For what seems like a lifetime, those who follow gay issues in sports have been addressing the same tiresome series of questions: "Is America ready for an openly gay athlete in one of the four major team sports?" "When will a current player finally come out?" "How will it affect the locker room?"
The list goes on.
While we wait patiently for a major athlete to come out and put these questions to rest, at least we can see our dreams (and, at times, our nightmares) play out in Hollywood.
Last week, USA Network's Necessary Roughness became the latest in a long line of TV shows to imagine an athlete's coming-out process. The depiction of quarterback Rex Evans making the decision to come out as a gay man has largely been treated with care, compassion and complexity.
The storyline reflects evolving attitudes toward LGBT equality in American culture, and it differs from previous coming-out plots in that Rex isn't fired or forced onto injured reserve. But there is one trait that Rex Evans shares with most of his fictional gay athlete predecessors:
I am currently researching the history of LGBT athletes on television for a study that is due out this fall, but one doesn't need a content analysis to see that an overwhelming majority of gay athletes depicted in entertainment media are white.
The gay quarterback from Showtime's Queer as Folk? White. The gay tight end from ESPN's Playmakers? White. Eric Dane as a gay quarterback in the movie Valentine's Day, the gay defensive back on ABC's Coach and even the animated gay jock from ParaNorman? White, white and... white. I am still searching the annals of TV history, but so far the list of portrayals of gay athletes of color seems to be limited to Santana, the Latina lesbian cheerleader from Glee; Calvin, the African-American hockey/football player from Greek; and Theo, the African-American backup quarterback from Arli$$, who combats gay rumors by purposely getting photographed in a hot tub with two underage girls.
Of course, diversity problems are nothing new in Hollywood. Even after years of media diversity advocacy, TV is still largely white (only 22 percent of all broadcast TV characters this season are people of color) and largely straight (4 percent of characters are LGBT). Drilling down deeper, LGBT people of color have always been plagued by invisibility in media, but the lack of LGBT athletes of color on TV is particularly befuddling because it is so wildly dissimilar from real life. Over 82 percent of the NBA, 70 percent of the NFL and 39 percent of MLB are made up of people of color, so when the first active player in one of these sports does decide to come out, there is a pretty good chance he won't look like the TV versions that precede him.
Television portrayals of LGBT characters have long been on a steady ascent, not only in number but in complexity of character. Characters from shows like Will & Grace, Modern Family and The New Normal have done wonders for changing hearts and minds on LGBT equality, but they have also contributed to the lack of visibility for non-white LGBT people. This is particularly troubling considering that a 2012 Gallup poll found that white people are the least likely group to identify as LGBT (3.2 percent, compared with 4.6 percent of African Americans).
Television isn't the only problem, though; the perception that openly gay athletes are predominately white also seems to exist in the real world, via the rumor mill. OutSports maintains a historical archive of gay rumors in professional sports, and the most prominent professional athletes who have faced rumors about their sexuality have been predominately white. It isn't exclusively white, but for every Kordell Stewart there are many more Troy Aikmans, Steve Youngs and Mike Piazzas fighting off the gay rumors.
The athletes who have came out after their career's end and those who have come out in other sports have told a very different story than the fictional gay athletes on TV and in the rumor mill. This list includes African-American athletes like Glenn Burke and Wade Davis, Latino athletes like Orlando Cruz, Asian Pacific Islander athletes like Esera Tualo and even some white athletes like Billy Bean.
The reality is that years down the line (or much sooner than that, if you believe this recent ESPN.com poll), when there are many active openly gay players in the four major sports, they will reflect a wide spectrum of diversity, and hopefully entertainment media will start portraying this diversity accurately.
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