It’s only cute when I do it

Lord knows I’m not much of a “sports person” (which I assume is the technical term), but I do live in New Orleans, and I read a story today that got under my skin.

New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma was asked about the ramifications of openly gay players in the NFL.  His response:

“I think he would not be accepted as much as we think he would be accepted. I don’t want people to just naturally assume, oh, we’re all homophobic. That’s really not the case. Imagine if he’s the guy next to me, and you know, I get dressed, naked, taking a shower, the whole nine, and it just so happens he looks at me, how am I supposed to respond?”

vilma

This guy.

Sigh.

Now, to be fair, Mr. Vilma is certainly not the first or last person to make a comment like this.  His opinion is indicative of larger societal attitudes about both homosexuality and sexual assault.

But first, I’d like to address the buck-passing to which we’ve become so accustomed in his first sentence.  “I think he would not be accepted as much as we think he would be accepted. ”  The implication here is that the acceptance of an openly gay player is completely out of his hands.  If Mr. Vilma is, himself, not a homophobe, he could do as a few other NFL players have done encourage his teammates in the process of accepting a gay player.  But this kind of “I have a black friend so I’m not racist” bullshit is at this point a well-worn strategy.  It allows him (and others) to couch his own clear homophobia in a statement about the team as a whole.  This is especially obvious because in the next sentence he goes out of his way to challenge the idea that football players are homophobic.

And he’s right.  Football players are not inherently homophobic.  Kris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo have both come out as strong allies for LGBTQ rights, allegedly costing Kluwe his job.  They are not homophobic, at least not more than anyone else raised in our society.  But Mr. Vilma, you sir, are homophobic.  And do you know how I can tell?  Because you think we’re all rapists.  And do you know how else I can tell?  Your preconceived notions of what “a gay” looks like are so narrow and stereotyped that it’s apparently never occurred to you that you have almost certainly already shared a locker room with gay men.

Mr. Vilma is not alone in his gay = sexual predator “thinking.”  The culture has done such an excellent job of painting non-heterosexual people as hypersexual, predators, and even pedophiles that it is hardly surprising that he’s apparently bought into this line of thinking.  This is hardly a new discussion, and I have to believe that somewhere, in his heart of hearts, he’s knows this isn’t true.  I think quotes like:

“Imagine if he’s the guy next to me, and you know, I get dressed, naked, taking a shower, the whole nine, and it just so happens he looks at me, how am I supposed to respond?”

have less to do with being scared of a gay guy looking at him funny and more to do with this amazing cartoon from Slate that went viral this morning:

homophobia cartoon

The article that accompanies this cartoon (click the cartoon to read it) asks “Does homophobia come from sexism?”  The answer, in my opinion, is a resounding “yes!”  You see, straight men are the only people are allowed to be upset about being objectified.  The very thought that there might be some secret gay in the locker room threatens the relationships that keep men hegemonically in control.

This is not to trivialize sexual assault.  Mr. Vilma is doing a bang-up job of that himself.  Sexual assault is a serious and systemic issue and the very idea that Mr. Vilma is even tacitly equating it to someone “happening” to look at him in the locker room exhibits a level of privilege that is unavailable to anybody who isn’t a straight a man.

How are you supposed to respond, Mr. Vilma?  If someone, anyone, gay or straight, is looking at you in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, you should ask them to stop.  If they do not, and they are your coworker, you should speak to your boss and get the situation resolved.  This a fairly straight-forward process.  But I’d bet money that isn’t going to happen.

First, because if you’ve made it to the locker room of the New Orleans Saints, my bet is that it’s probably not the first locker room you’ve ever seen.

But secondly, because most gay men aren’t sexual predators.  To be clear, most straight men are also not sexual predators.  But what Mr. Vilma is taking for granted is that any gay man who has made it to the New Orleans Saints locker room has also spent his entire life studiously NOT looking at the bodies of the other players.  Not because he can’t control himself, and not because he even necessarily finds any of the players attractive.  But because we still live in a society where if anybody were to perceive that player looking in a sexual manner at another player, his career and his life might actually be at risk.

But none of this is actually your discomfort with someone looking at you.  It’s about your discomfort with gay people.  If the very thought of someone accidentally looking at you naked makes you question how you should react, I would suggest you find a career that doesn’t involve quite so much group nudity or invest now a quality pair of jorts.  Here I’m thinking…virtually every job except professional athlete.

And if the possible objectification of bodies is so morally repugnant to you, I assume you’ll also soon be speaking out against this:

NFL: JAN 16 NFC Divisional Playoff - Cardinals at Saints

But the bottom line is, we all know you’re not really worried about being oggled in the locker room.  That is the sort of thing homophobes say when they need to justify their prejudice.  What you’re worried about is surrendering your power and your privilege to someone who you’ve deemed “less than.”  But you don’t have to worry.  Comments like yours create such a climate of homophobia and fear that you’ll continue to keep thousands of young men, like I once was, out of sports to begin with.  And those who do make it to the Saints locker room will be too scared to look at you, whether they want to or not.

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What Should Brian Boitano do?

GIFSoup

Today as I took my daily sauna (not spoiled, just a Yooper) I listened to NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” which I love. However, one the segments on the normally very liberal show managed to get under my skin.  One of the week’s questions was about the newly appointed US delegation to the Sochi Olympics.  President Obama, like several other world leaders, has decided (wisely, I think) not to attend the Olympics.  In his place he is sending a delegation of three openly gay and lesbian former Olympians: Billie Jean King (tennis), Brian Boitano (figure skating, rendered in the amazing .gif above) and Caitlin Cahow (hockey.)  This move was immediately supported by the Human Rights Campaign, indisputably the most power gay lobby in Washington.  (Note, I say ‘gay’ and not LGBTQ on purpose, but that is a matter for another blog post.)

For those who are perhaps unaware, Russia passed an “Anti-Gay Propaganda” law last year which essentially makes being gay and, in some interpretations of the law, failing to report “a gay,” a crime.  This law has had immediate and tragic effects, sparking the repression of LGBTQ activists around the country and essentially declaring open season on Russia’s LGBTQ community.  Recent attacks have included the online seduction of gay youths by neo-nazis who then torture them on tape with total impunity.  Calls to boycott the Olympics altogether (which I initially supported) have been  quieted by Russia’s LGBTQ community, as the failure of the Olympics might further situate them as scapegoats, a viewpoint which I had failed to consider in my initial blind rage.

So, getting back to the issue at hand, what was it about “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me?” that irked me?  The discourse around this delegation is that it is the ultimate “middle finger” to Putin and his anti-LGBTQ policies.  Media response in general, and not just on WWDTM, has been filled with a gleeful electricity.  “We’ll show them.  We’ll send all these gays.  That’ll show’em,” they laugh, tenting their fingers à la Mr. Burns.  And I get it; I do.  I would love to show Mr. Putin a middle finger or five.  What bothers me is the idea that the very “gayness” of these athletes is somehow being weaponized.  In turn, I think it somehow furthers the notion that there is something noxious or extraordinary about the very fact of existing as gay or lesbian.  It turns these athletes, and in turn all of us, into tokens.  Perhaps in the case these tokens will be used for a greater good, but the tokenization is undeniable.

Would it not have been just as powerful for President Obama to refuse to send a delegation, making his reasons clear and public?  Something like:

“Dear Vlad, I can’t send a delegation to the Olympics this year because I cannot vouch for the safety of all of its members due to your ridiculous laws.  Sincerely, Barack.”

Somehow in this version, it seems like the onus is on Putin to respond and not on the athletes in the delegation to be on the offensive.  It shows that the President, and by proxy our country, recognizes the intrinsic humanity of gays and lesbians enough to not tokenize them or use them as pawns in a political game.

On this point, I must confess that I am also skeptical of the U.S.’s “ally when I wanna be” stance on LGBTQ rights.  First, I should be clear about my understanding that we do not live in a monarchy, and that Barack Obama is only one man.  Nonetheless, his support of LGBTQ issues has seemed as politically shrewd as it has seemed genuine.  For example, his decision to finally “evolve” on the issue of marriage equality just two months before the 2012 election is hard to interpret as a mere coincidence.

While I don’t doubt that Obama is better friend to our community than Vladimir Putin, I’m significantly more inclined to hear from it some of the other world leaders who have chosen not to attend the games, most notably France’s François Hollande, who ran his campaign on a platform the included staunch support (and immediate legalization) of marriage equality, and Germany’s Joachim Gauck, a former civil rights activist in East Germany who currently presides over a country that just legalized a third gender option on government documents.  If Obama is truly the friend to our community that, somewhere deep inside, I suspect that he is, he needs to stop making statements like “marriage equality is best left up to the states.”  Why not lead by example, especially when you can’t be re-elected?  And why not stick it to a few homophobes, like Putin, in the process?

I recognize that Obama, and the country, are in a difficult situation not entirely of their own making.  Both boycotting and attending the Sochi Olympics have positive and negative consequences that are as difficult to predict as they are potentially lethal.  Nonetheless, I think that sending gay and lesbian activists as a “fuck you” to Russia paradoxically serves to further the belief that there is something there to fear, both in Russia and here.  There must be a way for the Obama administration to make its objection to Russia’s Anti-Gay law known without tokenizing gay and lesbian athletes on the basis of their sexuality.  Especially when these athletes are still being denied so many basic civil rights in our own country, it seems in poor taste to weaponize their sexuality in defense of an ideal that we, as a country, are not quite sure of ourselves yet.

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Have an opinion?  Leave it in the comments section!  I haven’t worked this out for myself yet, and I’d love to know what you think!