Mainstream gay rights advocates seem largely optimistic that the visibility—and acceptance—of gay male athletes like Collins and Rogers will help that guy, too. "By doing what he did, Jason Collins has extended gay kids a lifeline," Fred Sainz, VP for communications and marketing for the Human Rights Campaign, told Time. "The message to that gay kid, even if he's not involved in athletics, is reassuring. Even the jocks are gay. And there's a message to bullies: gay kids are not second-class citizens."
But it's not completely clear that showing that "even the jocks are gay" necessarily makes things better for those guys (gay or straight) who don't so readily conform to traditional masculine norms. Since gayness and femininity are still so linked, it's nearly impossible to determine what homophobia's driving factor is. As Kimmel explained to me, "As long as we think homosexuality is about effeminacy in men—as long as we think we can tell if a guy's gay if he's acting 'feminine'—then we can't tease it out." But if that link is successfully broken—say, by the growing visibility of "macho" gay athletes who challenge the stereotype—then it will be possible. "Then the effeminacy part will be about subscribing to gender norms, not revealing anything about your sexual orientation."
For now, though, it's hard to say: Is being a feminine man bad because it's considered evidence that you're gay? Or is being gay bad because it's seen as feminine? Or are both bad? And if the association between femininity and gayness is severed, what happens next?
The changes over the last two decades may provide some clues. After all, anti-gay attitudes in the United States have declined dramatically since the 1980s and '90s. As recently as ten years ago, the public was evenly divided on whether homosexuality should be accepted or discouraged by society. Today, 59 percent of Americans say it should be accepted, according to a Gallup poll released recently. For the past three years, more Americans support same-sex marriage than oppose it. The most recent Pew Research Center survey, conducted this past March, found 49 percent in favor, compared to 44 percent opposed—and other polls have put the level of support even higher. About two-thirds of the public thinks that gay and lesbian couples can be as good parents as heterosexual couples and that they should have the same legal rights as their straight counterparts.
Among young people, especially, anti-gay views are decidedly the exception. About three-quarters of millennials believe homosexuality should be accepted and 70 percent support same-sex marriage. And, in large part, it is young men who have been driving this trend. Ever since we've been asking about it in public opinion polls, men have been more likely than women to espouse anti-gay views—a fact that buttressed the theory that masculinity is intimately connected with homophobia, says Tristan Bridges, assistant professor of sociology at The College at Brockport, SUNY. But just recently that gender gap has begun to narrow. Among millennials, it's virtually non-existent: 69 percent of young women support same-sex marriage, compared to 65 percent of young men. Though homophobia is by no means eradicated—after all, Bridges points out, straight men especially still seem be far more comfortable with gay identity than actual gay sex—the largely supportive response to Collins and Rogers coming out would seem to reflect a real and rapid change in anti-gay attitudes, which should certainly be celebrated.
What's far less clear is whether this shift is actually changing the way homophobia is used as a weapon for maintaining traditional masculinity. "Surely, it's incontestable that the attitudes that people have about gay people have changed a lot—largely for the better." Kimmel tells me. "But the attitudes that people have toward what constitutes masculinity, and how to enact being a 'real man,' haven't changed very much at all." Consequently, the use of homophobic slurs as a "mechanism of gender policing remains relatively intact"—even if those words have become less likely to be applied to actual gay people.
That's what sociologist C.J. Pascoe found when she spent a year and a half at a California high school doing research for her 2007 book, Dude, You're a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School. Homophobic slurs were tossed around constantly, but the students insisted they weren't really about sexual orientation. "When I talked to these boys about what they were teasing about, they would go out of their way to say, 'Oh no, we would never actually call a gay boy a fag. That's just mean,'" she told me. Instead, boys labeled their peers "fags" for things like dancing, being too emotional, caring about clothing, being incompetent, or not have success with girls. While actually being gay wasn't exactly accepted, Pascoe discovered that it wasn't nearly as bad as being considered an unmasculine guy. As one student told her, "Well, being gay is just a lifestyle. You can still throw a football around and be gay." Indeed, of the three out gay boys at the school, the two who were traditionally masculine weren't really bullied by their peers much at all. But the third boy, who broke both the norms of sexuality and gender, faced such severe tormenting that he eventually dropped out of school.
Some scholars see cause for optimism, though. For example, Eric Anderson, an American professor of sociology at the University of Winchester, England, argues that declining homophobia is already starting to create "inclusive masculinities." According to Anderson, homophobia only serves a weapon for enforcing gender norms in an environment of "homohysteria"—in which there is both widespread social disapproval of homosexuality and being gay is associated with femininity. As anti-gay attitudes decline and "the stigma of being called gay doesn't sting" anymore, Anderson explained to me, the boundaries of acceptable masculinity expand. "It's not to say that there are no hyper-macho men," he says. "But it is to say that those who are more feminine are perfectly acceptable, because they're not regulated by homophobia anymore." And a similar transformation would be expected to happen if the link between femininity and gayness were broken. If being feminine is no longer considered incontrovertible "evidence" that you're gay, who cares if you bend gender norms? Anderson's research backs up his theory. He's found that the male college athletes and fraternity members he studied in the U.K. and the U.S. are increasingly more accepting of their gay peers—as well as less aggressive and sexist, and more emotionally intimate and physically affectionate with their male friends.
Gender non-conforming LGBT students are more likely to be bullied than their fellow gender-conforming LGBT peers
But others aren't convinced of such a large-scale transformation. Anderson argues that since sports have historically been highly homophobic spaces, other male groups are likely to be moreinclusive than the primarily white, straight, middle-upper class college athletes he has researched. But studies suggest that, paradoxically, those are the guys who may actually have the most freedom to bend the rules of masculinity. Pascoe describes it as "jock insurance." In effect, men who have the most status have the masculine capital to be able to get away with flouting some gender norms. "Gender is at the heart of all this stuff," Pascoe explains. "It can really make up for your deviance in other ways." Bridges agrees: "I think it might be the case that gender flexibility is becoming more ok for young men today than it was in previous generations. But I would say that that is the case for a very select group of men."