Family Man

Jason_Collins_2012Martina Navratilova made it plain: Men’s professional basketball player Jason Collins’s announcement that he is gay is a “game changer.” Collins forces a reconsideration of gender assumptions, and his announcement disrupts outdated intersecting logics of gender and race, striking a massive blow against racist stereotypes about black machismo, bodily danger and sexual power.

Momentum for such an announcement from a male athlete in one of the four major sports has been building. Policy and public opinion are certainly moving in the right direction, and Collins was commended by the President and First Lady as well as basketball superstar Kobe Bryant, one of the most overtly macho players in the game.

Though the climate is changing, such a revelation still requires extraordinary individual courage. Collins is painfully honest about his battles with fear, loneliness and self-deception. Such pain does not simply spring from the anxieties of those who hide their sexual preference, but from the psychological and political violence enacted by communities that remain hostile to LGBT people. In response to Collins’s admission, ESPN reporter Chris Broussard called being gay “an open rebellion to God.” Also on Monday, the Texas Attorney General released his opinion that the state constitution prevents local governments from offering domestic partner benefits to employees in same-sex relationships. Standing up to such bigotry should never be taken for granted, despite the recent gains in LGBT rights.

But what strikes me most forcefully about Collins’s Sports Illustrated piece is not his individual bravery. It is the way his courage is linked to ideas about family. His admission demands a reconsideration of what family means and can do for us. Of course, “family values” rhetoric is the fuel for the repressive moral panic machine that sputters along in its doomed quest to deny LGBT people’s humanity and rights. But the Collins story shows us the true potential of family values, as ideas about kinship and familial relations help us understand how Collins has moved forward and others might follow.

Collins tells us that the first relative he came out to was his aunt, who told him she had known he was gay for years. Her matter-of-factness and support was liberating for Collins, and allowed him to “ignore his censor button” for the first time. He frames the surprise of his sexuality by revealing that his family “has had bigger shocks,” including the surprise of twins when he and his brother Jarron were born. Collins knew he was gay at a relatively early age and felt himself drifting slightly apart from his brother as a result, but reports a happy childhood in the Los Angeles suburbs. He also knew that he had a sympathetic ear close by in his uncle, an openly gay man in a long-term partnership who was a model of “love and compassion.”

These descriptions of Collins’ connections to his relatives give us a sense of the richness and complexity of his network. Some of his family members could relate more closely than others, and his identical twin, the person with whom he shares the strongest biological connection, became a reference point for difference. Jarron was shocked by his brother’s news, but responded with deep and abiding love and sense of responsibility for Jason’s well being. Collins forges his gay identity out of all these elements. His family is a support system woven not merely from biological sameness, but from diversity, adaptability and willingness to respond to the unexpected with unconditional love at all stages of Collins’s development.

“Family” doubles as perhaps the most commonplace metaphor for team-sport culture. During the Houston Rockets-Oklahoma City Thunder NBA playoff game last night, reporter Tracy Wolfson told viewers that she asked All-Star Kevin Durant for his take on the Collins announcement. Echoing Kobe Bryant’s tweet, Durant’s response was “This is like a brotherhood. I support him.” Teammates from children’s leagues to the pros are taught to look out for each other like brothers and sisters on and off the court. They are expected to sacrifice for each other and stand up for one another when someone is threatened. They are also expected to keep secrets and defend each other from the media and outside criticism, even when hurtful rumors are true and criticism is warranted. In his essay, Collins reassures teammates: “What happens in the locker room stays in the locker room.”

The sanctity of the locker room resembles the highly masculinized military code of ethics. Nervousness about gays serving openly in the military was debunked as unfounded paranoia, as studies found no ill affects in terms of unit cohesion or military effectiveness prior to the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Despite this precedent, Collins seems unsure how his peers will react, allowing for the possibility of locker room awkwardness and questions about professionalism. He assures teammates and other readers, “My conduct won’t change … I’m still a model of discretion.”

If the family metaphor is to retain its value in team sports and as a moral conviction, the definition of family must continue to evolve via legislation and cultural phenomena like athletics. The culture of sameness and secrecy that compels Collins to reassure fellow players must be replaced by the family experience he gained off the court as a young man. The reassurance Collins has received from the commissioner of the NBA as well as fellow players is a positive sign. But rather than applauding after the fact, these collectives need to demonstrate their claim to family by getting out ahead of the ongoing struggle for gay rights and other worthy causes. “Family” is more than an expression of blood ties and more than a metaphor used freely to describe group activity. It entails actual deeds and commitments: public and private support for those in need, respect for difference and acts of reciprocity and love. Those phenomena, Collins teaches us, will enable and outlast individual acts of bravery.

Photo of Jason Collins going up to block a shot from Wikimedia Commons