We Didn’t Create the Closet: Raising the Stakes for ‘Coming Out’
For many of us in the LGBTQ community, Jason Collins offers a grand celebratory moment. Quite simply, he announced, “I’m black. And I’m gay,” and disputably became the “the first active male athlete in a major U. S. team sport to come out of the closet.” Though he might be the first active male athlete, he joins a courageous bunch of LGBTQ athletes who have already disclosed their sexuality. Most notably the recent rising star of the WNBA, Brittney Griner, who came out with much less media attention.
Yet, while Collins’ coming out certainly deserves applause and accolades, this celebration applauds an insufficient means for improving the lives of queer individuals. Generally, I question the effectiveness of “coming out” as our society grows more progressive about LGBTQ issues. Collins opened himself up to the world right at the moment where the media began buzzing about “when” a player in a major sport would come out.We must take note of this carefully. Since essentially, as Rod McCullom writes in Ebony, the question was not a matter of “if” a player would come out, but “when.” What is supposed to make “coming out” a powerful phenomenon is the fact that it is unexpected. Coming out is meant to give visibility to the LGBTQ community in spaces where it was assumed we didn’t exist. But as our visibility increases, as “coming out” is deemed inevitable, “coming out” is increasingly becoming inadequate for addressing the problems facing the LGBTQ community.
This argument is not to detract from Collins’ decision. It is powerful to have a visible gay athlete in a world where sports can often be the apex of hyper-masculinity and homophobia. But coming out of the closet is essentially a privileged phenomenon. Many queer youth of color do not have loving support systems and spaces where merely disclosing their sexuality offers affirming moments or increased safety. They cannot rely on calls from Obama nor interviews with Oprah. At best, queer youth of color can rely on surrogate queer elders for love and protection, or at worst, will have to rely solely on their self-reliance. Individual celebrities choosing to “come out” might aid the broader abstract and conceptual plight of LGBTQ individuals, but it can have little tangible benefit for queer youth of color suffering from homelessness, violence, and poverty.
Given that “coming out” grows increasingly inadequate for our contemporary challenges, the time has come to raise the stakes around “coming out.” For highly privileged individuals, praise should not be awarded for just coming out, but what they choose to do after. Will Collins now become a fierce advocate for queer youth of color? Will he continuously work to make sure professional sports become spaces where all gender identities and sexualities can be accepted? Or will he merely revel in his praise and adoration? I am extremely happy for Collins, but I realize that his praise is fraught with privilege. He now has a responsibility to help ensure that queer individuals with less social currency can come behind him.
It certainly takes courage to come out of the closet. But queer people did not create the closet, homophobia did. So we can’t expect to fight homophobia by adhering to the terms of phenomena we didn’t create. As our society grows more aware of queerness, coming out as a strategy in and of itself can no longer be the be-all-end-all of affirming our identities. We must celebrate Collins and what his choice means for us. This is truly a monumental occurrence. However, it is time to raise the bar. Coming out is wonderful, but what one chooses to do with that new visibility is what deserves real attention.