It's 2010, and finally, people who happen to like people of their own sex have been granted the right to serve in the United States armed forces, pending President Obama's signature of a bill repealing the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy instituted under President Clinton.
That's a small step forward for gay Americans who want to fight for America, and a great step forward for gay Americans who have seen one of the more heinous forms of discrimination against gays — saying that gay soldiers can serve if they never breathe word of their sexual orientation is, at the very least, something that has produced a lot of painful secrets — and it will likely serve as preface to a more widespread movement for equality for gay Americans. (It's worth remembering that Harry Truman's desegregation of the U.S. Army in 1948 took place more than a decade before John Kennedy was even elected to office.)
After the fall of DADT, the logical next step for gay rights is the legalization of gay marriage. And progress has already been made in that respect: fewer than half of Americans now oppose gay marriage, which is the first time that has been true.
But Yahoo!'s Jamie Mottram asked an interesting question on Saturday, as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was being voted into extinction in the Senate:
So, when's pro sports repealing its Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy?
In part, that's a question that's already been answered — the WNBA has had multiple gay players, including Sue Wicks and Sheryl Swoopes, for example, and Martina Navratilova came out in 1981, smack in the prime of her professional career — but there's far less stigma attached to lesbians in sports than there is gay men.
You can chalk that up to greater acceptance from the women's sports community, more courage from female players, fewer expectations about sexual orientation — or, frankly, any archetype beyond "attractive enough for dudes to leer" — for female athletes, or some variation on the retrograde view that all female athletes are either "butch" or "mannish" and therefore it "makes sense" that they like women, "just like men do," but there's no denying that women's professional sports have at least made significant inroads on their "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.
And there's an openly gay man playing a professional sport, too. He's just not an American. Gay rugby star Gareth Thomas came out in December 2009 and was profiled in Sports Illustrated this year.
So what Mottram was mostly speaking to was men's professional sports in America, and specifically the big leagues: the NFL, NBA, and MLB. Each league has had at least one gay player announce his sexuality after the fact — Esera Tuaolo, John Amaechi, and Billy Bean, respectively, though baseball also had Glenn Burke, who told teammates and owners during his playing career, and came out in the media after retiring — but none has seen an player come out as gay during his playing career. And all three leagues would certainly seem to have unofficial, unmentioned codes of silence for gay players. Much as with "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" — which sourced in part from a brutal murder of a gay Navy radioman — that might be a misguided attempt to protect those players from harassment or worse.
After all, what gay person would want to deal with Tim Hardaway, who said "I hate gay people" and much more after Amaechi announced he was gay? And what gay person would want to be on a team with Garrison Hearst, who said "I don't want any faggots on my team" and said, of a hypothetical gay player, "That's a punk." Both of those incidents are now years old, and both Hardaway and Hearst later apologized, but that attitude is likely one that some players still have for gay men.
This much is true of much more than the culture of American professional sports: keeping secrets about "shameful" things to avoid being ostracized and demeaned has been a theme of American culture since at least The Scarlet Letter.
But this is also true about American culture: part of the reason the Puritans even came to America was to find a place where they could be free to be who they were. (And, er, institute a system that repressed different-minded people — hi, Anne Hutchinson! — too. They totally wanted to be free to be you and me, though!) And America has routinely, if slowly, recognized the basic human right to pursue happiness no matter who a person is.
Because of that arc of history, and the more specific progress made in recognizing gay rights, it's hard not to imagine that a gay point guard — or a gay shortstop, or a gay linebacker — is on the horizon, telling the world who he is and asking only for the right to keep doing what he does well while being who he is. But what will that mean?
For one, it may help with another troubling stereotype in American sports and culture. There's no doubt that some of the players often tagged as "gay" on message boards and in bars are also tagged as "soft." Having Tuaolo and Amaechi (an offensive lineman and a center, respectively) come out should already have tipped the fact that sexuality does not inherently make a person less aggressive or less rugged, but having a burly guy who players and fans can see making tackles or snaring tough rebounds will help. The sports community has a lot of ground to be made up in this cultural realm — and mixing gay stereotypes with the women-are-clearly-weak mindset of the "throw like a girl crowd" has just made the miasma more toxic — but just one gay player might make a world of difference.
And after the first player reveals that he's gay, continues to play well, and gets accepted by his teammates, coaches, and fans, it will seem less like a revelation each time. That may help reduce fear of gay players, as men who are threatened by the idea of a gay teammate might feel less threatened realize that they have had gay teammates with no incident for years. And it might prove to the people who view gays and lesbians as second-class citizens that heterosexuality and homosexuality have rather little to do with capability to perform jobs.
Beyond combating worries of weakness and fear born of ignorance, though, that first gay player's going to do a lot for communication and trust. Why? Well, when LeBron James was asked about having a gay teammate in 2007, just after Amaechi came out, he worried that a gay player wouldn't survive in the league — because of trust:
"With teammates you have to be trustworthy, and if you're gay and you're not admitting that you are, then you are not trustworthy," James said. "So that's like the No. 1 thing as teammates -- we all trust each other. You've heard of the in-room, locker room code. What happens in the locker room stays in there. It's a trust factor, honestly. A big trust factor."
If a gay player can come out and be accepted and continue to play, he will help other gay players believe that they can do the same — but he'll also prove to teammates that they can be honest and open and fully trusting. James isn't saying that gay players wouldn't be trusted; he's saying that players who have to hide things aren't trustworthy. Changing the culture to make it so gay players don't feel they need to hide will help, but that likely can't be done without the first brave soul proving it's possible.
Congress has finally decided to trust gay soldiers to be gay and continue carrying out their duties. That decision has been met with much fanfare, but will likely do more to change minds than to alter what the military can do.
When the first NFL (or NBA, or MLB) player trusts his teammates, league, and fans enough to tell the world he's gay, there will be much hubbub, plenty of ink spilled, and many, many hyperlinks.
But then that player will be accepted as a trusted teammate, like he always was. And he'll keep on playing. And he'll show the world that there's no reason he can't do it, and prove that there's no reason he shouldn't be allowed to do it.
He'll also prove that there never was.