Tony Bucci on the real and serious contradictions the LGBTQ community face every day.
It is safer to be gay in 2014 than it has been in centuries. From campaigns like “It Gets Better” and American Apparel’s “Legalize Gay” T-shirts to the movements for true and total freedom and equality, it appears a more open and accepting international community is awakening. Homosexual politicians are being elected to public offices all over the world, commercials and advertisements with worldwide reach are featuring same-sex couples, and the number of gay and lesbian musicians, actors, and most recently, professional athletes that feel comfortable enough to come out to the world is growing every day. Gay men and women are openly serving in our military; gay men and women are teaching our kids and raising children of their own; gay men and women are boxing in professional rings, sinking free-throws on professional courts, and winning gold medals for their country in the Olympic Games. To be gay in 2014, in many ways, is to be happy, healthy, and prosperous.
It is safer to be gay in 2014, yes, but it is not yet safe. By this I mean, it is not yet possible for an LGBT person living anywhere in the U.S. to live and act freely, completely without fear of incident, able to enjoy all the rights and privileges American citizenship implies. Since Ancient Romans began punishing same sex couplings in the 4th century AD, homosexuality has been condemned, vilified, punished, and suppressed up to the present date. Gay men and women have been, and continue to be, forced into hiding or into shows of bravery as a means of protecting their dignity, their lives, or their loved ones. For every state that legalizes gay marriage it seems another passes anti-gay legislation. For every president that advocates for gay rights in speeches and policies, there seems to be another that opposes them, or worse. For all the bravery, empathy, and outreach, there persists the condemnation, violence, and institutionalized hatred of years gone by. When historians write of the fight for LGBT equality throughout the 2010s, we may find ourselves reading something downright Dickensian: “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”
If the number of celebrities publicly coming out of the closet is any indication, now is as good a time as any to be openly gay. Today Show anchor Robin Roberts came out publicly in 2013, while child star turned actress and director Jodie Foster publicly acknowledged her sexuality at the Golden Globes the same year. Wentworth Miller, who played the heavily-tattooed Michael Scofield on the FOX series Prison Break, used turning down a directing job in Russia to protest the country’s treatment of gay men and women as an opportunity to publicly come out himself. Rachel Maddow became the first openly gay or lesbian news anchor in the United States when her show began airing on MSNBC in August of 2008, and CNN anchor and Anderson 360 host Anderson Cooper came out in an open letter to the Daily Beast in July of 2012.
Earlier this month, actress Ellen Page, most famous for her lead role as a pregnant teenager in Juno, became one of the most talked about celebrities in the LGBT community when she came out in a speech delivered at a crowded Human Rights Campaign event in Las Vegas. Impassioned, Paige likely drove many audience members to tears when she choked, “I am young, yes, but what I have learned is that love, the beauty of it, the joy of it and yes, even the pain of it, is the most incredible gift to give and to receive as a human being. And we deserve to experience love fully, equally, without shame and without compromise.” Brave or not, easy or difficult, Page’s words embody the love, sincerity, and hope that has helped paint so many American flags rainbow over the last several years.
Unlike actors and newscasters, professional athletes have been slightly more hesitant to come out than other celebrities. This may be due to locker room cultures that have gained a reputation in recent years for at least tolerating if not encouraging harassment, bullying, racial insensitivity, and homophobia, an environment which has even led straight athletes to early retirement. It may also be because sports have been slow to evolve into something other than the last great bastions of gender normative behavior (athletes as aggressive, muscled, masculine behemoths and everyone else as pom-pom shakers, spectators, or bikinied supermodels in anti-gravity photo shoots for the Sports Magazine). While LGBT rights have been championed and seem to have made greater strides in other areas, there are athletes who have come forward in recent years to try and make sure it is the closet, not the locker room, gay athletes remain afraid to come out of.
Wade Davis, Jr., defensive back for the Tennessee Titans, Washington Redskins, and Seattle Seahawks, came out in 2012 after leaving the National Football League some years earlier. In an open letter to young LGBT athletes published in the Huffington Post, Davis admitted that facing his “football family” and the possibility of them not accepting him, led to years of self-denial and eventually his early retirement from the game. In retirement, however, Davis has started an advocacy organization for LGBT athletes called “You Can Play” and continues to use his celebrity to help prevent young people from thinking they are “less-than.” “I should have been asking whether this sport was worth never learning to truly love myself,” wrote Davis, “or whether I loved this sport more than I loved myself”.
Jason Collins, a 13 year veteran of the NBA, made history in April of 2013 when he came out to Sports Illustrated and became the first openly gay professional basketball player. Collins has played for six professional basketball teams including the Brooklyn Nets where he started in his first game in February of this year after several months of being practiced and in-shape but unable to solidify another contract. Many speculate that it was his coming out that kept him from a contract for so many months.
Michael Sams, first-team all-American defensive end for the University of Missouri, came out last year to an outpouring of support and may just be the first openly gay football player to be drafted to the NFL. Robbie Rogers, former U.S. national soccer player, came out after retirement and has since come back to play professionally for the L.A. Galaxy. Gareth Thomas, professional rugby player and second highest try scorer out of Wales, also came out in 2009. WNBA player, Sharnee Zoll-Norman, has mentioned her wife in interviews but purposely never had a formal coming out because she never felt that “her sexuality had anything to do with me as a basketball player.” I tend to agree.
The most important thing these actors and athletes have done by revealing their sexual orientation, apart from inspiring a new generation of young people to be who they are, is shatter limiting but enduring stereotypes of what LBGT people worldwide look and act like. In a world full of color and complexity, binaries are almost always meant to be broken. Now seems as good a time as any for masculine and feminine, gay and straight, and everyone and everything in between to go out and play ball.
Meanwhile, in Arizona, in 2014, lawmakers passed a bill that would have allowed business owners to refuse service to gay customers as long as they can prove that it would violate their religious beliefs. Similarly, the Huffington Post ran an article yesterday about a Republican lobbyist who is helping draft a bill in Congress that would ban gay athletes from playing in the NFL. In a statement, the lobbyist explained that he “felt that if the NFL doesn’t have morals, and people like [League Commissioner Roger Goodell], who are just go-along-get-along guys, just want to appease advertisers…it is time for conservatives in Congress to step in and define morality for them.” In the same way that journalists drew a link between Jason Collins’ coming out and Jackie Robinson’s being the first African-American baseball player, I can’t help but connect these denials with “No Blacks Allowed” signs in the Jim Crow South.
Russia’s anti-gay law has also made headlines in recent months, especially since news sources worldwide began coverage of the Sochi Olympic Games. The ban on LGBT propaganda, passed by Vladamir Putin in June of 2013, uses the language “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors” connecting homosexuality to pedophilia and covers bans on pride parades, “hefty” fines on LGBT groups, and ultimately what PolicyMic.com calls “the violation of fundamental, constitutionally protected rights.” Apart from representing a sick misunderstanding of homosexuality as a sexual orientation and pedophilia as a psychiatric disorder, the most disconcerting effect of the law has been its encouragement of violent clashes between Russian anti-gay groups and the Russian LGBT community or “suspected” gays. Despite homosexuality being legal since 1993, the law is making it difficult for Russian citizens to truly be themselves in public.
Scarier still are the anti-gay laws recently passed in the East African country of Uganda. Known in some circles as the “Kill the Gays Law,” the Ugandan Anti-Gay Law provides long term imprisonments (14 years for first time offenders) for those convicted of “aggravated homosexuality,” outlaws the promotion of homosexuality, in demeaning terms similar to the Russian legislation, and requires Ugandans to denounce homosexuality in their midst. Despite statements of condemnation from American President Barack Obama and the Netherlands, Norway, and Denmark all freezing funds intended for the country, President Yoweri Museveni not only signed the bill into law but added in a statement that if you are gay “there is something wrong with you.” In an environment where being who you are can be made an illegal, punishable offense, people are driven into hiding, into violent altercations, into other countries, or into prison cells.
While some may write these incidents off as fringe and denounce them as foreign, backward, or even Southern, in the case of Arizona, it seems that for every two steps the LGBT movement takes toward a more equitable existence worldwide, something continues to drag at its heels. The United Kingdom had the largest number of homophobic laws as late as 1999, and it wasn’t until a few months ago that Alan Turing, World War II code-breaker and godfather of modern computing, was pardoned by the British government of his crime of “Gross Indecency” (which won’t undo the chemical castration that was performed on him or reverse the suicide it led him to in his early forties). Barack Obama became the first president to endorse same-sex marriage in 2012, but most American states still refuse to pass Marriage Equality legislation, others refuse to recognize the same-sex marriages of the states that have passed it, and the Federal Government remains legislatively behind the times.
Yes, there may be at least one LGBT rights organization in every state in America, and many more popping up in countries worldwide. Sure, there may be at least one pride parade a year on every main street. However, in what is one of the easiest things to write but one of the hardest things to do something about, we still have such a long way to go. Every gay person of standing, every lesbian authority figure, and every transgendered role model that steps into the limelight together and joins an ever growing community not only inspires those who still think they are alone but becomes a source of pride and encouragement to allies like me to stand with them, for them, and against violence and hatred. Today there is no shortage of headlines that hurt the heart. Tomorrow doesn’t look much brighter. But hopefully, if we keep loving, encouraging, and standing up for one another, it won’t be the worst of times for very much longer.
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