his Sports Illustrated article announcing the news. "I go against the gay stereotype, which is why I think a lot of players will be shocked: That guy is gay? But I've always been an aggressive player, even in high school. Am I so physical to prove that being gay doesn't make you soft? Who knows? That's something for a psychologist to unravel."
But where does that leave the guys who do fit the "gay stereotype"?
After all, while it's certainly true that not all gay men are "soft," it's also true that some of them are. The gay guy who would rather be belting out some Barbra Streisand than shooting hoops is not just a stereotype. He exists, too. He's probably been spared the awful loneliness and anxiety of living for 34 years without being open about his sexuality to those closest to him, as Collins did, but he probably had less of a choice in the matter. The first time he had an anti-gay slur hurled at him may have happened before he even came out to himself. In fact, like 11-year-old Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, he may only be perceived as gay.