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The New Millennial Gay Experience

Being gay in our emerging new world

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Robbie Rogers and High School Locker Room Talk

Posted on July 2, 2013 at 11:35 AM

By Dennis Stone


Most readers will know Robbie Rogers as the 26-year old gay soccer player who made history in May 2013 by becoming the first openly gay male to play in a major American professional sports game. Since then Rogers has become a gay advocate, and has become a visible example to other young gays, especially those in the sporting world. And, he’s cute!


 In the latest edition of ESPN The Magazine, twelve athletes, including Rogers, were chosen to write a letter to their younger selves. Rogers wrote to his 14-year old self, when he was a high school freshman soccer player wrestling with his identity. Here’s part of what he said:


 “I’m not going to tell you to come out at 14 years old. I’m not going to tell you what’s going to happen in the future either, because the journey is important. But I want you to realize that God made you this way for a reason. You’re not damned or going to hell. You didn’t have a choice in this. But you do have a purpose in life, just as everyone does.”




 That’s the voice of someone who has his life together. He’s been through the “important journey” he talked about, he faced his moral and religious fears, and he came out just fine. He knows who he is, and he’s happy with it.


 I also found this advice to his freshman self fascinating:  “When guys say things in the locker room, remind yourself that most of them don’t actually feel this way. They aren’t really homophobic. These are people who are trying to please others, or think that’s what they’re supposed to say.”


 That’s a remarkably wise observation, and I wish more people could see the reality of that situation. That is not at all to excuse the comments; it would obviously be best if high school boys became wonderfully sensitive creatures, always concerned about how what they say might be perceived. Somehow I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon. The point is that it’s become all too easy for many of us to see homophobia everywhere, and to perceive the world in a black and white manner. People are either wonderfully supportive allies who never sin against the gods of political correctness, or they are homophobes and enemies whom we must vilify.


 That outlook does no favors to ourselves or to the emerging gay kids out there. People’s reactions to the whole gay issue are remarkably complex, and to reduce those reactions and those people to an “allies or enemies” dichotomy is genuinely harmful. Unfortunately, I see that sort of thinking everywhere.


 Rogers is reminding us that people are more complex than that, and we shouldn’t always assume the worst. Specifically, he’s addressing the “macho code”, an habitual reaction that has evolved over decades. The thing is, straight guys – and I’ve been friends with many over the years, whether through my tennis addiction, my fantasy baseball playing, guys at work, etc. – often have little concern for sensitivities and the feelings of other guys. They are “rough around the edges”, they make a sport out of harassing each other, they haven’t read the “Gay Man’s Guide To How Straight Guys Should Conduct Themselves.” No amount of high minded clucking about how “they shouldn’t be doing that” will change the situation.


 When I was in high school the Polish joke – or Polak joke, as we called it (and that’s the correct spelling in Polish, I’m told by a Polish friend) – was by far the most popular joke type. I don’t remember any of the jokes today, but at the time I thought they were hilarious. I was always more sensitive to others than my peers, but I never thought about how such jokes might affect young Polish kids. In fact, I had a good Polish friend with whom I played a lot of tennis, and he never seemed bothered by them. My one concession to propriety was that I never told Polish jokes in front of my friend. That should have told me something, but at the time it didn’t.


 The point is that there was no anti-Polish animus behind these jokes, and we didn’t think less of our Polish friends. I have no idea why Polish jokes became popular. It was just part of our culture at that time, and we went with it because, well, the jokes were funny. When I became an adult, the “Ole and Lena” Norwegian jokes became popular in my hometown. My family is Norwegian, and no one delighted in a good Norwegian joke more than we did.


 The gay jokes of the locker rooms and playgrounds of today often aren’t quite as innocent, but many of them are, and many of those talking that way have no dislike for gay people. It’s the heritage they grew up with, and as with us and our Polish jokes, they’re part of life. Again, I’m not excusing them; we’d be better off without them, and we’re moving ever so slowly in that direction. But a gay joke is not automatically indicative of a homophobe, as Robbie Rogers realized. In his case his old high school team was wonderfully supportive after he came out. He celebrated his 26th birthday with those very guys earlier this year – at a gay bar in Los Angeles.


 My fantasy baseball league gets together periodically at a local sports bar to talk baseball, make trades, and just hang out in that typical straight guy fashion. I’ve been out to the league for over five years, and no one changed in any way how they interacted with me after I came out. I’m commissioner again this year, as I have been several times before. About a year ago one of these guys – one of my best friends in the league – made a gay-based joke about one of the players performing in the game we were half watching on the big screen in the bar. Suddenly he realized that I was sitting across from him, and he looked chagrined. He apologized, and then later he privately apologized again. I’ve known this guy for 13 years, and he is totally supportive. He just fell into the old straight boy culture he grew up with, where gay jokes are a part of life.


 What he said was something that in a perfect world wouldn’t have been said. But did it mean he was a homophobe? Knowing him as I do, that would be absurd. It was fascinating to see the ingrained habit patterns come out like that, and then to see his reaction when those habit patterns came into conflict with his real feelings. More and more guys are encountering those conflicts, and that is what will gradually change this culture. But it certainly won’t happen overnight.


 What I’m trying to say here is twofold. First, to young gay kids out there, don’t assume everyone saying “that’s so gay” or making gay jokes dislikes gay people, or would be your enemy if you came out. As Robbie Rogers discovered, that just isn’t true. Most gay kids who come out (though certainly not all) later express surprise about how much support they received.


 Second, let’s not be seeing homophobia behind every bush and under every rock. Not every kid who makes a gay joke is a homophobe. Not every sincerely religious person wrestling with the contradiction between what he was taught from childhood and his more inclusive instincts is a homophobe. Not every actor with anger issues who tweets in a rage is a homophobe. Not every straight guy who is uncomfortable seeing two guys kiss is a homophobe. Not every person who thinks Tracy Morgan is funny is a homophobe.


 There are enough real homophobes out there – from Bryan Fischer to Antonin Scalia to Pat Robertson to Victoria Jackson to many others – that we don’t need the added burden of seeing them where they don’t exist. It’s insecurity that leads us in that direction, that requires that we see homophobia in anything that comes up short of the rainbow nirvana.


 OK, back to Robbie Rogers, who understands that. Here’s one more section from his letter to himself:


 “I know I said I wouldn’t tell you what your future holds, but I will tell you that everything’s going to be fine – one day you’ll be happier than you ever thought possible. And while you can’t envision sharing your secret now, the world is changing. People are becoming more accepting. And when the time is right, the day might come when you’re ready to face the world as the beautiful person you truly are.”


 What more can I add to that? For Robbie Rogers it truly did get better. May his journey be more and more common for others. May his peace and self perception be repeated over and over and over again in this brave new world of ours.

 

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8 Comments

Reply Dennis Stone
2:45 PM on July 5, 2013 
John says...
Of course jokes that put people down on the basis of a homosexual orientation are anti-gay. Of course they are. I can't understand how you can believe that they aren't. Of course using the word "gay" as synonymous with "lame" or "weak" or "stupid" is heterosexist. Of course it is. Again, I can't understand how you can possibly believe otherwise. Just because a manner of communication may be commonplace amongst a subset of the population doesn't mean that that manner of communication isn't rooted in bigotry. Insulting someone by implying they are gay or effeminate wouldn't work as an insult if the person doing it did not on some level believe that gay or effeminate = inferior.

John - I'm not ignoring your comments, but I thought they were significant enough that I wanted to write a followup article, which should be posted later today.
Reply John
1:07 PM on July 4, 2013 
Dennis Stone says...
John - Gay jokes ORIGINATED from a place of being indicative of gay being inferior to straight. My point was that they often don't mean that today as spoken by the guys who say those things. Often they are, often they aren't. It's become akin to Polish jokes. Never once when I told or laughed at a Polish joke did I think that Polish people were inferior.

Of course jokes that put people down on the basis of a homosexual orientation are anti-gay. Of course they are. I can't understand how you can believe that they aren't. Of course using the word "gay" as synonymous with "lame" or "weak" or "stupid" is heterosexist. Of course it is. Again, I can't understand how you can possibly believe otherwise. Just because a manner of communication may be commonplace amongst a subset of the population doesn't mean that that manner of communication isn't rooted in bigotry. Insulting someone by implying they are gay or effeminate wouldn't work as an insult if the person doing it did not on some level believe that gay or effeminate = inferior.

I don't understand your willingness to let such behaviour slide under the very same "boys will be boys" rubric that has provided cover for anti-gay conduct for so long. I don't understand how you could accept anti-gay conduct that would be addressed outside the locker room be unchecked within it. It seems like every other week we read another report of some professional athlete being sanctioned for using an anti-gay slur and we are duly outraged by it. Yet how can we expect the adult athlete to know better when during his formative years within the sport we turn a blind eye to the very same conduct that draws our ire later?

Again, not suggesting that we invade any locker rooms and stand there, arms folded, glowering at the kids who dare to slur their teammates with anti-gay talk. But to simply throw up our hands and lament that straight boys will always relate to each other thus does nothing to address a very real problem.

14 year-old Robbie was obviously subjected to this sort of treatment and it led adult Robbie to believe, even if only for a short time, that he could not be openly gay and a professional athlete both. Wouldn't he and others like him have been much better off if the coaches and other adults in his life had made it known that anti-gay taunting, no matter how supposedly good-natured it might have been, was unacceptable? Wouldn't the next wave of Robbies coming up right now be better off in a locker room environment where using "gay" as the butt of the joke was disapproved of rather than accepted and encouraged?
Reply Dennis Stone
5:37 PM on July 3, 2013 
John says...
Anti-gay locker room talk and "that's so gay" may not be homophobic, but it is definitely heterosexist (or as we used to say in Queer Nation, hetero-supremacist). It's indicative of


John - Gay jokes ORIGINATED from a place of being indicative of gay being inferior to straight. My point was that they often don't mean that today as spoken by the guys who say those things. Often they are, often they aren't. It's become akin to Polish jokes. Never once when I told or laughed at a Polish joke did I think that Polish people were inferior.

We also have to be very careful of when we "strongly discourage" something and when it's no big deal. It's a terrible idea to make a big deal of something just because it's gay oriented. Straight guys give each other shit all the time, about all sorts of things. It's how they interact, and you simply can't change it. And straight guys put a huge amount of value on how other guys handle things. You have to be able to tell the difference between joshing on the one hand and genuine abuse on the other. If you overreact to every little thing you'll f*ck yourself with your reputation. No one likes an over-sensitive whiner. Again, it's knowing the difference between something that matters and truly demeans, and something that doesn't. I hate to say it, but a lot of us aren't very good at making that differentiation.
Reply CATHY CRONIN
11:52 PM on July 2, 2013 
I think you made some very valid points Dennis. It will take time for certain behaviours to change --- it sounds awful, but for certain generations to die out really :-/ Andy & I have talked about this a few times. I'm from Canada, so with us it was Newfie jokes (about people from Newfoundland) when I was a kid --- silly things I haven't told, or even heard, in years! And my 80 year old mother (a former blonde) STILL tells blonde jokes (mostly via e-mail now)! Ha ha!!
Reply Dennis Stone
11:17 PM on July 2, 2013 
That kind of fits in with what I was saying - people don't know they're saying something potentially hurtful until overtly confronted with it. If there's no intent, it's my feeling that it makes no sense to take offense. We're more secure than that. I love the Norwegian jokes, even though poor Ole and Lena don't come out looking so good in most of them. At the same time, I never tell ethnic jokes of any kind any more just because I'm aware that not everyone is secure enough to not be hurt.

Jellybean says...
Fisrt off, I am old. And I do remember the Polish jokes (later blonde jokes). I am Polish and I did enjoy the jokes. But, what I would do when someone had told a Polish joke, was to not laugh, and say "I'm Polish." I would wait for their reaction, and then laugh. What was interesting - almost all of the time the person would apologize.
Reply John
7:16 PM on July 2, 2013 
Anti-gay locker room talk and "that's so gay" may not be homophobic, but it is definitely heterosexist (or as we used to say in Queer Nation, hetero-supremacist). It's indicative of an ingrained attitude that gay by its very nature is inferior to straight. It's another facet of the sexism that's behind calling male athletes "ladies" to spur a performance or painting the visitor's locker room pink. Just like teachers and coaches have a responsibility to address more overt forms of bullying and harassment, so too are they responsible for creating an atmosphere in which denigrating gay kids for being gay AND denigrating straight kids with the suggestion that they might be gay is unacceptable. I'm not advocating storming the locker rooms and getting in every kid's face every time they make a gay joke but it's an attitude that needs to be strongly discouraged.
Reply Jellybean
6:04 PM on July 2, 2013 
Fisrt off, I am old. And I do remember the Polish jokes (later blonde jokes). I am Polish and I did enjoy the jokes. But, what I would do when someone had told a Polish joke, was to not laugh, and say "I'm Polish." I would wait for their reaction, and then laugh. What was interesting - almost all of the time the person would apologize.
Reply The_Fixer
4:04 PM on July 2, 2013 
Funny, I was thinking similarly when Robbie mentioned that bit about locker-room talk not always being homophobic, in spite of the fact that it may appear to be that way.

Really, we've made a lot of progress in educating people as to what's considered off-limits in terms of speech. It takes a while for that to sink in and for the general public to act accordingly. So, we've got to have a little patience as far as that is concerned. It helps to consider what the motivation is, what was actually said and how a person reacts later when we think of something as being homophobic (or not).

I have a few friends who use "the F word" in a kidding way. I do not fly off the handle and laugh with them. This is because I know them to be allies and they are using the term ironically or critically toward a person who may actually seriously say it. If a perfect stranger said that to me, I would be offended in a particular situation. Case in point: one of my friends was walking into the club I visit on occasion, a club that is known to be a gay club. There was a guy who left the club after learning that it was a gay club, and was standing in front of the club insulting people afterward. He said to my friend "Ah look, another faggot wearing skinny jeans!". My friend ignored him. The problem with this person's assessment was that it was completely wrong - this friend of mine is one of the many straight people who have no problem with gay people, have many gay friends. That's an obvious case of homophobia, easy to pick that one out. The far-right religious leaders who regularly slam us are another easy bunch to comfortably call homophobes. Some public people are also easy to make that judgement about.

But what about the more subtle cases involving straight allies and others that we think are gay-friendly? I think we have to consider that these insulting terms have entered the language long ago and also remember that a person reacting in anger may use one of these terms as an expression of that anger. Not because that's the way they normally think, but because it just.... happened. Just like "Polak jokes," it will take a while for aint-gay slurs to get worked out of the lexicon. You hardly ever hear a Polak joke these days, unless the teller of said joke is very old. This will happen with anti-gay slurs eventually.

So basically, I can't think of anything I disagree with in your article, Dennis.

On a side note, I also have an opinion on Alec Baldwin. Personally, I find him to be a person with an anger problem (duh!) and a big ego. There's less of a problem with how he regards gay people and more of a problem with how he regards *all* people who aren't him.