American Culture

Time for America’s Freddie Mercury moment: there are more than 100 gay pro athletes in the US, and the sooner they get out of the equipment closet the better

In a recent discussion on one of my political lists Sara Robinson (easily one of the brightest folks in the blogosphere) made an important point about what often causes people to migrate from socially conservative perspectives to more progressive points of view. In describing her experiences with a particular activist group that helped people leaving fundamentalist religions (something that can be emotionally traumatic at the very least, and that frequently comes at a significant price in their lives – lost families, ostracization, etc.), she noted:

[T]he first sliver of doubt came about when the person’s authorities asked them to believe something that they simply could not reconcile with their own experience. In a plurality of cases, this dissonance was caused by knowing and caring for someone who was gay, and realizing that the conservative storyline on the inherent evil of homosexuality just didn’t line up with what they knew of this wonderful person. (If the religious right knew just how often this one issue triggered those first unignorable doubts, they’d walk away from gay-hating and never go back to it.) Other issues included things like gender roles (women chafed), Islamaphobia, and so on. There finally came a point where they could no longer buy off on the party line, because it simply didn’t comport with their lived reality.

But once they recognized this one point of dissonance, the door was open, and there was usually no going back. (Sometimes people would come around for a week or two, then leave when they realized the magnitude of the process, then come back again a year or two later, when they’d gotten their lives arranged to take the hit.) Once the first doubt was acknowledged, they’d start questioning other beliefs as well.

Sara’s observations edge into the reasons why, when I’m talking about combatting the horribly self-destructive movement conservative ideologies that have eaten away at our nation’s political, social and economic viability in the past 30-40 years I’m always so adamant about the need to attack our current hegemony from a cultural perspective as well as an overtly political one.

You may be wondering what I mean by “cultural.” If so, I’m talking about all the things in our lives that we invest in, but that we don’t usually think of as necessarily political. Like sports. Or music. Or stamp collecting, or movies, or cooking, or gardening, or television. Think about church activities, civic group involvement, charity work. The bridge club, the book club, the PTA. You know, all the stuff that makes up your life.

Let me illustrate with a story about my own path. I grew up working class Southern Baptist in rural North Carolina raised by very conservative grandparents who’d grown up through the Depression. This was before the Southern Baptist Convention went completely around the bend, so we weren’t as reactionary as some folks in Davidson County, but we were still a long way from progressive. My culture was sexist. It was racist. And don’t even get me started on teh queers. If I wasn’t personally every backwards redneck stereotype you’ve ever encountered, somebody in my family or my circle of friends was.

Somehow, though, I wound up being pretty progressive. What happened? Well, a number of things happened, including a good education and the occasional moment where I had to confront the fact that I had done things I knew were wrong.

The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke

Another big thing that happened involved a musician born in 1946 in Zanzibar. His given name was Farrokh Bulsara, but he’s more commonly known by his adopted stage name: Freddie Mercury. In case you’re one of the rare and unfortunate few who aren’t familiar with Freddie’s band, Queen, here are the basics. They’re unquestionably one of the greatest bands of all-time and many regard Mercury as the greatest rock singer in history.

In 2005, a poll organised by Blender and MTV2 saw Mercury voted the greatest male singer of all time. In 2009, a Classic Rock poll saw him voted the greatest rock singer of all time. In 2008, Rolling Stone editors ranked him number 18 on their list of the 100 greatest singers of all time. Allmusic has characterised Mercury as “one of the most dynamic and charismatic frontmen in rock history.”

Freddie was also gay. He made no secret of this, nor did he make a campaign of it. It was part of who he was, but he never allowed his sexual identity to define him as a person. At the time A Night at the Opera was propelling Queen into superstardom in 1975 I was a naïve kid who really didn’t know what gay was. I mean, I knew that my father thought one of my best friends was a blossoming queer, and I knew that he was terrified that I might catch it, but I knew these things in only the vaguest way. I knew the words, but I had no real insight into the specifics and details of homosexuality. So initially Freddie’s gayness didn’t really register. The only thing I knew, and the only thing that mattered, was that his music was spectacular. Queen – Freddie, Brian May, John Deacon and Roger Taylor – were my first real rock & roll heroes, and my worship of them was unconditional.

Over time, though, I came to better understand a couple of things. First, I grew to know what a homosexual was. And second, it became increasingly clear that Freddie was one of them. It didn’t all happen overnight, of course. We’re talking about a process that played out over three or four years. But somewhere along the line a hero-worship version of the cognitive dissonance Sara describes above reached a boiling point for me. My religion and my culture were telling me the worst kinds of things about gays. But Freddie Mercury was not evil. He was not a tool of the devil. Sure, he was decadent in the way that all self-respecting rock stars were. But he was not damned.

Freddie was brilliant, purely and simply. And nothing as transcendent as “Bohemian Rhapsody” could be bad. Period.

The Empire Strikes Back

By the end of my freshman year in college, my rejection of the conservative culture back home was well under way. I’m sure my experience isn’t unusual, either. It’s hard to imagine the counter-cultural movement of the 1960s without a soundtrack: The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Janis Ian, Arlo Guthrie, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Dead and The Jefferson Airplane all served the progressive resistance to a corrupt establishment. Kent State inspired CSNY’s “Ohio.” Edwin Starr sang about “War.” Black Sabbath even got in on the act with “War Pigs.”

Music was a powerful source of progressive leverage from one end of the Sixties cultural revolution to the other. If you were going to be cool, if you were going to be socialy relevant, it was going to be hard to do it humming along to “Okie from Muskogee.”

You may have noticed, however, that American music culture is no longer dominated by the protest, the anti-establishment, the counter-cultural. Sure, there are occasional American Idiot moments, but those are the exceptions, not the rule.

What happened to popular music as a progressive cultural weapon? The right outflanked us, that’s what. If you were a conservative strategist, activist, think tanker or rising star in the 1960s, it had to be painfully clear that progressive musicians were a problem. If only there were a way to neuter that generative force…

When Ronald Reagan took office he appointed Mark Fowler to be his FCC chairman, and an armchair historian doesn’t have to dig far to understand what his marching orders were. One of the first things on the agenda: butcher the public interest standard. A landmark 1982 policy paper co-authored by Fowler and his legal counsel, David Brenner, offered the breathtaking assertion that, and I quote, “the public’s interest, then, defines the public interest.” In other words, the public interest is what the public is interested in.

Let’s test that theory. Here are today’s top Yahoo! searches. Feel free to explain how this list articulates America’s best interest in a way that doesn’t utterly clown the English language.

  1. Facebook
  2. YouTube
  3. Mila Kunis
  4. Scarlett Johansson
  5. Amanda Beard
  6. Denise Richards
  7. Olivia Wilde
  8. Jennifer Connelly
  9. Nikki Sixx
  10. Brooke Hogan
  11. Hulk Hogan
  12. Alina Kabaeva
  13. Virginia Madsen
  14. TRON: Legacy
  15. Best Friends Animal Society
  16. Bellagio Robbery
  17. Iron Man 3
  18. Pacific Palisades
  19. Preschool Activities
  20. NFL

I mean, what does it say when The Onion gets it and the FCC doesn’t?

Destroying the public interest standard was an important first step, and one that worked hand-in-hand with the corporatization of our cultural birthright. Up next, mass corporate ownership was required to homogenize the musical landscape in a way that made things more centrally manageable. So the FCC eliminated radio’s duopoly rules, which had historically fostered localism and programming diversity by restricting how many stations a company could own. This allowed the Clear Channelization of music, enabling things like blacklisting of the Dixie Chicks and America’s leading owner of radio stations staging pro-war rallies.

Let’s restate that just to make sure we understand how far we’ve come in 40 years. In the 1960s music was the centerpiece of the anti-war movement. In the 2000s, popular music radio stations staged pro-war rallies.

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

Another important cultural space here in the US surrounds sports. For better or worse, Americans are passionate, if not outright irrational, about athletics. We play, we cheer, we watch on TV and attend in person, and we spend a small fortune on branded merchandise. Unfortunately, jock culture isn’t terribly progressive. Lately I’ve been thinking about what it would take to move this corner of the culture into the win column.

Sexual identity, again, strikes me as an important leverage point. If pro sports are like the rest of society, there are currently a lot of gays on active rosters of big four sports franchises in the US. Let’s look at the math:

Estimates for how many gays there are in the US vary wildly, but it looks like the most reliable number for men is in the 2.8% range. So let’s take that as our working estimate.

There are 32 NFL teams, and each carries around 60 players. So that’s 1,920.

30 NBA teams, 12-man rosters: 360 players.

There are 30 Major League Baseball franchises (if you count the Colorado Rockies) and they have 25-man rosters for the bulk of the season. So that’s 750.

NHL teams dress a 20-man rosters for each game, and there are 30 teams, so that’s another 600.

Note: I’m being conservative here. If you factor in practice squads, injury lists, minor league call-ups and the like these numbers get significantly larger. But for the sake of discussion, let’s just stick with active roster numbers and see what happens.

By my math, this means we can expect the following to be about right:

  • NFL: 54 gay players
  • NBA: 10 gay players
  • MLB: 21 gay players
  • NHL: 17 gay players
  • Total in “Big 4” American sports leagues: 102 active gay players

Note that I don’t even include MLS, lacrosse, golf, tennis, bowling or pro wrestling.

All of these athletes remain in the equipment closet, and you have to imagine that it’s a conflicted life they lead. But if a number of prominent sports heroes were to come out, though, what kind of cognitive dissonance would it set up in the minds of the fans of these athletes? I don’t know who, among the sports elite, might be gay (former players like Dave Kopay and John Amaechi have come out, and there’s certainly been plenty of speculation about former stars like Mike Piazza). I know there are top players who ring my gaydar pretty thoroughly (including one insanely popular athlete in my own city). But for the sake of argument, let’s imagine what would happen if, in short order, Peyton Manning, Dwayne Wade, Albert Pujols and Alexander Ovechkin (or players on their level) were to reveal to the public that they were gay?

Millions and millions of enthusiastic sports fans, many of them the proud owners of replica jerseys, would now face their own Freddie Mercury moments. On the one hand, these are people in whom they have tremendous emotional investments. On the other, well, there’s that manly homophobic code that’s propagated by their religions and their political leaders (a good many of whom seem to have their own closet issues).

It’s likely that sales of these players’ merch would drop at first, but what happens when there are dozens of players out? What happens when significant numbers of their teammates (and opponents) step to the microphone and declare their support? What happens when, in the span of a few weeks or months, it’s not a big deal anymore? It’s just … life.

The path toward a more open sports establishment might be an easier one than many imagine. We know that anti-gay rhetoric has less traction with Gen Xers and almost none at all with Millennials (even those who regard themselves as conservative). Further, it seems clear that we’re talking about when, not if. It’s only a matter of time, and once a prominent player steps forward and shatters the rainbow curtain there is every reason to believe that American culture will be less hospitable than ever for anti-humanist politics and the social conservatives who seek to profit from them.

And that’s ultimately the goal: to create a society that’s so open and pro-human, so completely rejecting of all forms of prejudice, that the politics of hatred and divisiveness dies from a lack of oxygen.

On that day, we will find that so many of the political battles we once devoted so much energy to no longer need fighting.

8 replies »

  1. As a former Southern Baptist raised in a conservative Midwestern household, I had exactly the moment of cognitive dissonance Sara describes when I started college, and two of my closest friends came out to me. I was still processing the first one (a college floormate who is still my best friend after 25 years) when we watched the video (during the heyday of MTV) of a-ha’s Take On Me (a video recently receiving new life through its “Literal Video Version.” a-ha was a two-hit Norwegian 80s new wave/synth pop band, hardly worthy of generating such a moment (certainly when compared to Freddie), but my friend P and I were watching the video together when he said “that guy (the lead singer” is really hot.” I was still “dealing” with the fact that P was/is gay, when it occurred to me that that’s all it really means, that we find the same guys hot. Anything more than that is society’s problem.

    Shortly thereafter, I stopped trying to find a local church to attend, and essentially turned my college major into a gay studies major (before the days when they were formally established) after being disgusted by a Supreme Court that could criminalize private sexual conduct in Bowers v. Hardwick. In an age of identity politics, it was hard to become any more gay than I was without sleeping with women, which I wasn’t inclined to do. And it became pretty amusing to watch the Southern Baptist Convention go off the deep end, rather than something that had any meaning in my life.

  2. I wonder how many similar stories there are all over the country?

    Sara’s observation was dead-on – vague ideology has very little chance when faced with the personal that’s right in front of you.

    Thanks for the comment.