“In our gradually shrinking world, everyone is in need of all the others. We must look for man wherever we can find him… We have many monsters to destroy.” –George Seferis
It’s an interesting experience being a compound minority in America. On the one hand, people make offhanded assumptions about your politics, history, culture, preferences, and familiarity with the law based on your skin color. On the other, there are confident expectations of your tastes, mannerisms, speech patterns, and so on based on your perceived or confirmed sexual orientation. Being a black, gay man in a country that segregated my grandparents and still sanctions a broad array of legal discrimination against me produces precisely the kind of experience that most Americans—being white and straight—will never properly understand, although some do sincerely try.
Before we continue, let’s clarify a few things about me.
Politically, I lean libertarian (a popular disposition in the military community), but philosophically, I have much sympathy for traditionalism, which logically extends to committed gay families. Culturally, I love to watch football, particularly FBS, and am a zealous fanatic of the SEC (Gator denomination). I am largely ignorant of (and indifferent to) Cher or Barbra Streisand, was introduced to Lady Gaga by a straight fraternity friend, have a lukewarm appreciation for musical theater, would rather my food be fried than organic, abhor vegetarianism, prefer house music to hip hop (although the two occasionally blend magnificently), and grew up playing more soccer than basketball. I was exceptionally good at math in grade school. My teachers usually loved me.
My poison of choice is bourbon, usually on the rocks, but I will take a good Scotch. I learned how to change a tire, adjust automobile fluids, and properly handle a weapon in my youth. My Yale education notwithstanding, I feel at best a fragmented connection with those who marinate in “narratives of oppression” and are the target consumers of The New York Times (which I do occasionally read) or an ethnic studies department. I am not urban. If there is a personal hell, mine is based on New York City. Michael Bloomberg, naturally, plays the role of Beelzebub. He is too busy warring on freedom to take his Oscar.
Given how well-adjusted I sound, it may seem odd that I should care personally that a mid-30s NBA free agent has come out of the closet as a gay man in the twilight of his career. In truth, whether or not Jason Collins gets signed again is of infinitesimal relevance to my personal life. But when I see people bitterly contrasting the media treatment of Collins to that of Tim Tebow (of whom I was quite the fan) or bemoaning public confessions about private life, I am forced to remember that for all my well-to-do middle-American sub-urbanity, it still means something somewhere in America that some people are black and gay.
Christians in America are not wanting for role models. Every president and governor professes the faith, as do countless athletes, actors, media pundits, businessmen, military leaders, doctors, other prominent figures, and a nominal majority of the country. Christian freedom from persecution is written into our Constitution. Growing up on Army bases and in suburban Virginia, it was not remotely unusual for strangers to aggressively assume the Christianity of new acquaintances in casual conversation. I was frequently asked variants of, “How is your relationship with Christ?” by people whose names I never learned. It may be a while longer before we see such broadly effusive willingness to talk about being gay in public in many parts of America.
It does not occur to most heterosexuals to wonder if their sexuality might impede their life goals. At most, some people might wonder whether marriage or children would fit logistically into a desired career path or envisioned standard of living. But rarely would a straight man or woman fear for their livelihood should their preference in partners become publically known. In fact, that preference is taken for granted and often encouraged, even in the office (e.g. photographs, cards, and flowers). Hence, it is generally pointless for a straight person to announce their sexuality, as it is broadly assumed and will not be held against them.
Over time, mainstream America has rapidly become refreshingly more accepting of LGBT Americans, and there are prominent gay and Lesbian figures aplenty. But as black and other minority Americans know well, old-style prejudices can give way to new, more insidious typecasting born ironically of well-intentioned attempts to be more understanding. Just as it is not enough to have black or Hispanic role models relegated to music labels, professional sports, and goofy or chronically aggrieved media characterization, it is not enough for gay role models to be largely products of Hollywood, cable news, or the fashion industry, or to be chronically portrayed in trite stereotypes.
That Jason Collins is out and proud and receiving praise everywhere from U.S. presidents to Kobe Bryant allows for a new public face of what it means to be a multifaceted minority in America. Like millions of “gaybros” going about their lives beyond glittery bars in San Francisco and New York or successful black people who went to Stanford and are considering graduate school instead of prison, Collins is not a stereotype. He is a necessary and valuable reminder that gay people are truly no different than anyone and can do and be any- and everything their straight peers take for granted—and that there is no one way to “be black.”
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with or illegitimate about being “effeminate,” loving Madonna, or living in the Castro or Brooklyn, any more than there is anything shameful about listening to hip hop, hanging in the barber shop, or knowing dozens of Gospel hymns by heart (and on key). The people who get mocked or dismissed for conforming more to contemporary expectations of gays or other minorities are actual people with actual lives, tastes, interests, and dreams that matter. But despite the outsized representation of certain limited personas in media, there is a much richer portrait of America that needs to be seen precisely because many of us seldom see it.
In truth, Jason Collins may not matter all that much in a year or a decade. After all, he was a decent enough player to last a dozen years in the NBA, but he was hardly anything to write home about. For now, though, he is putting a new face on parts of America that are too often obscured by the blinding heat of ignorant assumptions. Someday, perhaps, the flow of new, inspiring faces will overrun the gates of our experience and broaden our imagining.
Until then, we still have many more stories to tell.