Earlier this year the three major television networks—ABC, CBS, and NBC—included the coming-out story of a certain professional basketball player in their nightly news broadcasts. For CBS, the story about the NBA player actually led the news broadcast. Jason Collins, a seven-foot-tall thirty-four-year-old with a countenance that comingles grace with philosophical introspection, declared himself gay in a poignant personal essay published in Sports Illustrated magazine. Collins was the first active male player in the four major U.S. sports—basketball, football, baseball, and hockey—to declare his homosexuality since Glenn Burke, who played for the L.A. Dodgers in the 1970s.
For a nation that remains by and large contemptuous of nonconforming notions of masculinity, the Jason Collins event was nothing short of earth-shattering. Comparisons to Jackie Robinson were made. But what was at stake in the Jason Collins event was neither a question of racial integration, nor even of tolerance for gays, but of masculine identity itself: could a man who falls in love with other men be integrated into the American ideal of manhood? Only time will tell.
Yet what is unmistakable at this point in 2013 is that, notwithstanding some substantive dissent, a consensus among most American gay men seems to have emerged: namely, integrating male-to-male romance into the American ideal of manhood ought be the task at hand, rather than upending that ideal altogether. What a shame. What a waste.
In the post-9/11 era, when the American ideal of manhood was played upon to stir up a xenophobic and militaristic frenzy, gay male identity politics could have been a countervailing force in American society. It could have told young men, regardless of sexual persuasion, that their manhood and human dignity is already fully intact. It could have convinced them that their self-worth is not contingent upon external affirmation from Don Rumsfeld, a right-wing talk show host, or even a family member pressuring them to “get their act together” and join the military. Yet it turned out that mainstream gay male identity politics never held such higher aspirations, even if some individual self-identified gay men did, and still do.
Mainstream Gay Support for Militarism
Earlier in 2013, for example, in an interview with Rookie, an online magazine catered to teenage girls, the British singer Morrissey (formerly of the ’80s band The Smiths) claimed that he once believed that if more men in the world were homosexual there would be no wars. Asked what political causes mattered most to him when he was a teenager, Morrissey responded:
War, I thought, was the most negative aspect of male heterosexuality. If more men were homosexual, there would be no wars, because homosexual men would never kill other men, whereas heterosexual men love killing other men. They even get medals for it. Women don’t go to war to kill other women. Wars and armies and nuclear weapons are essentially heterosexual hobbies.
Alas, some homosexual men do kill other men in war—just ask all the gay men who were clamoring for decades to have equal opportunity to give life, limb, and mental health to join the U.S. military. Their dream of unfettered participation in the military industrial complex finally came true with the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in 2011.
At gay pride parades that take place across the country each summer, there are bound to be some soldiers and veterans who have shot dead other men in the streets and fields of Iraq and Afghanistan. No doubt some of those Iraqi and Afghan men were gay themselves. It’s delusional to think homosexual men are incapable of killing other men in war. Give them a stable paycheck and the patina of a socially respectable role, and homosexual men are just as willing to kill other men in war as heterosexual men.
Yet I can empathize with Morrissey. I too was once an idealistic teenager who believed that homosexuality was, if not a panacea, then something approximating a proto-panacea.
If a man really loves other men, how could he shoot them in war?
Indeed, the support from some in the LBGT community for the imprisoned Wikileaks whistleblower Chelsea Manning (formerly known as Bradley Manning, who was out as gay before coming out as transgender) is a testament to the fact that there are still some gay dissenters out there whose social goals and values expand well beyond trite expressions of “compassion for the gays” from mainstream society. That Manning, at all of twenty-two years old, managed to essentially put a foot down on a grotesque war machine that celebrated bloodlust, is a sign of hope that gay culture has not been thoroughly reduced to extravagent political galas with former presidents and getting on the A-lists of said galas.
Yet as Andy Thayer of the Chicago-based Gay Liberation Network wrote in a Windy City Times column, mainstream gay organizations—which of course get their funding from mainstream gays—wouldn’t touch the Manning case with a ten-foot pole, notwithstanding the fact that Manning’s physical and mental torture at the hands of the military-industrial complex was infused with homophobic hatred. For example, when a Manning supporter employed by the organizers of San Francisco’s gay pride parade prematurely announced that the imprisoned Manning would be honored as grand marshal in absentia in the 2013 parade, San Francisco Pride put a stop to the honor. Despite the fact that Manning has been nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize, and despite the fact that Manning had drawn support from previous grand marshals of the parade, the parade’s organizers repudiated the prisoner of conscience. Thus, while the gender non-conforming dissident may be a source of inspiration for some gay men, Manning is, in effect, a direct threat to a mainstream gay community that has its sights set on integrating same-sex relationships into traditional notions of masculinity. Manning is not only transgender, she is also a military-industrial-complex repudiator. For this reason she is persona non grata as far as the mainstream gay community is concerned.
Striving to Assimilate
Despite the existence of certain subcultures within the gay male community, like the Radical Faerie movement, modern mainstream gay culture has indeed become decidedly assimilationist. According to famed playwright Tony Kushner, that fact should hardly be surprising. Alex Ross of the New Yorker recently pointed to a 1994 Nation article expaining Kushner’s theory behind the phenomenon. Ross writes:
In 1994, when same-sex marriage was first edging into the national consciousness, Tony Kushner, the far-seeing author of “Angels in America,” wrote a piece for The Nation in which he expressed unease with the latest pragmatic strain of gay politics, its focus on a few eminently wholesome and winning issues. He felt, as many had been feeling for years, that a radical, insurrectionary tradition in gay culture was falling away—that gays and lesbians were in danger of succeeding too well in their urge to join the mainstream.
Ross goes on to quote Tony Kushner as saying:
It’s entirely conceivable that we will one day live miserably in a thoroughly ravaged world in which lesbians and gay men can marry and serve openly in the Army and that’s it. Capitalism, after all, can absorb a lot. Poverty, war, alienation, environmental destruction, colonialism, unequal development, boom/bust cycles, private property, individualism, commodity fetishism, the fetishization of the body, the fetishization of violence, guns, drugs, child abuse, underfunded and bad education (itself a form of child abuse)—these things are key to the successful functioning of the free market. Homophobia is not; the system could certainly accommodate demands for equal rights for homosexuals without danger to itself.
As if singing on cue to Kushner’s prophetic articulation, though no doubt unwittingly, last February the Los Angeles Gay Men’s Choir provided the backdrop for Seth McFarlane’s sexist, pathetic, and puerile “We Saw Your Boobs” Oscar routine. Though the routine was rightly panned by many commentators as sexist, it’s not hard to imagine how “proud” the choir must have been to partake in the event. After all, save for members of specific gay subcultures, mainstream gay men have, by and large, ceded discussion of masculinity and conceptions of masculine virtue entirely to straight men. By participating in one of the most sexist skits in recent television memory, the Los Angeles Gay Men’s Choir had succeeded in being included by their straight male peers. Whether it involves sexist frat house humor at the Oscars or participating in an unjust war, being accepted by the standard male archetypes—no matter how entrenched in masculine insecurity those archetypes may be—is all that really matters to many gay men.
Rethinking Gay and Straight Masculinity
Nowadays guns are the preferred chicken soup for the wounded straight male soul. Carrying a gun around gives these men the feeling that they are in control of their lives and that they are respected. As the political intransigence in the current gun debate demonstrates, not even the reality of children getting killed in mass shootings and daily gun violence can penetrate the hearts of men who have made guns the central feature of their made-of-tin manhood.
It’s thrilling that a majority of Americans, according to multiple polls, have now been swayed to support same-sex marriage equality. And yet, I look at the carnage of the last ten years with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I look at the mutilated bodies and burned faces of soldiers returning from those wars. I look at the carnage of the American gun plague, especially among the children. I look at the depressed faces of so many men in ordinary life, dutifully abiding by the dictates of shallow, tin-man, macho masculinity and getting nothing in return for their submission, save another day of sorrow.
Whereas Tony Kushner might put his finger squarely on capitalism’s ability to absorb homosexuality into the system to explain how gay marriage can coexist with gun culture and militarism, arguably it is the failure of gay men themselves to actually challenge extant notions of masculinity that may help to explain the paradox of federal marriage equality coming to pass even as shallow machismo, sexism, wars, and guns have come to define the life experiences of so many American men. After all, unlike mainstream lesbians, who have developed a deeper relationship to women’s issues and feminist politics, mainstream gay men have essentially left untouched the contemporary discussion of masculinity.
To be sure, more and more American men, like the Seth McFarlanes of society, have come to accept the reality of the gay ghetto, and even the marriages within those ghettoes. The gay ghetto is not a physical ghetto so much as a social construct: a brick wall between rigid sexual identities. So long as gay men don’t challenge their conceptions of masculinity, more and more straight men are glad to respect the rights of the sexual minorities on the other side of the wall.
Earlier this year, just weeks before Jason Collins made his declaration, the National Hockey League and the N.H.L. Players Association announced a partnership with You Can Play, a group that seeks to combat homophobia in the world of sports. Great, but what is this partnership going to do to challenge destructive conceptions of masculinity that pervade the sports world, most especially the sexual degradation of women? Anything?
Let’s be clear, despite the increasing happy talk between some gay and straight men, when it comes to challenging cultural norms of masculinity, there is a glaring “Do Not Trespass” sign hanging on the straight side of that wall. The San Francisco Pride committee, as well as other mainstream gay organizations and individuals, have learned to respect that wall.
Genuine social progress would demand a wholesale tearing down of that “Do Not Trespass” sign, along with the wall. It would demand, at minimum, surpassing the confines of sexual identity politics and arriving at an open discussion on what constitutes fair, loving, nurturing, and humane manhood. As Eli Zaretsky pointedly wrote in his essay, “Identity Politics Is Not Enough: Why the Left Needs Universalism,” “Identity politics is not concerned with what we think but with who we are.” Social transformation—especially a transformation of masculine identity from one of conquest and domination to one of love and nurturing—demands a concern for what we as men are actually thinking, not just affirming who we already are. Gay identity politics is undoubtedly concerned with the latter and has proven all too often to be downright hostile to the former.
It is a positive thing that Jason Collins and other professional athletes are achieving greater acceptance for themselves. But until all men—with or without a sexual identity label—can learn to reject any type of masculine identity construct that glorifies the subjugation of human beings, be it through violence, sexual degradation, or economic exploitation, nobody should be overplaying the social significance of “gays in the locker room,” physical or metaphorical.