Saturday, February 17, 2007

Gayness vs Homoerotic Heterosexuality

Slate Magazine

The Loneliness of the Gay Basketball Player. John Amaechi's Man in the Middle, the memoir of an NBA misfit.

By Kevin Arnovitz

NBA journeyman John Amaechi's coming out has already spawned hundreds of rote conversations about homophobia and sports. Beat writers have probed players about how they'd deal with a gay teammate, producing few revelations other than that Shavlik Randolph probably hasn't attended many LGBT barbecues. Whether it's a mark of progress or the triumph of collective cynicism, Amaechi's confession has mostly been seen as either an attempt to sell his memoir, Man in the Middle, or an irrelevant, self-indulgent gesture. Brian Schmitz of the Orlando Sentinel, for one, squawked that Amaechi's coming out was "so '90s"—a response that might've been appropriate if a former NBA player had proclaimed his love for MTV's Real World-Road Rules tandem. Then, on Wednesday, former NBA star Tim Hardaway finally cut to the chase. "I hate gay people," he told radio host Dan Le Betard. "I am homophobic. I don't like it. It shouldn't be in the world or in the United States."

Amaechi responded by calling Hardaway's rant bigoted. "But it is honest," he continued. "And it illustrates the problem better than any of the fuzzy language other people have used so far." Hardaway's loud-and-proud prejudice is also a reminder that beat writers needn't bother asking straight players how they'd respond to a gay teammate. The more interesting question, and the one Man in the Middle tries to answer, is: How would a gay man react to a teammate like Hardaway?

Most of the time, Man in the Middle reads like a conventional sports memoir. An awkward, fat, working-class kid finds refuge in basketball. After learning the fundamentals, he emerges from his shell. With the encouragement of his courageous single mother, Amaechi makes it big and sees the world.

In the latter half of the book, Amaechi tentatively delves into his own sexuality. Early in his career, the closest he comes to announcing he's gay is introducing his Orlando teammates to the wonders of Earl Grey tea. Little by little, he affords himself allowances in, of all places, Salt Lake City. During his final season with the Jazz, he invites queeny friends to the family room at the Delta Center and starts hanging out in the town's gay enclave. This leads to one of the book's most affirming moments, when young Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko urges Amaechi to attend a party at his home: "You are welcome to bring your partner, if you have one, someone special to you."

Amaechi doesn't soft-pedal the NBA's homophobia, but he believes it's more "a convention of a particular brand of masculinity than a genuine prejudice." A team bus ride past a billboard reading "SOMEONE YOU KNOW IS GAY," for example, launches a "cacophony of shock and horror." Rather than rant about his teammates, Amaechi points out the locker room's sexual ironies. "They checked out each other's cocks. They primped in front of the mirror. … They tried on each other's $10,000 suits and shoes. … And I'm the gay one. Hah!" While cocks were being checked out, Amaechi says, he "stood in the corner in baggy clothes or wrapped in an oversized towel."

That scene—Amaechi, standing alone, as his hetero teammates engage in homosocial behavior—is the book's lasting image. Unlike, say, Juiced—Jose Canseco's homoerotic steroids homage—Man in the Middle doesn't revel in titillating erotica. Other than a few anonymous encounters with a volleyballer in the locker room at Penn State and a short relationship when he played in the British Basketball League, he seems to have led one of the most celibate existences of any athlete since A.C. Green. (Amaechi self-deprecatingly ascribes this to personal incompetence as much as intolerance.)

Amaechi doesn't speculate what percentage of the league is gay, and he doesn't name any names. One gets the sense that this is partly by design—innuendo just isn't his style—and partly a consequence of the distance he keeps from his fellow jocks. Amaechi's alientation from the culture of the NBA was not merely sexual. Surprisingly, his disaffection seems to be as much a product of his literacy as of his homosexuality. In Man in the Middle, Amaechi comes out as an intellectual—a creature almost as alien in the NBA as a gay man. He frequents art galleries on his off days, loves poetry, and is one of the first pro athletes to author a blog. The guy is smart enough that he can make something as dull as a fondness for Twinkies—"I loved their spongy richness and I devoured them by the dozen"—into a thoughtful disquisition.

Twinkies are just one of many things that Amaechi loves more than basketball. He writes with the most zeal—and at the most length—about mentoring, a passion that culminated in his official adoption of two teenagers in Orlando. (In passing, he reminds us that it's illegal for gays and lesbians to adopt in the state of Florida.) The more involved he gets with his off-court charity work, the less he cares about hoops. "Nobody could make me love something I picked up more or less because I was tall," he says.

The most interesting revelation in Man in the Middle has nothing to do with homosexuality. The profoundly isolated Amaechi says he finds common cause with other players on at least one matter: seeing sports as a means to an end. He writes that the pros play the game for a lot of reasons—money, fame, groupies, self-esteem—but that very few NBA players love basketball.

"The fan sitting at home … wants us to love the game like he does," he writes. "If he knew why we really play the game, for the most part, he might not love the game. He might not even watch it." The average fan, gay or straight, will probably find that contention more troubling than a former player's homosexuality.

14 comments:

browneyedsoul06 said...

Thanks to the fact that I’m a pretty avid sports fan, I was very familiar with John Amaechi (moreso in the latter part of his career, particularly his time with the Utah Jazz), despite his retirement more than a couple of seasons ago. However, my eyebrows definitely raised when I heard that he had came out. With the number of pro athletes (past and present) numbering in the single digits, someone whose name was relatively well known to make that fact known was truly groundbreaking. I was very proud to see someone with that kind of courage and comfort in themselves; as someone of the same affectional orientation, I had never imagined that someone would come out, but to my delight, the unaffected Amaechi is not caught up in the NBA’s torrential downpour of machismo and testosterone, as well as anti-intellectualism.

Despite Amaechi’s admirable admission, I simply do not see an active player coming out anytime soon, seeing as how most players who have spoken out about the situation have used very negative, nasty terminology and tones in addressing Amaechi. It would take someone of a superstar caliber to come out to almost make it “okay” to be gay and play in the NBA, as they would have the numbers to “back up” their other “deficiencies”. The amount of homoeroticism (straight men checking out each other’s reproductive organs, trying on one another’s clothes, etc) that Amaechi describes that occurs in the NBA is surprising, especially his candid comments and the fact that the young guns who “wouldn’t want one of them checking them out” and are quick to denounce anything non-athletic participants in such acts.

In an ESPN television interview, Hardaway mentioned that he wouldn’t want to play with a gay man, or against one. Considering the amount of time he spent in the league (over a decade) and the fact that John Amaechi isn’t the only gay man in the history of the National Basketball Association, Hardaway has played against his fair share, to say the least. I commend the former post player and avid intellectual for such a trailblazing move, which I hope leads to a day where a professional athlete’s affectional orientation is nothing more than a tiny blurb on the average person’s blog.

Lokanda said...

I am also a very avid sports fan but I do not particularly like the National Basketball Association for the reasons that Amaechi describes at the end of the article. He says that if the fan sitting at home knew what the players in the league really played to game for (money, fame, etc.) then they wouldn’t care much for professional basketball. I realize that very few of these players care about basketball and that is my reason for watching a pure form of basketball and that being of the college ranks. Because I rarely watch the NBA I didn’t know who Amaechi was until he came out and said he was gay on ESPN, his book, and other mass media outlets. I personally wouldn’t care if I was a player playing against a gay player on the other team. However it would be a burden to me if the player were on my team. Sports at any level have one place where the players are all in and not playing the sport and that is the locker room. This is where it would affect me and I can see where it would affect other players such as Hardaway. In the locker room you would be showering and often would be naked and knowing that a gay man was in there would just not be comfortable. I imagine that it wouldn’t be comfortable to be Amaechi and in the same situation. Being him would put a lot of pressure on my shoulders to not even look at other men in fear that they may find out that I was gay. With that being constantly on his shoulders you know that he is not truly being himself and he wasn’t himself until he came out and got this burden off of his shoulders. I unlike Hardaway do not have a problem being around men that are gay and I frankly don’t care one way or another if a man is gay. Charles Barkley of ESPN said that he didn’t care at all if Amaechi or any player was gay, I don’t need to know a man is gay, Barkley stated. Barkley went on to say that he felt Amaechi was only doing this to sell and promote his book. This may or may not be the reason but I feel the same way Barkley does. Barkley played around 14 seasons in the NBA and will be a hall of famer once his name is allowed to be on the ballot. He was a respected man in the league and I think that a lot of players feel the way he did and does rather than the way Hardaway feels. I do not blame Hardaway for saying what he said because he spoke the truth and the truth often hurts, but it is the way he felt and you can’t fault him for that. He probably should have said the way he felt in the way he said it or even said it publicly and maybe Amaechi shouldn’t have said it. This happened in mid February and it is already forgotten as far as sports analyst and sports show go, they are no longer talking about it. All in all a man being gay in professional sports is just like a man who is walking down the street. You don’t know that he is gay and you don’t need to know. Judging a man because of this isn’t correct in any form.

gorefan said...

The famed Arizona politician Barry Goldwater had a great saying on gays in the military and I think it also applies to gays in the National Basketball Association. Goldwater said, "It does not matter if a person is straight, just as long as he can shoot straight." In other words, merit and ability are much more important qualities than sexual orientation. I have no doubt in my mind that if the NBA were to one day officially exclude all homosexuals from playing for it, it would miss out on some great talent like that of John Amaechi. We can see similar tragedies already occuring in the military. According to a February 8, 2007 article in the Los Angeles Times, many Arabic translators in the military, who were extremely vital to the war on terrorism, were fired simply because they were gay. As New York Congressman Gary Ackerman has said, it seems like our government fears a "platoon of lesbians" more that it does Al-Qaeda, for our government had a shortage of Arabic translators even before the gay translators received their pink slips. Likewise, a professional basketball team might be desperately yearning for the next Michael Jordan and miss out on him simply because, while his shooting was straight, his sexual orientation happened to not be straight.

gorefan said...

The famed Arizona politician Barry Goldwater had a great saying on gays in the military and I think it also applies to gays in the National Basketball Association. Goldwater said, "It does not matter if a person is straight, just as long as he can shoot straight." In other words, merit and ability are much more important qualities than sexual orientation. I have no doubt in my mind that if the NBA were to one day officially exclude all homosexuals from playing for it, it would miss out on some great talent like that of John Amaechi. We can see similar tragedies already occuring in the military. According to a February 8, 2007 article in the Los Angeles Times, many Arabic translators in the military, who were extremely vital to the war on terrorism, were fired simply because they were gay. As New York Congressman Gary Ackerman has said, it seems like our government fears a "platoon of lesbians" more that it does Al-Qaeda, for our government had a shortage of Arabic translators even before the gay translators received their pink slips. Likewise, a professional basketball team might be desperately yearning for the next Michael Jordan and miss out on him simply because, while his shooting was straight, his sexual orientation happened to not be straight.

gorefan said...

Sorry about posting the same blog twice. I was not sure if it was saved the first time.

spiegelglanz said...

Well, I have to mostly agree with those posting before me. Sexual orientation just shouldn't matter.

The frightening part here, for me, is not that homosexuals have gained high-ranking positions in professional sports or in any other industry. The problem I have is the stigma surrounding it. It's not even with homophobes, they have just as much right to disagree as someone else does to agree; trying to keep gays and lesbians out of positions of power and fame, however, is both immoral and quickly losing ground.

Amaechi's case unearths controversy based on principle--the general concept of homophobia professional sports players and their fans seem to advocate. The cause, I certainly don't pretend to understand, I'm just not much for sports. As best I understand it, however, the fanbase is also primarily male. It's a time and place for bonding with friends and a ball game is a solid choice for "guys' night out." If gay players start popping up in the sport, it might slip in popularity solely because of how comfortable guys are around other guys in situations involving gays--be it in the bleachers watching a gay player or in the locker room. Goodness knows if you glance at another guy's package you're a fag, if you're a fan of a fag then you're a fag, and the list can go on and on until we're just all fags.

But of course, that perception is exceedingly abrasive and obviously inaccurate. The integration of gays into our sports teams as well as all aspects of our culture--other entertainment (already pretty solidly established), government, and business power will come incrementally. Black people didn't just wake up one day embraced by white society, and there are still racists out there who despise the NBA for having blacks. The point is that the trend is consistently progressive, despite all the bumps in the road.

Just like overt racism, there will be a day when homophobia is socially unacceptable--and their position in society will only be demeaned by a slim minority of people through other tools of oppression. Progress is slow and bitter, but still progress.

osubuckeye said...

In response to this article, it doesn’t surprise me that members of the NBA are homophobic. I mean they are after all the biggest jocks in a sense. The article even states that most men in the NBA aren’t playing for the love of basketball, but for other reasons such as groupies, self-esteem, money, and fame- all of the things that the typical jock seems to want. It’s not surprising that some people think it is “so ‘90’s” to come out today. Also in response to part of the article, I think some men engage in homosocial behavior because that is the only way they know to deal with there homophobia. For instance, why on earth would men care whose cock is bigger? No-one else cares! I also agree with Amaechi in that these members of the NBA are not genuinely prejudice but that this prejudice against gay people comes along with the view of being a masculine basketball player. I think that people need not to worry about who is gay and if that person is playing a sport. You don’t watch a sport because of someone, you watch a sport because you like it.

mckendree5454 said...

“Brian Schmitz of the Orlando Sentinel, for one, squawked that Amaechi's coming out was "so '90s." This sums up very well on how I feel about this issue and how many people feel. I do think Amaechi mainly “came out” to sell books. Which is not a bad idea, but gay awareness in sports is not his main goal. I really don’t think his teammates would care that much if he was gay or not. As long as he didn’t try to make any passes on the players. Kevin Arnovitz talks about in the article what Tim Hardaway, said which was completely crazy and very bigoted. I don’t think this should have been added though. Very few people actually think like Hardaway does. Most of society today is not prejudice and does not care if a person is gay or straight. This is why I don’t think that Amaechi coming out was that big of a deal. People don’t care if you are gay or straight they just care how well you play the game. If Amaechi really wanted make a statement he would of came out gay while he was actually playing. The homoeroticism idea of Irigaray goes along with this, especially when the article talks about the players comparing their size in the locker room. This story wasn’t made a big deal, as it should not have been.

God.Reagan.Rush said...

I watched Tim Hardaway’s interview for the first time about a week ago. His blatant homophobia and frank remarks such as, “I hate gay people,” were outrageous but laughable. John Amaechi has done the gay community and the rest of society a world of good with his book and his unapologetic attitude. One has to remember that the sports industry is largely a masculine industry. Hardaway’s comments were brutally honest, to say the least, but they are not shocking. If anything, the NBA and even the NCAA should adopt the Army’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it comes to homosexuality. Everyone knows that NBA players are in it for the money, but for organizations like the NCAA, in which teamwork is a priority, sexuality, politics, and religion should not be discussed because such sensitive subject matter cause rifts between teammates. We will never experience the type of society of equality called for by Mary Wollstonecraft or Martin Luther King, Jr. until people learn tolerance. This is a long way off not only for the NBA, but for the rest of America.

I am impressed that gorefan cited Goldwater in his/her post. I thought the compassionate conservative was just a myth…

drware12 said...

Amaechi coming out of the closet I think scared a lot of people. No one expects any male athletes to be gay. I’m sure now a lot of NBA players looked around the locker room for the guy with the most feminine ways. Someone said that people are not all that prejudice in an earlier blog that’s a lie. If that was the case he would have had to come out. We wouldn’t be writing about this right now. Most male athletes are afraid for there man hood to be challenged. In the article Amaechi talks about players showing their cocks to each. The players don’t expect the other man to enjoy the session. And what does trying on each others suits have to do with being gay. Amaechi I think for a week created some uncertainty in the NBA locker rooms. I think many players questioned each others straightness. I bet some players really did think hard to themselves about when they were examining each other did that guy enjoy looking at my penis. I really think this just made many players uncomfortable and Amaechi did it for the check. Why not write your autobiography and become the first athlete to come out? He is gay so it wouldn’t hurt his credibility but it would help his pocket.

budbud said...

John Amaechi's comming out of the closet raised an uproar and I am not really sure why. I dont know why americans think that just because he is a pro athlete, that he is not entitled to be gay. No one raises such a rucas when female athletes come out. So many female athletes are gay and its more expected than male atletes being gay. I am not really sure as to why, maybe it is masculinity lost if a male athlete is gay. I was not that shocked when I first heard the news about John Amaechi. I am not gay, but am not homophobic. I think it's your choice what sexual orientationi you are and I dont really see the big deal. Tim Hardaway's "I hate gay people" comment was quite rude and I understand that people appreciated his honesty but saying that it shouldn't be in the world or in the United States is shallow. My opinion about him, is to wake up and realize that your not perfect by any means and that comment was low. Also the homosocial behavior that went on in the locker room was shocking to me, because this is gay tendacies in the making and I dont understand how anyone has room for discrimination.

clintbanks said...

I think in this article that Amaechi viewed the homosocial behavior of his teammates as being latently homosexual saying something to the affect 'and I’m the one who's gay'.
I don't know that I would agree that locker room antics like was described in this article is latently homosexual, and using words like homosocial and homoerotic is just an attempt to try and lump the straight people in with homosexuals
I think a the best explanation for locker room antics is competition. To make it in professional basketball you are a competitive person by nature. Men in general are competitive, they have to be. You and your teammates are rich, strong, athletic, but there is ongoing competition for who can be the richest, strongest etc. Throw in penis size, and you will have an argument about that as well, and there's only one way to dispute it.

kingkong said...

I was pretty surprised when John Amaechi came out and told everybody he was gay. I remember when he played for the Jazz. Also everybody just wants to believe their favorite sports stars and sports stars in general aren’t gay and when a sports start does come out of the closet and say that they are gay then is shocks a lot of people. I don't think that your sexuality should matter in the locker room. The reason professional athletes made it to where they are is because they are very skilled in the sport that they are playing, not because of their sexuality. I also think that the remarks that Tim Hardaway said on that radio show were pretty wrong for him to say. I mean he might think that and later he apologized for what he said, but he knew what he was saying and that was just inappropriate. Even though Tim Hardaway isn't gay, it shouldn't matter in the locker room what the sexuality is of your teammates. The people in the locker room are there to play basketball and not to be judged by their sexuality. I think it was pretty brave of John Amaechi for coming out of the closet even though he knew he would probably get a lot of crap for it. It also goes to show how many people in the country are homophobic.

Anonymous said...

I find the homoerotic phenomenon Amaechi described as absolutely fascinating and have witnessed it myself. I work in a small, family-owned restaurant that is run and operated by mostly 20 to 28 year old college students. I am one of three women who work there and am constantly witnessing the most homoerotic behavior one could ever imagine occurring not only in a place of business, but also by a bunch of men who proclaim to hate gays. They smack each other on the ass, make jokes about giving one another oral sex, and have even started playing the balls-showing-game popularized in a recent teen movie called “Waiting.” Even the assistant manager participates in these shenanigans. Ask them about gay rights, however, and they turn almost violent in their profession of disapproval. As you can imagine, female employees enjoy little respect and the one gay person who tried to work there lasted barely a week. So how do we explain this phenomenon? I honestly am at a complete loss for any sort of explanation.