Back in 2008, LGBT activist and writer Dan Savage scathingly blamed the Black communities in California for passing Proposition 8. His oversimplification of exit polls supported his claim and yet again a false dichotomy was presented between the Black community and the queer community. Not for a moment shall I imply patriarchal, sexist and homophobic thoughts, actions and ideologies don't pervade communities of color but to present a mutually exclusive binary is problematic. In a recent article, esteemed WGBH News writer and radio host Callie Crossley frames the support of Michael Sam and Jason Collins as a "seismic cultural shift." She states:
It's fair to say that Sam and Collins' African-American support would have been minimal just a few years ago. Back then, black gays may have been embraced privately by family and friends, but they also could have been shunned publicly by black communities.
A large part of me is in disbelief that a woman of color could reproduce such an oppressive and problematic statement, especially couched in a seemingly positive article about progress. However, that is how marginalization works best. By parsing out meaningless privileges to some and not all creates a culture where oppressed people are spending more time battling each other rather than finding coalition for a large scale social change. It's in the framing of Michael Sam and Jason Collins as exceptional that makes the divide seem real. This representation of an antithetical relationship between Blackness and queerness is deep-seated and traces itself to some early-unrefined Black Liberation politics, but let us interrogate this position.
An archaic understanding of this divide could possibly stem from homophobic statement by early Black Nationalists who saw homosexuality and queerness as a threat. Consider, however, a time when Black life had no value in any space, from the political to social (not that now is a much better time), the argument was framed that queerness was going to kill off the Black community by ending the reproduction of Black life. While the original quote escapes me, queerness was framed a white disease. This perspective, flawed, problematic and divisive, really speaks more to a fear of whiteness' fatality than a legitimate hate of queer bodies. This fear also was dismissed and reframed by Black Panther Leader Huey Newton in his "Letter to the Revolutionary Brothers and Sisters about the Women's Liberation and Gay Liberation Movement." In it he documents
The terms 'f*ggot' and 'punk' should be deleted from our vocabulary, and especially we should not attach names normally designed for homosexuals to men who are enemies of the people, such as Nixon or Mitchell. Homosexuals are not enemies of the people.
Liberation in its purest form requires a radical inclusion of oppressed bodies and these sentiments manifest throughout the Black community.
So, how are we to understand the progress and success of Michael Sam and Jason Collins? We can see this as a win for queer Black visibility. We should see this as men of color illustrating the nuances in the narrative of Black Masculinity. Where they are not exceptional, they should queer the canon in which we place our athletes and celebrities. They illustrate a shift from hegemonic performances of sexuality. Their work doesn't signal a movement from Black anti-queerness or Queer anti-Blackness. It signals a shift in the way we associate physical acumen and masculinity. It signals a reimagining of heteronormativity. In that reframing however, our discourse would be remiss if we did not problematize their privilege.
Consider one privilege they both will always have: they are both cis-gendered men. While their Blackness is a key part of their lived experience, them being masculine performing male-identified men offers them a safety that is not afforded to many queer bodies. That is not to say their success is not a move toward progress, but consider their coverage in comparison to Brittney Griner or these other professional athletes. Collins and Sam have been lauded and celebrated on a much larger scale. Homophobia is not then the central issue, but misogyny and sexism. My hope is that Sam and Collins bold declarations make us rethink sexism in sports. There has to be a way for us to praise athletic prowess without dehumanizing women in sports commercials, reducing them to exploited cheerleaders (if it were equal, openly queer women and men would also be professional cheerleaders), and offering mediocre coverage of women's leagues. The problem with too many American sports is in there performances of masculinity.
Michael Sam and Jason Collins should complicate our understandings of athletes not Blackness. They complicate our accepted notions of masculinity. It is not that their race doesn't matter, but their sex has catapulted them in ways others haven't which speaks to a deeper issue. Sports, and ultimately America, have a problem with normative masculinity; its issues of race manifest in other ways.