Two stories about college jocks coming out recently make very poignant stories in their own right, but it got me thinking of a bigger question about Sports and homophobia and our culture as a whole. Do jocks like Conner Mertens and Chandler Whitney point towards a path for real cultural change?
Inevitably, when a big celebrity comes out as gay or lesbian, some in the Gay and Lesbian community rush to both congratulate but also scold the person. If they had just come out sooner, what a difference it would have made to some youth’s life perhaps. Perhaps is that pivotal word. We have no real idea and no way to know. These critics turn coming out into an obligation that strips it of personal integrity. The timing of an announcement becomes more important than the truth and revealed honesty of a real human being.
But where is coming out really capable of making a tangible difference? The experience of these two jocks demonstrates it, or a big part of it.
A part of our patriarchal culture which perpetuates homophobia is hero worship. We look for some big name pro athlete to come out as if that will change everything. But the hierarchy begins way back in grade school as cliques form. The number of athletes who make it to the pros are a minute number, but like xxx and xxx there are post high school athletes everywhere, and their stories have an ability to affect many lives- of other athletes as well as the youth who look up to these local and regional stars. These college athletes may not seem as monumental as some major pro athlete, but I think the opposite is true. These athletes have greater potential to change lives and minimize homophobia precisely because they are still closer to their hometowns and younger athletes.
We don’t “win the war” on homophobia by having enough top tier celebrities or sports heroes who are out. Sure, we need them. They are one part of the whole. We win by having real younger people begin to know and respect lesbian, gay, bi, and queers who are their peers in colleges large and small of every type across the country. We stop the growth of homophobia as others get to know jocks like these two and these others persons alter the way they view gay, lesbian, bi, trans and queer persons.
One of the things I love most about the stories of these two is how each identified. Mertens self-identified as bisexual with a boyfriend, and Whitney self-identified as gay. Their these different identities were both accepted by their teammates and others, and their relationship supported and celebrated. This is the new Queer identity where the labels are less important than the real meaningful pride in self disclosure.
In the months leading up to the Sochi Olympics, I’ve been sick with top level athletes advocating against a boycott of the Games because the ability to compete takes precedence over the safety and lives of gay, lesbian, bi, trans and queer youth in Russia. I understand the dilemma- they have trained their whole lives, but hat doesn’t make their need to win more important that a safe, happy and fulfilling life for Russian youth. Mertens and Whitney display a whole other level of integrity, honesty and meaning which is at the same time refreshing, inspiring and revolutionary.
Congrats to these two great athletes who are not only winning in Sports but winning in the war against homophobia.