by Eric Anderson and Mark McCormack
When we think of black male athletes, we normally connect them to highly competitive and combative teamsports, like American football and basketball. Or, we associate them with individual sporting events that require strength and explosiveness, like sprinting and boxing. These images of strength, speed, and muscularity support the notion that black men are naturally macho. Unlike this power associated with black athleticism, participation for gay male athletes is linked to feminine arenas like ice-skating, cheerleading and gymnastics, and other non-aggressive sports, such as swimming, running and diving.
So whereas black men’s bodies compete by collision, gay men are awarded points through decision. Whereas black athletes are perceived as thugs, masculinized by their sporting space, gay athletes are feminized by theirs. Accordingly, black athletes sweat, fuck and fight, while gay men are concerned with the aesthetics of their form. As such, dominant understandings of black and gay athletes hold them to be culturally incompatible categories. Despite the gains of both the civil rights movement and the progress toward gay and lesbian social inclusion, the long-held understanding in sport remains that black athletes come in only one sexuality and gay men come in just one color.
However, with Derrick Gordon, a black basketball player at the University of Massachusetts coming out as gay, on the heels of black NBA player Jason Collins, we can now begin to address these long-held associations as nothing more than myths.
Of course, the black gay athlete is still hugely under-represented in sport. This is the result of the under-representation of gay men in many sports, as well as the under-representation of black men in sports outside of basketball, football and track. In addition to this, black gay athletes face oppression not only from racism and homophobia of the dominant culture, but also the elevated rates of discrimination within their own communities. Black gay athletes may thus find themselves excluded from both their racial and sexual communities.
And yet, Derrick Gordon’s disclosure has been met with an extremely positive response. Faced by a protest from five members of Westboro Baptist Church, 1,500 of Gordon’s fellow students supported him at a mass rally (here). This is particularly pleasing for us to see, but it is not something that surprises us. Our own research has been documenting the increasingly positive attitudes toward homosexuality in both sport and the broader culture.
In his book, In the Game: Gay Athletes and the Cult of Masculinity, Anderson wrote about how openly gay athletes’ experiences have transitioned from one of marginality to inclusion and even celebration among teammates. Where they were once accepted if they were the best on the team, now they are accepted for being who they are. Similarly, in his book, The Declining Significance of Homophobia: How Teenage Boys are Redefining Masculinity and Heterosexuality, McCormack has documented that young people today have much improved attitudes toward gay men than young people did of previous generations. This is a generational shift that we substantiate with recent research in our forthcoming book Bisexual Men’s Lives.
This is not to argue that homophobia has been eliminated in all aspects of sport, or that racism is not an issue for black players. These oppressions are still real: worse for some and better for others, depending on many factors including where one lives. Nonetheless, we are heartened to see heterosexual male athletes also contesting homophobia: this includes the heterosexual men of a university’s crew team posing nude to raise money for an anti-homophobia charity (here), and considerable academic evidence is presented in Anderson’s new book, 21st Century Jocks, where today’s straight male athletes demonstrate a much softer, loving and accepting version of masculinity compared to the jocks of the 1980s.
The support and inclusion of Derrick Gordon, and the mass turn out of his fellow students to stand up for him, is another example of the rejection of homophobia in contemporary culture. Yet the nature of his coming out, and support of his peers, means it is more than this as well—the public nature of the rejection of homophobia is a clear demonstration of the increasing condemnation of homophobia by many young people. It should thus serve as a call for sporting clubs, organizations and leagues to proactively engage with measures that will further promote equality for all.
Eric Anderson is a Professor of Sociology, Masculinities, and Sexuality at the University of Winchester. He is co-author of Bisexual Men’s Lives with Mark McCormack, which is due to be published in 2015. For more information about the author, click here.
Mark McCormack is Co-Director of the Centre for Sex, Gender and Sexualities in the School of Applied Social Sciences at Durham University, United Kingdom. For more information about the author, click here.