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.
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.