How Jason Collins Shaped The Way We View “Gay Men”
In society stereotypes are attached to our identities and are used to generalize large groups of people.
Black women have attitudes. Hasidic Jewish women are oppressed. Native Americans are gamblers. Latinos are overly sexual. Black people are lazy. Jewish people don’t tip. Asians are racist. The list goes on.
But what does a gay man look like? How does he act and what does he wear?
The answers to these questions changed once NBA player Jason Collins became the first openly gay professional athlete. It takes a certain bravery to come out as a black male athlete in the NBA because being “black” and “male” and an “athlete” don’t exactly coincide with the stereotypical portrayal of gay men in society, or even what a person thinks of when they hear the word “gay.” Instead, many people view gay men as sexually deviant or flamboyant, fashion-obsessed drama queens–stereotypes that Collins doesn’t fit into.
In his editorial in Sports Illustrated, Collins wrote:
I celebrate being an African-American and the hardships of the past that still resonate today. But I don’t let my race define me any more than I want my sexual orientation to. I don’t want to be labeled, and I can’t let someone else’s label define me.
At a certain point, like Collins said, we want our identities to be just that– not a definition. Yes, I’m black, but that’s not all. Yes, I’m a woman, but I’m all of these other things too. At times race, gender, and sexual orientation labels are warranted, but for some it can be particularly exhausting, especially when the only thing you’re selling is yourself as a human being.
Another vehicle that influences the way people are portrayed and shapes the way we view gay people is media.
When Will and Grace aired in 1998, the show was applauded for having lead gay characters, but the criticism that plagued Will and Grace was that Jack McFarland (Sean Hayes) was a caricature of a gay man.
Blogger Charles Jensen writes on his website:
“To summarize Will & Grace, queerly, is to note that there are, visibly, two kinds of gay people: Wills and Jacks. The Wills of the world are slightly neurotic, mostly chaste, affluent men who hold white-collar jobs and live in Manhattan . . . The Jacks of the world are promiscuous, artistic types who walk around with a virtual spotlight on them. Jacks are “sad clowns,” humorists whose behavior often crushes those upon whom it is wielded. If it isn’t clear yet, Jacks are your typical, “effeminate” gay men.”
Similarly, Queer as Folk (2000) was both praised and criticized for it’s portrayal of gay men. It was deemed groundbreaking because “It dealt with same-sex marriage, adoption, hate crimes, disease, drug abuse, discrimination, cures for homosexuality, ability for professional athletes to be open about their queerness, representations in media,” according to Film Commune. But the show was often looked at with scrutiny because of the prevalence of promiscuity.
The first gay character who broke some of the limitations (for better or worse is up for debate) was Omar Little, a fictional character on the HBO series The Wire. Omar, a black man who carried a shot gun to rob drug dealers and give their product to the poor, utterly shocked viewers with his openness about his sexuality. Living in communities where gayness was openly chastised and less accepted (black community, drug community, “urban” community), Omar was not only an unconventional character, he was an iconic character. Though he exhibited an alpha-male role, his character showed the complexity of humanity: he was sensitive, he wasn’t the “ideal” definition of a “good man,” and his love for his partner, Brandon was as fierce and true as any other relationship.
Today Jason Collins has inadvertently shaped the way gay men are perceived. He’s not the only gay black athlete, but because of his courage to publicize his sexuality, he has further expanded our scope of gay men.
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