The narratives that we hear about ourselves are powerful because they become mapped onto our identities. The mind believes what it is told about itself. Though we may not have consciousness to the fact that this phenomenon is happening; our minds are always trying to find an identity, whether it’s positive or negative. I want to bring consciousness to the dominant narratives that exist in our culture and how they are impacting LGBTQ youth of color who are interested in sports as they are seeking their own identities.
The strength of a prominent and consistent narrative has the ability to be believed if an alternative is never offered or if a new narrative is kept in isolation. Both the Black community and sports community have been labeled as hostile places for LGBTQ individuals to exist.
For years the dominant narrative has been that the Black community is viciously homophobic. And yet today, Michael Sam and Jason Collins both exist as the most prominent publicly out gay male figures in sports and they both are Black. Fascinating, huh? And though their stories and the support they have received maybe framed as exceptional because of their celebrity status, they do not exist in isolation.
Black LGBT individuals have been receiving support for years despite a stubborn narrative that intentionally paints the black communities as an insensitive and callous people who complain about oppression yet continue to oppress another marginalized group.
When Jason Collins first announced his sexuality, he intentionally said, " I'm Black and gay." But the mainstream media for a myriad of reasons failed to nuance the conversation and discuss how Jason saying “I'm Black” was both personal and political. But now that Michael Sam has announced his identity as a Black gay man, the conversation must happen.
How can the two most prominent gay male sports figures be African American if they exist within a community that is so virulently homophobic and absent of the capacity to love its' LGBTQ people? For too long, our people have been the scapegoat for America's inability to look at itself in the mirror. Remember California's Proposition 8 debacle, and how many, immediately painted the Black community as Public Enemy #1 for all LGBTQ individuals and their supporters who were fighting for same sex marriage. The onslaught was immediate and national in scope. Even after the facts were known----that Black voters were not to blame---no one created the conversation to reframe the inaccurate dialogue.
Here’s the truth: no one within the Black community created the original anti-sodomy laws which laid foundation for the narrative about the evils and dangers of homosexuality and the attempts to connect LGBTQ individuals and pedophilia.
Unfortunately the pervasive tale of hatred for LGBTQ youth of color has taken root in some of our communities and my lived experiences highlight the destructive power of these narratives.
While working at the Hetrick Martin Institute, an organization that offers services primarily to LGBTQ youth color, I worked with young people whose stories defied that the idea that the Black families don’t support LGBTQ individuals. There, I met a young Black lesbian who was going to run away from home; though she had no proof or tangible reason to believe her parents wouldn’t accept her, she believed the myth. A few months later I ran into her, and as I looked at her smiling face I asked was everything okay. She explained that her mother had known she was a lesbian the whole time, didn’t care and begged her to come back home.
Jason Collins attempted to start the conversation and now Michael Sam is continuing it. When are we as a country going to exist in truth and not narratives that only work to create division and further marginalize a community?
Just ask the sports community how problematic these narratives are. The sports community particularity major sports leagues that are dominated by world class athletes who are also labeled as homophobic, even though many who participate in these conversations have no actual experience within these leagues.
I get it. Many people in high school were bullied or treated harshly by athletes and those scars are real. As a former NFL player and gay male, I knew I was gay in high school, but I wasn’t ready to stand in my own truth. And the massive levels of internalized homophobia caused me to be an active participant in the bullying of any individual who I viewed as different. But athletes aren’t monolithic and our intellectual and social consciousness isn’t static. We evolve, we read, we experience difference and are capable of embracing that difference. Yet, the stories of athletes in high school and even college live on and though everyone is allowed to grow, athletes are forced to remain fixed in the imaginations of others.
Many point to the “imagined” happenings in a locker-room as evidence to show that athletes say and engage in unacceptable behavior. Yes there’s name-calling and the playing of the “dozens”. Even the occasional fight between brothers. And what many would view as homoerotic behavior. But the truth is, an outsider should easily understand that families engage in behavior that only another family member can understand and accept. The locker-room is a filter free zone, but what reigns supreme within all locker rooms is a type of love that is indescribable and indefinable. The type of unconditional love that prevents athletes from ever snitching on each other; ever judging each other but always holding each other accountable to the unspoken rules of the family. And if an outsider were every allowed to peel back all the layers of bravado and see past all the performances of masculinity – all that would be left is the genuine love all athletes share with each other. Which is why we are willing to risk our lives present and future -- for a game. Ask any athlete – we break our bodies for the love of the game but we play for each other.
Is there homophobia within the Black community and sports community? Yes. But homophobia exists, in every community in America. And there is a lot amount of love in the Black community and sports community towards LGBT individuals. As well as people who have transcended those old narratives about LGBT folks and now use their voices to uplift their brother and sisters.
We missed an opportunity when Jason Collins said he was Black and gay. Let us now use Michael Sam’s announcement to change the current narrative. Our youth are growing up in a world where they don’t know they are loved. Where they are bombarded with stories and images that doesn’t reflect the truth about their own people. Are we willing to risk having another generation of LGBTQ youth of color feeling unworthy and forgotten by the people who they count on the most? I’m not.