Another former professional athlete came out last month — 6’-7” Jamaican-born NFL offensive tackle Kwame Harris.
With news of LGBT equality in the news daily, one may wonder why this is news at all. But it is. The world of sports is quickly becoming the last closet, where gays and lesbians hide their sexual orientation. In a homophobic testosterone-driven sport like American football, Harris concealment is understandable.
The African American community desperately needs openly LGBT public role models. We need them to come out and denounce anti-homophobic bullying, vitriol and discrimination.
Very few role models have come from the Black church. That leaves many of us lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) brothers and sisters of African descent looking to Black role models, especially males, in the areas of entertainment and sports.
Sadly, that list too is short, which is why I applaud Harris. It’s important to note that, to date, no NFL player has come out while still in the game. NFL Players Association President Domonique Foxworth thinks Harris’s coming out will encourage those players in the game to follow suit, but Seahawks defensive end Chris Clemons queries any future gay player’s motive for doing so.
“I’m not against anyone, but I think it’s [coming out] a selfish act. They just trying to make themselves bigger than the team,” Clemons told Danny O’Neil of the Seattle Times. Clemons cloaks his homophobic tirade as a gay player’s ploy to draw attention away from the team and toward himself.
”That’s one of the primary reasons no player has done it. Football players want to play football, and they generally don’t want to create a distraction for themselves or others on the team. Even if teammates have no issue with a player being honest about who he is, some teammates won’t understand why the player felt compelled to grab a megaphone and let the world know private, personal information that results in a microphone eventually being stuck in all their faces,” Mike Floro posted on NBC Sports blog Pro Football Talk.
The only way to allow LGBTQ athletes to openly engage in their sport of choice is to purge homophobic stereotypes from its milieu. But not all sports are open to it. Harris said one of the reasons for staying in the closet about his sexual orientation was because both his college and professional environments made it impossible to come out without derailing his career.
Harris told AP ”his mind went to ‘dark places at times’ as he struggled with his secret identity” because ”being gay and being a professional football player in the NFL were ‘incompatible.’”
Harris knows that homophobia espoused by African American sports professionals like Clemons is shaped by a particular type of Black masculinity that no longer has to break through this country’s color barrier to represent the race and prove athletic prowess or manhood in sports.
It is now a Black hyper-masculinity and urban aesthetic shaped by hip hop culture and “video-mercials” that not only exploit women, but also unabashedly denigrate and go after lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people. And they care little about its deleterious effects on all children — straight and gay.
The aggressive posturing and repudiation of LGBTQ people allow these athletes to feel safe in the locker room by maintaining the myth that all the guys gathered on their team are heterosexual, and sexual attraction among them just does not exist. This myth allows homophobic teammates to enjoy the homo-social setting of the male locker room that creates male-bonding — and the physical and emotional intimacy that goes on among them.
The homo-erotic slaps on the buttocks, hugging, and kissing on the cheek that happen on the field and in the locker room would be labeled gay anywhere else. LGBTQ professional athletes must constantly monitor how they are being perceived by teammates, coaches and endorsers to avoid suspicion. They are expected to maintain a public silence so that their identity does not tarnish the rest of the team.
Whenever discrimination is the culprit for barring great athletes from competing openly, it is not only the athletes who miss out, but so, too, the world. In Oct. 2012, 31-year-old Puerto Rican featherweight Orlando Cruz was revving up to challenge Mexican boxer Jorge Pazos for the World Boxing Organization’s (WBO) Latino title. Cruz had more than a good chance at it. He won, and was the first to knock out a stereotype. Harris is doing the same.
Rev. Irene Monroe is a Huffington Post blogger and freelance journalist. A native of Brooklyn, Rev. Monroe is a graduate from Wellesley College and Union Theological Seminary at Columbia University, and served as a pastor at an African American church before coming to Harvard Divinity School for her doctorate as a Ford Fellow.