Thursday, February 15, 2007
Come Out -- Win a Million Dollars
John Amaechi’s public identification as gay created a tiny amount of interest. The former NBA center reminded the public that homophobia still runs rampant in professional sports. My solution would be to eliminate all professional sports, but, alas, this doesn’t look likely. Damn it.
To almost no queer people’s surprise (but many straight people’s disbelief), another former NBA player, Tim Hardaway, went on the radio to proudly declare his homophobia days after the Amaechi announcement. Hardaway spent much of the interview giving lengthy speculation on what it would mean to have a gay man in the locker room with him (a topic that he seems to have given a great deal of thought). After that, he put the issue in simple terms, “Well, you know I hate gay people, so I let it be known. I don't like gay people and I don't like to be around gay people. I am homophobic. I don't like it. It shouldn't be in the world or in the United States. So yeah, I don't like it.''
Gee, I just can’t imagine why so many athletes wait until after they retire to come out of the closet (which, btw, I think is wrong – Being out is still the easiest and best strategy to obtain equality for queer folk regardless if you are in the NBA or the PTA – but that’s not the issue today). Personally, I think Hardaway harbors resentment that he has a last name well suited for a gay porn star. While we can work out his psychology later, his comments were not unexpected given the homophobic climate in professional sports.
The other responses, though, that interested me much more were the sports commentators or coaches who dismissed Amaechi’s outing as a means to make a buck. In fairness, Amaechi did reveal his queer desires at the same time that he introduced his autobiography. One commentator for Deseret Morning News called Amaechi’s story of being gay “boring.” “If he is looking for publicity for his book and a big payday by outing himself — and he is,” the columnist wrote, “he's going to have to do better than that.” In a similar vein, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, Mark Cuban, suggested that coming out could result in cash and prizes for NBA players. “From a marketing perspective, if you're a player who happens to be gay and you want to be incredibly rich,”Cuban told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, “then you should come out, because it would be the best thing that ever happened to you from a marketing and an endorsement perspective.”
While I thought these suggestions a bit strange, I really didn’t pay much more attention. Then I happened to be in a conversation about academic job-searches. Several heterosexual professors put forward the notion that being queer helps one get an academic job these days. They argued that departments look for “diversity” and, therefore, are eager to hire gay men and lesbians. This left me a bit mute for a moment.
When did it become possible to imagine coming out as a savvy financial strategy? Yes, I understand that a few queer people have linked coming out to their less-than-noble personal agendas. Jim McGreevy, for instance, declared himself a “gay American” in order to occlude a deeper look into his skivvy political dealings. Likewise, Amaechi’s revelation did conveniently coincide with his book appearing at a Barnes and Noble near you. Overall, though, these are fantastical situations and don’t at all reflect the reality of day-to-day life. Nor do they address the real struggles that many queer people face in being out at work.
I found the academic context more troubling because, well, we are supposed to know better. I can agree that one’s ability to be out in the academic world has improved dramatically even in my short career. At best, though, I would say that one’s sexuality during an interview process is a non-issue. To suggest that being queer gives special advantage either inside or outside the academic world is naïve. It also suggests that queer issues are being conflated with the equally misunderstood notions of affirmative action (It’s not about quotas – but that is an issue for another day).
Gay men, particularly white gay men, are not, and have not been, an under-represented group in the academic world. In proportion to their numbers in the general population, they have attained work as professors (Unlike (gay or straight) Latinos, African Americans, or women, who still don’t have parity with their numbers in the broader society). The issue that has been most salient for queer professors, therefore, has not been attaining work, but keeping it. The academic closet, like the professional athletic closet, allowed queer people to work as long as they kept their sexual desires a secret.
It was only through the willingness of certain queer professors in the past (and present) to be out that changed the climate in the academic world. They had the strange idea that it would be nice if their departments treated them like colleagues rather than something to fear.
In a peculiar turn of events, some have construed queer efforts at creating a fair working place as opportunistic ploys. The presumption that being queer will land one a job for reasons other than their academic research is a dangerous (and wrong) one.
What is particularly disturbing about the linking of being out with gold-digger aspirations is that it is coming from people who imagine themselves as our allies. These are not the hateful Hardaway’s of the world. On the contrary, they intend no harm to us at all.
Unknowingly, though, these types of arguments create an impossible situation for queers. It undercuts the political purpose of being out. Rather than being out as a means to create a safe environment for themselves and other queer people, being out has been remade (by a few straight people) to be all about self-interest. Anybody who comes out, therefore, must only be looking to advance their career or make some quick money. The logical outcome would be, therefore, if one wanted to “prove” their merits, they should stay closeted.
That’s the paradox: Any acknowledgment of our difference from the majority is viewed with suspicion and discounted as just a form of “selfishness.” Yet, without acknowledging the differences, we are not being treated (or treating ourselves) like we are equals with the majority.
This line of thinking also presumes that being out is no longer necessary. Many people claim that one’s sexuality “just doesn’t matter any more.” That is far from true. Rather than consistently being trumpeted as a “hot commodity” or a “lucky hire,” queer professors, especially those who work on queer topics, are often marginalized or made to feel unwelcome (At my home institution in Texas, I once had some senior colleagues making homophobic jokes outside my office door (just as an example)). Even in Boston (a city with explicit civil guarantees for queer people) I have encountered professors who don't feel comfortable being out in their departments.
Claiming that Armaechi’s sexuality is “boring” or just a means for a “big pay-day” becomes a means to ignore his valid complaints about homophobia in the NBA. Such comments pretend that sexuality is not a defining element of our society that structures our sense of ourselves.
Unless, of course, I have been misinformed. If being out really does have some huge pay-day associated with it, then my check must have been lost in the mail.