STANDING ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF HISTORY examines ideas, events, places and people standing on the wrong as well as the right side of history.
I come from a family of sports fans. My dad, and mom and sister, our uncles and our aunts, most everyone but me, loved football. When they weren’t freezing in the stands, they were huddled around the TV watching “the game.” Holidays were marked with a succession of games blaring at full volume. My mother could name every quarterback in the NFL and most of the coaches; when she died at 87 we had to cancel her subscription to Sports Illustrated. From her hospital bed, two days before her death, she reminded us to collect the $387 that Glenn — her bookie — still owed her. Glenn paid up and even sent flowers to the funeral home. At the funeral I spotted him in the back row.
I learned late in life to like the game; to appreciate the elegance of a well thrown pass; the athleticism of a spectacular catch and the thrill of watching someone kick a 63 yard field goal. Twenty-two hot men in spandex, huddling, hugging and patting each other on the butt only added to the allure. My new husband, my companion of 35 years, and I even went to a Sports Bar in Puerto Vallarta while on our honeymoon to root for the Seahawks who narrowly lost their exciting playoff game. And we’ll be watching Super Bowl XLVII with the other 100 million fans.
So Thursday on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, when I heard The Edge of Sports’ Dave Zirin say, “From the political perspective, this is like the LGBT super bowl in some respects. Like, is America ready for the big gay super bowl?” I almost dropped the cup of coffee I was holding and gave him my full attention.
Zirin went on to contrast Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, a supporter of gay rights, and San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver, whose homophobic comments resulted in the 49ers’ management hurriedly issuing a formal statement rejecting his remarks and an unconvincing apology from Culliver which had obviously been crafted by a 49ers’ public relations person. The 49ers, Zirin reminded viewers, was the first NFL team to produce a video for the It Gets Better campaign, an anti-bullying project aimed mostly at LGBTQ youth.
Adding fuel to this public relations fire in San Francisco, at the same time a proposal to rename San Francisco International Airport in honor of gay rights activist Harvey Milk was being discussed, two of Culliver’s team mates, Ahmad Brooks and Isaac Sopoaga, denied having participated in the video in which they can clearly be viewed, and when confronted with the evidence exacerbated the kerfuffle by saying if they had known the video was aimed at LGBTQ youth, they wouldn’t have participated. Dan Savage has since yanked the video from the It Gets Better website.
The week got curiouser and curiouser for the 49ers when it was revealed that former teammate, 30-year-old Kwame Harris, may face criminal charges after allegedly assaulting his ex-boyfriend last year. Outed by the news of his arrest, Harris took time out from his own problems to opine, “It’s surprising that in 2013 Chris Culliver would use his 15 minutes to spread vitriol and hate. I recognize that these are comments that he may come to regret and that he may come to see that gay people are not so different than straight people.”
Not everyone on the team shares Colliver’s, Brooks’, and Sopoaga’s attitude. Harris, who played for the 49ers from 2003 to 2007, had never revealed he was gay in public nor to his fellow players. Upon learning his former friend is gay, tight end Delanie Walker, who played alongside Harris for two seasons, said he didn’t see his former teammate any differently. “It probably wouldn’t affect me, but other guys might feel different,” Walker told USA Today. “If that’s what he’s into, that’s what he’s into. I can’t judge a person for how he feels. Things happen. He was a great player. And long snapper Brian Jennings observed, “We’re all there for the common purpose of winning football games. I don’t know if it mattered or if anyone was aware of his sexual orientation.”
In Baltimore, the Ravens’ Ayanbajedo sees the upcoming game as a platform to talk about marriage equality and anti-bullying. “It’s a message of positivity. It’s a message of equality. And it’s a chance to get it out. It’s not going to affect the way I play football, but it’s going to affect a lot of people’s lives off the field.”
His teammate, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, when asked if he would have a problem with a gay teammate answered, “Absolutely not.” Suggs observed that the rest of the team would also welcome a gay teammate. “We wouldn’t have a problem with it,” he said. “We don’t care. Our biggest thing in the locker room is to just have fun and stay loose. We don’t really care too much about that. We’re a football team. I said it yesterday; everybody deserves a certain amount of privacy. Who cares? Whatever a person’s choice is, it’s their choice. On this team, with so many different personalities, we just accept people for who they are and we don’t really care too much about a player’s sexuality,” added Suggs. “To each their own. You know who you are, and we accept you for it.”
The next day, I watched MSNBC’s Thomas Roberts interview Wade Davis, a former NFL cornerback who came out as gay last year after playing with the Tennessee Titans, and later with the Seattle Seahawks and the Washington Redskins, from 2000-2004. On the show which aired February 1, the former NFL player said, “We need more straight allies [in sports] to speak up for the LGBT community.” His interview included reflections on why homophobia is so rampant in the sports world. “I think that the real issue is the idea that a gay man can play sports is an attack to a straight guy’s masculinity.”
When asked about Chris Culliver’s remarks, Davis, who has said, “at least three NFL players are ‘semi-openly’ gay,” which means they’re only open to their teammates, responded, “I was very hurt by it, I thought, wow, this is going to help us have this conversation during the biggest game of the year, but then I also thought that, wow, there’s a lot of players who are closeted in the NFL that are going to go deeper into the closet because of these comments.”
And just this very Super Bowl morning, MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry asked, “Is this going to be the gayest ever Super Bowl in history?”
Lest fans think that the NFL was embracing Ayanbajedo’s “positivity” and his teammates’ welcoming acceptance, on Friday the league-sanctioned Fourteenth Annual Super Bowl Gospel Celebration featured a lineup of homophobic religious singers and preachers who have said things so extreme they make Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum appear reasonable by comparison.
Why does any of this matter? Dave Zirin’s article in The Nation, “Is It Getting Better? Homophobia Rocks Super Bowl,” explains:
Well, it matters for a multitude of reasons. First, whether we like it or not, athletes are role models. Complaining about this fact of American life is like complaining that the sky is blue or John Boehner is orange. Therefore it makes a difference if they are modeling inclusion and respect for our LGBT friends and family. As Hudson Taylor, founder of the organization Athlete Ally said in a statement, “Chris Culliver’s comments are disrespectful, discriminatory and dangerous, particularly for the young people who look up to him.” It also matters because as long as there has been football, from its inception when Teddy Roosevelt would lash out at “sissies” who refused to play, it has been one of the ways manhood has been defined in the United States. Being a “real man” means playing through pain, harming others and limping away when the game is done. To be gay means, as Culliver said in a modern incarnation of Teddy Roosevelt, you are bringing “that sweet stuff in the locker room.” When NFL players like Ayanbadejo, Chris Kluwe, and Scott Fujita speak out for gay rights, they are also implicitly speaking out against these rigid, crushing, social constructions that are long overdue to be thrown in the dustbin of history.
Of course I have no idea what the outcome of the game will be. As I write this, odds-makers in Las Vegas are calling the 49ers the favorite by 3½ points. (They also give a 36% chance Beyonce’s hair will be straight, not curly – $100 wins $150.) If they were still alive, Glenn would be telling my mother, “Sylvia, the Ravens are the underdogs.” But I don’t see it that way. Regardless of the final score, the Ravens are clearly the winners. And Brendon Ayanbadejo and Terrell Suggs are standing on the right side of history.
Image, top, by Joe Brokken
Stuart Wilber believes that living life openly as a Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Allied person is the most powerful kind of activism. Shortly after meeting his partner in Chicago in 1977, he opened a gallery named In a Plain Brown Wrapper, where he exhibited cutting edge work by leading artists; art that dealt with sexuality and gender identification. In the late 1980’s when they moved to San Clemente, CA in Orange County, life as an openly gay couple became a political act. They moved to Seattle 16 years ago and married in Canada a few weeks after British Columbia legalized same-sex marriage. When Marriage Equality became the law in Washington State, they married on the first possible day permitted which was the first day of their 36th year together. Although legally married in some states and some countries, they are still treated as second class citizens by the federal government. Equality continues to elude him. (Photo by Mathew Ryan Williams)
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