Why are we so in awe at Jason Collins and Michael Sam's coming out? Why are we fascinated again about Collins signing with the Brooklyn Nets? After all, Elton John came out long ago and so did many other public figures since. What is so striking about Collins and Sam's revelation? What the public and particularly sport professionals have a terrible time reconciling is that both Collins and Sam are embodiments of masculine power and yet they are gay. Our culture may come a long way in that respect, we still find it difficult to associate gayness and masculinity, particularly in its most emblematic forms. This is most visible in highly competitive male environment of course. Still today to come out in the world of sport, especially team sport (or in the military; imagine General David Petraeus coming out) remains a feat.
Exploring our distant evolutionary past can be particularly enlightening here. People are slowly getting used to the idea that homosexual behavior is common in the animal kingdom. Yet, one would be mistaken to see homosexual behavior as the consequence of some natural randomness, as if nature was a bit sloppy sometimes. In many species and especially among apes, our closest genetic relatives, homosexual interactions are precisely structured. As it happens, in chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans, the polarity of male homosexual behavior scrupulously reflects ranking: the "insertive" male dominates; his "receptive" partner is dominated. Adult gorillas and orangutans never let anyone mount them, let alone penetrate them. For adult chimpanzees, it usually depends on the balance of power at the moment. Bonobos on the other hand, hyperactive sexually and more egalitarian in nature, don't seem to care as much. What about humans then?
The answer to that question is unequivocal. In ancient times, male homosexual relationships systematically entailed a difference in status, often drastic, between the active and passive partners. Each culture selected carefully which males could endorse the passive role -- whether youths, slaves, eunuchs, prostitutes, defeated enemies, and/or feminized males -- guaranteeing a scrupulous respect to ranking and the status of the "stud" male. From Rome to New Guinea, men's insertive role in the sexual act was as much a prerogative as it was a mandatory manifestation of their status as males. On the other hand, those who did not abide by the uncompromising rule of male ranking -- the effeminate, soft and passive adult males -- were ostracized across the board, despised by their peers, deemed weak and untrustworthy, and often socially demoted. They represented "natural" targets of contempt or hatred for the other males. [Third-sex feminized males in Native American and Pacific cultures were relative exceptions in that they weren't regarded as males.]
The roots of homophobia are more ancient than the human species itself. Males (and possibly females) are by instinct primed to perceive sexually passive adult males as being inferior in status, and this has strongly colored human cultures worldwide (however not everybody is equally predisposed to this prehistoric urge, just like not everybody is equally inclined to jealousy).
That being said, neither Collins nor Sam came out as "bottoms." The surprise might have been even greater if this had been the case, but the fact is that it was enough for Collins to come out as "gay" to stir intense emotions. The rule of male ranking tells us why homophobia is deeply engrained and why it is exacerbated in male environments such as locker rooms or military barracks; it doesn't tell us why homophobia today targets all homosexuals, passive, active, male, female and everything in between.
The reason is that unlike primates and all ancient human societies Western culture has for centuries conflated the "insertive" and "receptive" role into one unique identity: the infamous "sodomite" of the Middle Ages, the queen in 17th century England, the sexual invert in the 19th century, the pederast, the homosexual, and eventually the gay. These identities have united under one sin, one disease, or one perversion the receptive and insertive partners. As a result, Judeo-Christian culture succeeded in redirecting a prehistoric instinct that originally targeted sexually passive males toward all same-sex lovers. Hence from a homophobic perspective, gay males dishonor -- by definition and by default -- the rule of male ranking. And revealing one's preferred sexual role (if any) won't even help. If a gay man is a bottom, he will be perceived as a sub-male; if he's a top, he will be feared as a predator; either way he's a threat. I hope things make more sense now.
Fortunately times are changing. People are less and less threaten by differences. Jason Collins and Michael Sam's coming out has elicited numerous supportive responses from other athletes, the media, and even from our president. Yet a lot of work still lies ahead. Other courageous gay men and women will be needed to help us prove to the entire world that gay identity and excellence work perfectly well together in all domains of human existence -- without a single exception -- and that being gay never reflects differences in character, skills and virtues.