Thursday, May 2, 2013

Jason Collins coming out forces a redefinition of black masculinity

Jason Collins jumped out of the closet and told the world he’s gay.  He didn’t do it after his career as a professional basketball player.  He made the announcement while still playing.

Collins’ announcement has been compared to Jackie Robinson’s breaking the color line as a professional baseball player.

“Isn’t it nice that he made the announcement shortly after the release of the movie 42,” Vicki Ryder, a member of the Raging Granny’s, said on our return from the Triangle May Day Rally. 

“I wonder if they planned it that way,” she asked.

Folks of my hue are a bit outraged when people analogize Collins with Jackie Robinson. Many are quick to differentiate between a struggle chosen and one you can’t run from.  Put another way, you can hide being gay, but you can’t cover that black and brown skin.

Time could be spent on debating against that assumption.  I’d rather place it in the pot with the other excuses used to justify discrimination.  The discussion about gay rights not being the same as the fight for black justice is in common with the game to determine who has the biggest war scar. 

Discrimination is discrimination. Case dismissed.

The comparison with Robinson isn’t intended to minimize what Robinson did when he left the old Negro Baseball League to join the white dudes in the other league.  The attacks were vicious.  People assumed black players didn’t belong. 

That’s the point that gives credence to the comments made by Ryder.  The suppositions regarding race are common to notions related to being gay. In addition, the hatred facing blacks is similar to the rage carried by those molded in homophobia.

The coming out of Jason Collins throws a serious curveball at the perceptions people hold regarding legitimate masculinity.  Athletes are used to exemplify authentic masculinity.  Athletic prowess, combine with physique, are used to define the peak of machismo.

Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University, considers the ways in which black masculinity has been read and misread through popular culture.  His new book Looking for Leroy argues that black men and boys are bound to the legibility of their bodies.  The most “legible” black male bodies are reflected in images as criminal, and are used by white America to discredit black men.

Neal forces readers to consider the bodies of black men deemed legible as illegible.  He takes the black communities role models and sheds light on the assumptions related to their masculinity.  Neal ponders assertions that Jay-Z is gay, ponders the sexual orientation of the late vocalist Luther Vandross and characters from the hit HBO series The Wire. Neal shows how the uncovering of black masculinity can be used to break the antagonism toward black gay men.

I know. What? He said Jay-Z is gay!

What does it change if that is true?

Neal’s work follows Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.  Marable’s work stripped away layers of myths related to the life of Malcolm X. Many were shocked when Marable exposed Malcolm X’s homosexual relationship with a white businessman prior to his time in prison. 

Critics blasted Marable for exposing Malcolm’s gay lifestyle.  Sadly, Marable died before the release of his book and was unable to promote the work in a way that lifted it beyond the chit chat of academic circle.  As academics pondered the significance of Malcolm being gay, most people were left unaware that it was being discussed.

Does Malcolm’s former homosexual relationship alter the way we evaluate him as a model of masculinity?  Does it alter his message?  Could it be that the saddest part is how men who are gay are forced to hide behind the assumptions of authentic masculinity?

Does any of it matter?

All of it matters.  It matters because it forces a redefinition of black masculinity.  It compels all of us to consider the false suppositions attached to conceptions of the gay body.  They are not less male. They are men who love men.  Their masculinity is not lessened as a result of their sexual orientation.

Both Neal and Marable use prominent figures in popular culture to undo the assumptions held by those who hurl hatred.  Like Jackie Robinson, Jason Collins is that ah-ha moment that attacks the presuppositions of those who discriminate.  Robinson’s skills were no less due to his race.  Collins is no less masculine due to his sexual orientation.

Yes, there is a connection between Collins and Robinson that can’t be avoided.  They both have forced America to face the assumptions that limit progression toward dismantling discrimination.

Black people can compete against white people.

Many athletes are gay.  They’re not that stereotypical depiction in your head.

Look at his physique.  I dare you to call him a sissy.

1 comment:

  1. I appreciate your overarching reach in this discussion of masculinity, black male identity, and homosexuality. You illuminate how any impulse to associate sexual orientation with personality, ability, or notions of masculinity/femininity are simply futile exercises in prejudice and stereotyping.