Patriarchy of change: Media coverage of Jason Collins as “first openly gay” pro athlete is silencing women

First, let me say that I am excited about the announcement this morning by NBA free-agent Jason Collins that he is gay. The 12-year basketball veteran came out in a Sports Illustrated story published today saying:

“I didn’t set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport. But since I am, I’m happy to start the conversation,” Collins wrote. “I wish I wasn’t the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, ‘I’m different.’ If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I’m raising my hand.”

I join the chorus in support of Collins for this move. I wish we didn’t have describe this as a brave act, but in 2013 we still do. Many athletes and fans took to twitter right away to voice their support, including Kobe Bryant (this may be a first in SCS history that I write something positive about Bryant). But not all reactions were positive. NFL players Mike Wallace and Alphonso Smith voiced objections (some since deleted). And already, ESPN sportscaster Chris Broussard condemned Collins as not acting like a Christian and going against God’s will.

All of this is important. Collins has launched what will no doubt be a spirited conversation about gays in professional sports. That visibility is important. It will be inspiring to countless LGBT and non-LGBT people everywhere to live your truth openly and without shame or fear. It will give hope to LGBT youth who feel alone. And that is very meaningful and to be commended.

Here’s my respectful but… Jason Collins is not the first openly gay professional athlete in American sports.

Heralding Jason Collins as the first openly gay professional athlete denies the contributions of and experiences of a handful of openly gay athletes who have come before him. Those athletes and their impact are being marginalized for a very obvious reason — they are women.

As Mother Jones was quick to point out, WNBA athletes Sheryl Swoopes, Britney Griner (who just got a Nike deal), and Chamique Holdsclaw all came out while playing professionally. Soccer players Megan Rapinoe and Lori Lindsey (an Olympian, no less) have also played while out about their sexual orientations. And let’s not forget Billie Jean King and Martina Navritolova.

NBA star Jason Collins is not the “first openly gay athlete in professional North American team sports,” as some have claimed. Claiming as much implies that either women’s sports don’t matter as much (or don’t exist at all), or that coming out is somehow less of a big deal for professional athletes who happen to be women.

It’s hard to deny the writing on the proverbial wall here, women’s stories don’t count as real watershed moments in the equality movement of the LGBT community, nor the general population — sports fans or otherwise.

Here’s hoping that we can course-correct on this story without diminishing it’s importance and power. I don’t blame Jason Collins for systemic patriarchy of our society that automatically treats women and their experiences as second-class to that of men. But if we are going to applaud someone for doing something brave, let’s do it without marginalizing those who have done the exact same thing and faced the exact same scrutiny and back-lashes because of it.

We can stand in solidarity with Jason Collins while also lifting up the women who did it before him. After all, equality is not a competitive sport.

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11 thoughts on “Patriarchy of change: Media coverage of Jason Collins as “first openly gay” pro athlete is silencing women

  1. I’m not objecting to the injustice of women being marginalized here but I’d like to hear your opinion on the proposition that the problem here isn’t primarily that lesbians do not count but that womens sport isn’t counted?

    The quotes I’ve read make it fairly clear that he isn’t the first openly gay athlete, they seem to emphasize that he’s the first openly gay athlete _in a major team sport_

    “Washington Wizards center Jason Collins say it’s “mind-boggling” to be the first openly gay athlete in a major American team sport”

    “I didn’t set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport. But since I am, I’m happy to start the conversation.”

    “Veteran NBA player Jason Collins announced Monday that he is gay — the first athlete from one of the four major U.S. professional sports leagues to do so.”

    While I agree that homosexual women are marginalized in addition to this, I’d be inclined to argue that the central discrimination here is in fact that womens sports do not count.

    Thoughts?

      • I appreciate both your comments. I think the problem here can’t be separated as “only” sexism against female athletes or sexism against lesbians. I think it’s an intersectional problem exacerbated (exposed, even) by the media coverage.

        Women of all sexual identities are marginalized. Therefore, the work they do (in this case sports) is marginalized. And the lesbian sexuality is sort of the ultimate female-centered life experience to marginalize.

        Lesbianism is threatening to patriarchy because it is seen as an outright affront to strict gender roles as well as a kind of sociological denial of traditional masculinity. I’m not saying this is a chosen agenda, but one put on the lesbian sexual orientation. It is part of the cultural baggage and why so many forces in society fear and strike out against it.

        Now in the case of female athletes, you have a dynamic of separate but not equal (in terms of how a sexist society views women’s physical achievements). And any time a woman threatens the gender binary by asserting her natural-born physical abilities and athletics skills (aggression, ambition, strength, competitiveness, and so on), patriarchy demands that those women be chastised or otherwise silenced. It’s why you see so many stories about how female Olympians stay “pretty.” It’s why there was shock when Mia Hamm ripped off her jersey in celebration on that soccer field so many years ago. It’s also why women who get too strong or too lippy or too outside gender norms are “threatened” with lesbian-baiting. (What a dyke!)

        So, if the “cultural wisdom” is that a lot of female athletes are lesbians (whether real or just assumed), then it is a way to ignore or demean the power of their coming out stories AND a way to demean women’s sports.

        Society says: Strong woman = bad woman.
        Society says: Athletic woman = bad woman.
        Society says: Lesbian = bad woman.
        Therefore: Strong woman = athletic woman = lesbian.

        You get where I’m going here? It’s chicken and the egg. Do we marginalize them because they’re lesbians or because they’re women. YES.

        Now, the same patriarchal sexism applies to men and gay men. Being a gay man is correlated to being feminine in the patriarchal system, therefore it’s seen as almost more abhorrent than lesbianism. Why would a person from the privileged class (heterosexual male) “choose” to leave the privileged class? (Obviously I don’t think any sexual orientation is a choice.) But the elevation of Jason Collins’ story over the history of out female athletes points directly to the misogyny and sexism deeply ingrained in our society.

        It’s all intertwined. And we didn’t even talk about Collins being black, which is a whole other layer of intersectional analysis.

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