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By Kwame Holmes | With thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

 

Friday, May 4, 2013.

 

Though you couldn’t tell from the overwhelming media attention and, to paraphrase Mark Anthony Neal, a nation-wide collective backslapping, Jason Collins is not the world’s first black gay man.  It is important to say this, because while Collins’ announcement fundamentally intervenes into the nation’s notion of who participates in men’s pro sports, we can not ignore that it matters immensely to a range of folks that the first openly gay professional athlete is black.  Despite evidence that black voters support gay and lesbian rights, and have recently moved towards support for same-sex marriage, black communities continue to be pathologized as less accepting of gays and lesbians than other demographic groups. 

 

African Americans’ overrepresentation within masculinist spaces like professional athletics seems to confirm this impression. When it comes to discourse around “black homophobia,” commentators rarely distinguish between the basketball court, hip hop, or simply “the block”–interchangeable sites which seem to repel not only the explicit infiltration of gay men, but a wide range of progressive liberalisms in which gay identity now comfortably resides.  At the same time, there is reason to think critically about the excitement that surrounds Collins’ announcement (an excitement I share). While it may be a historic watershed in the nation’s understanding of black sexuality, or force a reconsideration of black masculinity, I also worry it reinforces an already class-stratified understanding of black sexuality that goes back to the turn of the twentieth century.

 

Let me be clear. I am not here to pillory Jason Collins.  We know from decades of black feminist scholarship that, in deciding to tell the world he is black and gay, Collins is bravely volunteering to enter one of the nation’s oldest and most potent mine fields, the public consumption of black sexuality.  In recent years black male same-sexuality has emerged alongside black single motherhood, as particularly implicated in the devastation and destruction of the African American community. The ongoing HIV-AIDS epidemic within African America has made black men who have sex with men (or MSM)--regardless of whether they self-consciously identify as gay, bisexual, “DL” or same gender loving (SGL)— as murderous carriers of diseaseAnxiety around declining black marriage rates has added a new layers onto black Americans’ feelings about male homosexuality, which, alongside interracial marriage, marks some black men as eager to “jump ship” and betray their racial obligations to black women.  In an age inflected by rhetorics of austerity, the anti-black racial project of mass incarceration only heightens concerns around black hetero scarcity. In turn, those concerns are bolstered by widespread belief that even the most masculine black men can succumb to same-sex activity, even romance, during their time behind bars.  The stakes of the black community’s engagement with same-sex desire are, to put it mildly, quite high.

 

In a world where black masculinity seems always under attack, sports culture is one of a dwindling set of spaces where it seems not only ever-ascendant, but unbreakable in the face of declining black male employment and heightening black male disfranchisement. As Rod McCollum notes on Ebony.com, almost four-fifths of NBA players and two-thirds of NFL players are black.  Jason Collins has punched a hole in the hermeneutically sealed heterosexuality of “the locker room.” An intervention that Chris Broussard and Larry Johnson’s unfortunate comments indicate was sorely needed. And yet, his announcement, almost immediately, repairs that gap by his seeming desire to signal himself as exceptional, both in terms of his class position and as an anomalous de-sexed gay man.

 

Forced to grapple with the complex, at times contradictory, history of the racialized politics of sexuality in the United States, Collins’ Sports Illustrated editorial takes refuge in the secure bunkers of class signification.   At the very start of his essay Collins narrates that the first person he told about his sexual identity was his aunt, Teri L. Jackson, a superior court judge in San Francisco.  Immediately, Collins signals to readers that trailblazing, economically successful black people have surrounded him throughout his life.  Soon after, Collins references his gay uncle, who lived in the rarified, elite queer air of Harlem, and reminds readers of his matriculation at Stanford University.  Collins casually mentions that the decision by his college roommate, Congressman Joe Kennedy, to march in a gay pride parade inspired him to start the process of coming out.  Indeed, close to the beginning of Collins’ 12 hour takeover of traditional and social media, President Obama, Michelle Obama, former President Clinton and Chelsea Clinton released statements or tweets congratulating him for his bravery; the later referring to Collins as “my friend.”  If that doesn’t signal ones position among the elite, what else does? 

 

As Collins narrates his journey to self-discovery, his middle-class origins enable him to more easily articulate “universal” concerns that align with the cultural longings of white middle-class life than would be possible for many of his heterosexual black team mates who hail from working-class backgrounds. Collins, of course, is who he is, and his relatively privileged background in no way detracts from the courageousness and historicity of his announcement.  At the same time, his decision to become engaged to a woman is framed as the natural result of the pressures placed upon men of his social position.  Nor was Collins forced from the closet by mannerisms perceived as feminine, or the natural intra-racial surveillances which operate in neighborhoods with limited private residential space; environmental realities which Marlon Ross notes make the metaphor of “coming out the closet” incommensurate with most working-class African American’s life experience.  Rather, his narrative includes the trappings of bourgeois life: a lone pure bred German shepherd, an empty pool, a deserted mansion -- a series of concentric chokers, if you will, that signal the vast emptiness of his closeted existence, and yet simultaneously enfold him within media friendly material wealth.

 

Meanwhile, anyone hoping for salacious tales of Collins numerous affairs with fellow players, closeted celebrities or any living breathing man was left sorely disappointed. In a classic example of what historian Darlene Clark Hine first identified as a culture of “dissemblance” among middle class black women, Collins deploys what appears to be an excess of transparency—we are clued into a profound internal spiritual struggle—while keeping any manifestations of his same-sex desires glaringly opaque.  Rather, Collins editorial suggests that rigid, masculine discipline of sports-culture so completely excises same-sex desire that he remained unselfconscious about himself before his 30s.  Perhaps such a claim could stand, uncomplicated, a century ago.  Then, black elites (like their white counterparts) in the Young Men Christian’s Association movement hoped that homosocial male sports cultures would uplift poor African Americans; redirecting male sexual energy towards more productive pursuits and civilizing them for their active participation in marriage and productive labor.  Indeed, Collins ability to “fool” everyone, including his twin brother, by embodying the reserved, upstanding sportsman, is as much a classed performance as it is a gendered one.  But in a world of Shawn Kemps and Kobe Bryants, the public is entirely aware that the regimentation of sports culture does not limit the sexual appetite of black male athletes.  Quite the contrary, our eager and derisive consumption of black athletes and their multiple “baby’s mamas,” suggests that outlandish sexuality is expected of black male athletes. 

 

In implying, whether intentionally or not, a preternatural ability to resist his desires, Collins implicitly reassures anxious team mates concerned that his eyes may have lingered upon their naked bodies in the shower or the locker room - as well as, of course, the team owners who will determine whether he plays ball next year. His apparent chastity also distances himself from his colleagues whose sexual exploits have integrated them into longstanding critiques of the failure and dysfunction of working class black family life.  In an odd twist then, Collins decision to out himself as a desexualized gay man, positions him as significantly more “respectable” than black male athletes who have been “irresponsible” parents.  If Charles Barkely demanded that we not see him as a role model, Jason Collins unapologetically asks that we do, and in doing so, he asks us to reconsider very little of our preconceived notions of proper forms of black male sexuality.

 

Once we view Jason Collins’ coming out narrative as a story of a maturing middle class identity—which culminates in the irrepressible desire for a monogamous commitment or “settling down” as he puts it--it becomes easier to understand his outing—and the auxiliary demand for universal adulation on the part of the media—as part of a well tread genre of black politics.  As a number of historians have noted, Rosa Parks was by no means the first African American in Montgomery to resist Jim Crow on the city’s public bus system.  Movement leaders decided that Claudette Colvin, a young Montgomery activist who placed her body on the line to oppose racial segregation in March of 1955, was an unsuitable symbol of racial progress because she had defiled that body through pre-marital sex and pregnancy.  Though operating in an entirely different time and context, Jason Collins’ announcement does not merely hit the familiar beats of respectability politics, its historicity also relies upon a collective forgetting; this time of trailblazing black gay men from Bayard Rustin, to Joseph Beam, Crystal Labeijia and Essex Hemphill; an inadequate list at best. Yet those men, for a variety of reasons never could or wanted to embody the perfect storm of middle classness and sexual chastity performed by Jason Collins.  Many of them chose to indulge in homosocial contact away from the only territory where such contact is historically and almost universally sanctioned, the sports arena.  In that sense then, the historic import of Jason Collins announcement may be less a sea change towards sexual liberation for black people, and more a signal that now, certain black gay men can be assimilated into the trappings of liberal, middle class American life.

 

***

 

Kwame Holmes is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African studies at the University of Virginia. Next fall he will be Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado-Boulder. He is currently at work on a book manuscript Chocolate to Rainbow City: Branding “Black” and “Gay” in Washington, D.C. 1957-1983.  He can be reached at kwame.holmes@gmail.com or follow him on twitter @KwameHolmes.

 

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